Gander teen breaks provincial record as youngest solo female flyer

Matt Molloy
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Gander teenager Brianna Ricketts made history last week, becoming the youngest girl in Newfoundland and Labrador to fly an airplane solo.

Little did Brianna Ricketts know how big of a difference the 537 Gander Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron would have on her life when she joined in September 2012.

The 14-year-old, who lives in Gander with her parents, Brian and Ginette, decided to join 537 after being convinced by her father, who was a member of the air cadets when he was younger.

Brianna instantly fell in love with the program. She joined the 537 band and made the marksmanship team.

A little later, her commanding officer, Dion Abbott, told her about the three-week basic aviation program, which her father also took, and encouraged her to take it.

She did, and was given the Overall Top Cadet award out of 31 cadets in her flight class.

So, Brian Ricketts decided to build something that would aid in her love of flying and love of aviation.

“When she finished school this year, as a graduation present, I built her a flight simulator. I got three 27-inch monitors, got the latest Microsoft flight simulator, and got the throttle and the rudders,” said Ricketts. “I built it for her and said, ‘If you have an interest in flying, let’s see how you do with the simulator.’ When she was using the flight simulator, I could tell right away she had the talent for it. It’s not easy to land and take off an airplane. It takes a lot of skill, and I could tell right away she had an aptitude for it.”

After watching his daughter pass the flight simulator test with flying colours, Ricketts caught wind of a Summer Wings program offered through Gander Flight Training (GFT). He spoke to Brianna about it, and she thought it was an excellent idea.

The program began Aug. 19.

“The Summer Wings program gives them five hours of flight instruction and 10 hours of ground skills,” said Ricketts. “It’s meant as an introduction of aviation for kids. I was talking to her instructors and said, ‘I’m interested to know if she’s doing well, and if she can continue on and possibly go solo.’”

Brianna was joined by her instructor for the first part of the flight, but after that, the 14-year-old cadet was completely on her own.

“My instructor, Heather Philpott, and I went up and did two circuits, came back down, and she said, ‘OK, I’m going inside now and you’re going solo.’ She jumped out of the airplane and I’m all by myself. … I was nervous,” said Brianna. “Before I went, a helicopter came down right in front of me, and the whole airplane started shaking. The guy in the tower was telling me not to move. The helicopter went on, but the wind started to change, and tower said they were going to taxi me to Runway 13. I never took off from that runway before, and I really didn’t know how to get there, but I followed their instructions and figured it out. I did all my checks, made sure the plane was good and took off. I did a circuit … radioed tower and told them I was ready to land, did a good landing and taxied in. It was all good.”

If Brianna got the go-ahead to fly solo, she would become the youngest female to do so in Newfoundland and Labrador.

There’s a plaque on the wall at GFT of the youngest girl to fly solo. She was 15, so Brianna, if able to fly solo, would break that record.

“She finished the Summer Wings program … and her instructor said she was doing really, really well, so we kept going. She was supposed to fly solo (Aug. 28), but the weather wouldn’t allow it, so we were hoping she could fly (Aug. 29),” said Ricketts. “Her instructor texted us at 5:30 in the morning saying the weather still wasn’t very good, and asked us to come in at 7:30 a.m.”

Brianna and her parents headed up for her history-making flight. After some preparation, like the weight and balance test Brianna had to go through, it was time to leave ground and head into the morning sky.

Her parents were watching the historic flight, but they were probably more nervous than Brianna.

When the wind changed and Brianna had to take off from an unfamiliar runway, even her father, who has 400 hours of flight time under his belt, was feeling the heat.

“When everything started changing, I was getting more and more nervous,” said Ricketts. “I was thinking, what the heck have I done? I got my 14-year-old daughter up there flying solo. I started saying, ‘I know she can do it. I know she can do it. Her instructor wouldn’t have let her go if she couldn’t.’ She had to do some written pre-tests before she went up, and she passed with high 90s. She had to go right through the whole thing. She had to do stalls and spins, all the emergency procedures, everything that a pilot would have to do before they went up.”

“We flew a Cessna 152. It’s my favourite airplane,” added Brianna. “I flew it the most, of the time when I was up there training. We did stalls and spins, and spins were definitely my favourite. You go up, stall and then spin down. It’s awesome. It’s better than any roller-coaster.”

Now that she owns that prestigious provincial record, Brianna feels like the sky is the limit for her.

She’s only 14, but she already knows what she would like to do later in life, and she credits the air cadets program for that.

“I feel really proud, very accomplished. I’m still in a state of shock here. I’m very happy and very glad that I hold this title,” said Brianna. “The main thing I want to do is get my pilot’s licence, and I’ll see what I want to do from there.

“I just want to say thanks to the air cadet program. It changed my path and my goal in life to definitely getting my pilot’s licence in the future,” she added. “It really changed me, that’s for sure. The crew at Gander Flight Training, too. They’re a great group of people to work with and they really taught me a lot. They’re like a big family.”

mmolloy@ganderbeacon.ca

Twitter: @BeaconSports12

Organizations: Gander Flight Training, Gander Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron, Microsoft

Geographic location: Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador.There

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