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Bishop teen flying the friendly skies

April 3, 2012

Wes Blum, 16, gives a thumbs up signal upon returning to the Bishop airport after his first solo flight. Blum plans to get his flying license before getting his driver’s license. Photo by Ken Babione

Getting a driver’s license may be longed-for rite of passage for many teenagers, but for 16-year-old Wesley Blum, it is “not a priority.”
Blum has set his sights high, planning to earn his international pilot’s license by passing the Federal Aviation Administration’s written, practical and oral tests in 2013.
Blum has come a long way since his first flight with family friend George Batchelder four years ago. While the young man isn’t exactly sure when he caught the flying bug, Blum recalled that he “watched (the movie) ‘Top Gun’ every single day as a kid.”
Blum logged in his first eight hours in the air in 2008 at the International ALERT Academy flight camp in Big Sandy, Texas, Blum said. He learned “how to do simple maneuvers such as turning, climbs, descents (and) taking off, as well as other aviation skills.” He also heard presentations on aviation colleges, the helicopter industry, the military and various aviation occupations.
“The very first thing they tell you is (that) you must know how to read, write, speak and understand English (very well)” because it is the international language of pilots and air traffic control personnel regardless of their country of origin.
As soon as Blum was legally old enough, he took his first solo flight out of the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop – a feat he accomplished this past winter right after his 16th birthday.
Blum flew in his flight instructor Geoff Pope’s Cessna 172. After takeoff, the young aviator was required to perform a variety of tasks including flying traffic patterns, which mirror rectangular runway delineations, and touch-and-go’s, the term for flying down to touch the ground and lifting off immediately thereafter. The inaugural flight on Tuesday, Feb. 28 lasted 30 minutes and was “very incredible,” said Blum.
“After a pilot solos (for the first time), according to aviation lore, the instructor cuts off the pilot’s shirt tail and tacks it on the wall” at the terminal, Blum said. He went on to explain that the tradition originated “in the old days” when the cockpit was so loud that the teacher, sitting behind the student, had to “pull on the back of the pilot’s shirt to signal when (the student) did something wrong.” A successful solo flight means that, metaphorically, the pilot didn’t need the back of his shirt anymore. “It’s the pilot’s version of Tebowing,” explained Blum, referring to a celebratory touchdown tradition named for NFL quarterback Tim Tebow.
After Blum’s successful solo flight, Pope, owner of Black Mountain Air Service, did the honors by cutting off the back of Blum’s carefully chosen T-shirt which is inscribed with an excerpt from Psalm 96.
To date, Blum has “accumulated about 35 hours doing flight training, which included cross country flights and night flying,” explained Blum, mostly over Bishop, Lancaster, Carson City and Dyer, Nev. He is eligible for the written test now, but must wait until he turns 17 in February 2013 to take the practical and oral tests.
Pope said that Blum can easily surpass the minimum 40-hour flight time requirement and achieve the 50-60 hours pilots log in on average before they take their practical test in the air. Blum is a “fine young man and he’s really quite a good pilot for his experience,” said Pope, adding that Blum “will have no trouble at all passing the practical.”
Flying requires more than dedication to the training. It is expensive. Blum “started out washing airplanes when he was 13,” said his father, Sam, and pilots at the Bishop airport “were extremely generous to Wes.” Now, Blum works two jobs, one at Grace Lutheran Church and one at Bishop Veterinary Hospital, to shoulder about 80 percent of his flight training costs. His parents cover the remainder of the costs, explained Blum, expressing his gratitude for their support.
“He’s made it happen for himself financially,” said Teresa, the novice aviator’s mother. “He’s very self-motivated and I’m grateful that he’s had the opportunity, means and support to follow his (many) interests,” which include scuba diving, repelling, hunting, and so on.
Sam agreed, “It’s so neat to see a young person take an interest in something and really pursue it.”
Why fly? Blum answered without hesitation, “There are three main reasons.” One, “it’s a lot of fun, more than driving. If I had the money, I’d take flying over driving any day. “Also, “you can see a lot more scenery, it’s more beautiful,” and finally, “It’s faster.”
It is intellectually exciting, as well, Blum explained. “Anything you study in aviation just opens Pandora’s box. It’s endless – weather, collision reports, runway markings and engine systems,” to name a few.
Aesthetically speaking, “people haven’t experienced the beauty of the Eastern Sierra until they’ve flown over it,” he said, remarking, for example, on how long and curvaceous the Owens River is when viewed from overhead.
Isn’t flying a dangerous avocation? “It’s a misconception that flying is dangerous. Only two other modes of transportation are safer, per mile,” he explained, and “that’s space flight and elevators.”
He also pointed out that planes are meticulously maintained, that pilots receive many more hours of training than drivers do before they are licensed and that pilots must be recertified every two years. And although the Cessna has a top speed of 180 mph, Blum usually keeps it at a sensible 115 mph.
While he is unswervingly certain about his love of flying, the young pilot has narrowed his career goals down to five, in his opinion, “totally unrelated” options. Blum is considering a career as a military helicopter pilot, possibly with the Marines after he gets a college degree. Another possibility is the California Highway Patrol which employs both “fixed wing and rotor craft” pilots. That’s pilot-speak for plane and helicopter pilots.
Christian Lutheran pastor is also on Blum’s list of careers along with being a missionary pilot who does “humanitarian work, flying food, medicines and supplies” to those in need. Anywhere in particular? Blum, who enjoys challenges, said, “somewhere with a jungle and short air strips.”
Finally, because of his job at Bishop Veterinary Hospital, Blum has also thought about becoming a veterinarian. Considering that career field along with his pilot’s license, the young man admitted that his career choices might not be as “totally unrelated” as he had at first thought.
Blum’s heros are also his mentors. “My primary motivation (comes from) local pilots. They’ve been extremely supportive.” A lot of people have taken Blum under their wing. “I would like to thank the airport staff, Geoff, other pilots, my parents and employers and God,” said Blum, “I could not have come to this point in my training without you.”

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