Reisterstown teen begins solo flight to California

Nate Foster stares across the Westminster airfield, a yellow pencil tucked behind his ear and a notepad covered in hand-scrawled flight coordinates under his arm.

He just received his pilot's license on Thursday, but the Reisterstown teenager has already turned his sights to distant horizons.

While fellow seniors from Friends School squeeze in last afternoons at the beach before classes start Sept. 1, Foster will be flying to California by himself in a cramped, two-seat airplane.

Foster, 17, says he was inspired by reading the book "Flight of Passage." In that memoir, pilot Rinker Buck describes how he and his brother, both teenagers, refurbished a Piper Cub and flew it from New Jersey to California in the summer of 1966.

"It sounded like they had the absolute time of their lives," Foster said. "When else am I going to get a chance to fly to California?"

His father, Whit Foster, who helped Nate restore their Piper, understands the feeling.

"If he wants to do it, that's great," said Whit. "If you read the book, you'd want to do it, too. I'd love to be going myself."

Foster plans to fly to Ocean City on Sunday so he can officially start his journey on the Atlantic Coast and end up on the Pacific. On Monday, he plans to fly to Cumberland, then over the Midwest. If all goes well, he'll fly eight hours each day, with stops every two hours, and end up in Casper, Wyo., on Tuesday night.

From there, he'll have to slow down as he confronts the intimidating peaks and less stable weather of the Rocky Mountains.

By late in the week, he hopes to reach Lake Tahoe and then make the last hop to Monterey, Calif.

"No one will be there to greet me, so I guess I'll be sending out a bunch of Facebook updates," he said.

His father plans to meet him after his arrival in California, and if they have time, they'll fly back together before the start of school.

Foster will travel light, with a cooler full of water and granola bars, tarps for camping, a first aid kit, jumper cables and his laptop so he can work on his college essays (his father's one demand.)

He grew up around airplanes. His father, who works in the oil and gas business, flew his small airplane to Louisiana on business every few weeks. "Whenever we go on vacation, we go in the airplane," Nate Foster said. "We really didn't take road trips."

As a young boy, Foster often sat in the cockpit with his father and stared in wonder at the instrument panel. He began flying lessons at age 14 and expected to gain his pilot's license as certainly as most teenagers expect to drive a car.

Foster's dad bought the Piper Super Cub from his business partner four years ago with plans for his son to learn on the tricky, single-engine aircraft. Foster, who has 150 flight hours under his belt, describes piloting the little aircraft as "flying by the seat of your pants."

You feel every bump, he says, and after a long day of flying, the earth seems to shake, even as you walk along level ground.

Last winter, the Fosters took the wings off the 35-year-old plane, sanded its metal frame, repainted it and put a new fabric skin over it. Around the same time, Foster read "Flight of Passage" and hatched his plan to fly cross-country once he got his license.

His dad immediately saw the romance of the plan. His mom? Well, she's a little more nervous.

"She keeps saying every night that she's worried but that she has no authority to say no because she doesn't know what she's talking about with flying," Foster said.

Whit Foster worries that with the big goal of California in mind, his son might risk uncertain weather or obstacles too great for his experience level.

"But you worry about teenagers every time they go out on Saturday night," he said. "He'll have to make his own decisions up there, but that's true no matter what you do in life. He has good judgment."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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