An Economical First Solo

Some pilots won’t allow the cost of learning to fly get in their way.

Julia Lair pilot
Julia Lair preflighting before her first solo.Greg Lair

Learning to fly is simply too expensive, especially for young people … or at least that’s the complaint the industry hears again and again. Julia Lair, a high school sophomore in Sioux Falls South Dakota understands budget concerns, as well as any other fledgling aviator, but she didn’t let the cost become a barrier to her dream of becoming a pilot.

Julia Lair soloed a Cessna 172 operated by the Civil Air Patrol last November from the Lincoln County Airport a few miles southwest of Sioux Falls. Adding to the thrill of practicing everything her flight instructor taught her, Julia’s flight was also a present to herself as well since she soloed on her 16th birthday.

Some might say Julia is luckier than many aspiring pilots because aviation has been a part of her family as far back as she can remember. Her father Greg Lair has been flying the family's Beech B-35 Bonanza for years from Lincoln County, when he wasn't piloting a Boeing 777 for United Airlines or an F-16 for the South Dakota Air National Guard. Julia's dad, also a flight instructor and a vice-commander in local CAP, told Flying, "The CAP offers young people the chance to fly at much less cost than a traditional flight school while they also serve as cadets. These young pilots pay only for the hourly cost of the Cessna 172. CAP instructors donate their time." The senior Lair said the hourly cost of the CAP 172 is about $80, still no small amount of change for a 16-year old. To help defray some of those expenses, Julia earned a CAP scholarship.

“I wanted to learn to fly for as long as I can remember,” Julia said. “I know I want aviation to be a part of my life, whether or not it’s the main part of life. I’m looking at being a fighter or test pilot in the military and an aeronautical engineer,” she added. The U.S. Air Force Academy is high on her list of possible colleges after high school too. “I have friends who have never even flown before who are amazed when I tell them I’m taking flying lessons. They say oh I could never do that, but then I tell them they really can, if they put in the time and effort.” She tells them to get involved in as many things like CAP as possible. Julia’s been involved with CAP since age 12. “I still go to local EAA meetings and of course to Oshkosh.”

Adding to the fun of her first solo is the ability to go back and relive the event thanks to a handful of GoPro cameras that were strategically located around the 172's cockpit during her flight. A local producer, Alex Herold, turned some of the footage and some voiceover from local TV station KDLT into a professional grade production.

Greg Lair said it’s been a lot of fun and an impressive experience to watch how his daughter handles an airplane, something he’s been very closely involved with since he actually doubled as Julia’s dad and her flight instructor. “I certainly got to know my daughter in a different way, how she applies herself,” he said. “To see that side of her. I realize she’s not the same little girl I played ball with in the back yard. She’s an all velocity girl.” After a brief moment, Greg added that teaching Julia to fly was much easier than teaching her to drive.