The sky’s the limit

Sandi Hansen | For The Sun

Since before he can remember, 14-year old Sonoman Ben Presten has been fascinated with flying, and now the Arch Bishop Hanna High School eighth-grader has the distinction of reaching a rare aeronautical goal.

Just two days after his 14th birthday Ben completed his first solo flight in his family’s 1946 Schweizer SGU 2-22 glider at the Schellville Airport on Arnold Drive. His certified flight instructor for this accomplishment was Andy Smith, a pilot who generally instructs from Sonoma Skypark, the airport on Eighth Street East.

Ben flew 26 times with Smith, totaling nearly seven hours of instruction then one hour of solo, staying up about 20 minutes each time. Asked how did his teacher know when he was ready to go it alone Ben said, “There’s not a certain hour requirement, it’s when the instructor says you’re ready. Normally it takes four to five flights in one day before being allowed to solo but after two flights Andy said I was ready.”

Ben comes from a third-generation flying family. His mother Debbie, 46, and father Eric, 48, are both general aviation pilots with 17-and 30-years flying experience respectively.  His brother 15-year old Curtis, is a Sonoma Valley High School freshman and took his first solo glider flight for his 14th birthday. The tow plane, a 1949 Piper PA-16 Clipper, is owned by the Prestens and flown by Eric.

Glider flying is very much a family affair. Curtis serves as the ground crew hooking up the towrope and running the glider’s wingtip on takeoff and landing (a favor Ben did when Curtis performed his initial flight training last winter). Debbie monitors safety procedures, assures all pre-and post-flight requirements are closely followed and helps with positioning the glider before takeoff and after landing.

The process of getting a glider up in the air and releasing it to soar is very exact. Wind conditions have to be just right before Ben, the pilot in command (PIC), pulls the release lever freeing him from the tow plane at about 3,000 feet. At that point, “The glider turns to the right and the tow plane turns to the left so there’s no chance of hitting each other,” said Ben.

Once he’s free from the tow plane Ben’s on his own. “I look everything over, do some 360-degree circles and decide how high I am,” Ben said. After a few minutes and at 1,000 feet he heads toward the airport. “I’ll be at 600 feet when I’m across the landing strip.”

Then it’s time to gently land the aircraft. Asked if he’s ever had a bad landing Ben said no. After touchdown it’s time to clear the runway and position the planes for the next flight.

Depending on atmospheric conditions and how tired everyone is, Debbie said they make between four and five flights comfortably in a day at the Schellville Airport.

The Prestens are a very close family with each one supporting the other in their respective goals. As for Ben’s attending Hanna High School, a campus known for helping boys with difficult issues, Debbie said Ben had been struggling at public school and he’s been attending Hanna for the past eight months. “The small class size has helped him feel more comfortable with his education. He loves it and we couldn’t be happier with him being there.”         The support the family has had from friends, relatives and both local airports has been a tremendous factor in the Presten boys’ successes. Hanna Boys Center Director Father John Crews attended Ben’s first solo flight. Chris Prevost, pilot and owner of Schellville Airport; and flight instructor Andy Smith of Skypark Airport are just a few of those who have put a lot of time and effort into making sure the young pilots reach their goals.

As for what’s next for this flying family, in 2013 Curtis will solo a powered airplane, a 1946 Aeronca Champ which is a high-wing, single-engine trainer; and two years from now Ben will fly one of three of the family’s planes, only one with a motor in it. At 17-years old both boys will get their pilot licenses and will continue flying the antique and classic airplanes the Prestens love. Curtis plans to join the United States Air Force and Ben wants to become a veterinarian and fly as a hobby.

In the meantime, the entire family participates in events all over the country when Debbie-a Napa schoolteacher-and the boys are all off for summer vacation. They will appear at the American Barnstormer Tours in North Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa; at the Oshkosh Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; and at the Dream Machines Event in Half Moon Bay.

Eric, a professional writer and photographer, will bring along to sell, the latest of six books he’s written on airplanes, “Vintage Flyers III,” which contains 1,015 color photographs he has taken of vintage and antique aircraft all over the world.

In expressing their gratitude to the Sonoma community for their continued support, Eric said he and Debbie share the excitement their children feel about learning to fly, which would not have been possible without the tremendous encouragement of both airports in welcoming Ben and Curtis to the aviation world. Said Eric, “As they say, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and these two villages have been very good for the Presten boys.”

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