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May 15, 2022

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Solo flight: Teen achieves milestone in pursuit of pilot’s license

16-year-old Vancouver girl latest in her family to learn how to fly

By , Columbian Education Reporter
4 Photos
Rachel Friesen of Vancouver strolls through Pearson Field while on her way to check out a plane owned by her grandfather, Ernst Friesen. Rachel is one of the youngest flight students at the school, and one of few females.
Rachel Friesen of Vancouver strolls through Pearson Field while on her way to check out a plane owned by her grandfather, Ernst Friesen. Rachel is one of the youngest flight students at the school, and one of few females. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Rachel Friesen is at that age where it’s cool to be aloof about her accomplishments.

So flying a plane solo at 16? No big deal to the iTech Preparatory School junior.

“I was completely fine,” said Rachel, an independent teenager with a shock of bright green hair.

Rachel is taking flying lessons at Aero Maintenance Flight Center and recently embarked on her first solo flight, a mark of achievement for learning pilots and a sign that the instructor is ready to let them take the controls entirely.

But the simple silver pendent Rachel wears around her neck, bearing the lines “2/22/17” for the day of her first solo flight and “N19298” for the number of her plane, shows the day’s significance for the teenager.

“During the solo, I was just like, ‘Yay,’ ” she said. “After, I was like, ‘Woo!’ ”

It’s a subtle difference, but you’ll have to trust that the excitement is there.

As a 16-year-old girl, Rachel’s a rarity among would-be pilots. Though not unheard of, it’s unusual to be a solo pilot at that age, and she’s one of three girls and women in her Aviation Explorers Post 1905 club, a team of more than 30 learning and amateur pilots.

Rachel’s dream is to become a commercial pilot, following in the footsteps of her father, Conrad Friesen, who is a pilot for American Airlines. His father, Ernst Friesen, and Rachel’s mother, Erin Friesen, both have pilot’s licenses as well.

“My family is full of pilots,” she said.

Few women in industry

In the commercial field, Rachel would also be part of a slim minority. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only 6,081 of the 96,081 commercial pilots in the United States are women. That’s about 6.5 percent.

Rachel’s flight instructor, Hudson Frost, said that’s beginning to change as commercial airliners face shortages as older pilots begin to retire.

“It’s always been a smaller demographic,” he said. “But we’re running out of pilots.”

Though Rachel said it was odd at first to be one of few girls in her flight classes, and being the youngest student in ground school — the classroom portion of flight school — she got used to it and stopped seeing the difference.

“There’s going to be a huge demand of pilots soon,” she said. “I don’t think gender should hold people back from something they’re passionate about.”

Rachel’s mom also saw her daughter’s confidence after she succeeded in ground school, noting that she feels her daughter’s generation sees gender as less of an obstacle than in previous years.

“She realized, ‘I don’t feel out of place or awkward,’ ” Friesen said. “The walls come down after ground (school).”

‘Adventurous spirit’

Friesen does not withhold her excitement about her daughter’s accomplishments. From Rachel’s designing the logo for her Aviation Explorers Post 1905 club, to flying while on a recent family trip to Guadalajara, to attending Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., Friesen gushes about her daughter’s air bound adventures.

“It’s her adventurous spirit,” that keeps her coming back to such activities, Friesen said.

Friesen also noted the shortage of pilots, especially female pilots, in the industry, saying she wished more young people knew about opportunities to attend flight school or pursue other aviation opportunities. Though flight school can be expensive — lessons cost between $185 and $200 apiece at Rachel’s school — Cascadia Tech Academy also offers an aviation technology program though public school districts.

“Even if a kid can’t afford to fly, there are definitely ways,” she said.

Rachel also plans to take float plane classes this summer and, eventually, take a solo cross country flight in the future.

“She will be ready and trained well to do it, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be white knuckles on the yoke while doing it,” her mom said.

For now, though, Rachel plans on focusing on her current training, working to get enough hours so she can earn her private license in May when she turns 17, the youngest legal age to do so.

“It’s cool to see the world from a different perspective,” she said. “You are controlling this multi-thousand-pound thing of metal that’s going through the air. It’s, like, ‘Wow.’ “

Columbian Education Reporter

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