Aspen High School students fly solo for the first time |

Aspen High School students fly solo for the first time

It was a chaotic day at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport when Hannah Popish, 16, flew a single-engine airplane solo for the first time.

She remembers it clearly, like it wasn’t several months ago before the COVID-19 crisis, but just yesterday. It was a beautiful afternoon with blue sky and no wind, there was a lot of private jet and commercial aircraft traffic, and after one practice take off and touchdown with her instructor, he told Popish to take off again but that he wouldn’t be accompanying her this time.

“I remember closing the canopy to my plane and sitting there for a couple of seconds to register what was going on,” Popish recalled during a phone interview June 8. “Your whole career you’re working up to this really big milestone and the whole time you’re like, ‘I’m ready, I can’t wait.’ But when your instructor actually leaves you in the plane and it’s actually happening it’s something you’re not prepared for. You’re just not.”

After she closed her canopy to the Diamond DA40 aircraft and put her headset on, Popish listened closely to the directions coming from the airport control tower, making her way to the end of the runway. Just before she prepared for takeoff, Popish said she looked toward Owl Creek Road and saw her parents parked along the airport fence, waving at her.

“It was such a wonderful feeling to have that sense of accomplishment. … It’s amazing to be able to tell yourself, ‘Yeah, I got to this point because I worked hard and because I’m a good pilot,” Popish said.

“Here I (was), living out the dream I’ve always had since I was a kid, sitting in a plane looking across the landscape of mountains. … It’s a moment in my career that I will forever remember.”

Popish is one of three Aspen High School students who were able to fly solo for the first time this past school year as part of their training with the Aspen Flight Academy.

According to Kate Short, aviation director for the Aspen School District and Aspen Flight Academy instructor, flying alone for the first time is a big deal and is part of what it takes for students to work toward earning their private pilot license.

“All of our students are motivated — we’re really lucky to have such motivated students,” Short said. “This is a huge deal for them and shows they are safe, competent pilots.”

Like Popish, Robert Holton, 16, said his first solo flight was a huge milestone and a dream come true.

Ever since his dad flew him from St. Louis, Missouri, to Aspen for a ski trip when he was around 5 years old, Holton said he’s known he wanted to be a pilot.

He said he was first exposed to aviation by the Aspen School District through flight simulations in sixth grade, and has been taking aviation curriculum at the high school as well.

Last summer, he made it his goal to fly every other evening after work, and was able to fly solo for the first time late last year.

It was the same day his dad was set to fly their plane to St. Louis, Holton said, and the two got to taxi out to the runway together.

“After I took off it felt so weird not having anyone next to me. It was so freeing,” Holton said. “My dad told me over the radio he was so proud and that he’d been waiting for this moment for 42 years.”

Holton, Popish and Zane Zachary, another AHS student who flew solo for the first time this past school year, hope to fly a lot on their own over the summer and pass the test needed to get their private pilot licenses.

All three are rising juniors and plan to continue pursuing aviation at AHS and through the Aspen Flight Academy over the next two years, potentially pursuing careers in the field after high school.

Evan Pearce, an AHS senior who graduated May 30, is pursuing aviation further at Purdue University this fall, planning to work toward earning a commercial pilot license.

Pearce said his dad is a commercial airline pilot for American Airlines, and that he’d always been interested in aviation but was really sold once he started flying.

“For me it was my solo flight that solidified it,” Pearce said of deciding he wanted to go into aviation. “It’s a weird feeling to describe. It’s a lot of responsibility that you know you’ve been trained for but it’s still terrifying that you as a 16-year-old are in control of a quarter-of-a-million-dollar airplane. … So it’s just a weird, unique experience but a lot of fun.”

Pearce said he did his first solo flight on his 16th birthday, earned his private pilot’s license while at AHS, and is excited to start working toward his commercial pilot license this fall.

When asked why it’s important for students to be introduced to different hobby and career opportunities like flying at a young age, Pearce, Zachary, Holton and Popish all mentioned it as a chance for young adults to try something different that they may never be exposed to otherwise.

“Some people get lucky and know what they love without having to search for it,” Zachary said, noting that he feels that’s what flying is for him.

“I feel that what people miss out on in life is happiness and passion for themselves, and that a lot of my classmates are not able to find this in high school. For some, aviation might be this passion, for others it’s not … but for me it will be a way to never work a day in my life and is just another door students can walk through.”

Zachary and the others also said they feel students at AHS are extremely fortunate to have the access to aviation curriculum, flight instruction and technology that they do, along with continued financial and emotional support from the Aspen area community.

“It’s been a dream come true honestly, we have a very amazing program and the people who run it are very admirable,” Zachary, 17, said. “It’s really cool to watch the community come together to help kids reach these milestones and achieve their dreams at 17.”