Most teenagers dream of getting a car or throwing a big bash for their 16th birthday. For his special day, Youssef Selim set his sights high: flying an airplane solo for the first time.
On Monday evening at dusk, the Urbana High School junior flew a PA-28-161 Piper Warrior plane without anyone else in the aircraft for two consecutive takeoffs and landings at Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg. The flight, which included two circles around the airport at an altitude of 1,500 feet, sealed Youssef’s position as one of the youngest pilots to fly solo in the area, according to his flight instructor.
Following the flight, more than 40 friends and family members waited in the airpark’s cafe to surprise him with a celebratory dinner.
“I’m pretty psyched,” Youssef said about his accomplishment.
After turning 16 on Saturday, the Urbana resident became eligible for his student pilot certificate, a document issued to pilots in training. It is a prerequisite to fly alone in the plane.
To qualify, the pilot must be 16 years of age, demonstrate English language fluency and pass a flight physical administered by an aviation medical examiner, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s website.
For his solo flight, Youssef’s flight instructor had to endorse the student pilot certificate, deeming his student competent to fly on his own and giving written permission for the event to proceed. The FAA’s website says there is no minimum number of flight instructional hours to achieve the certificate or fly solo.
The certificate carries certain restrictions, such as not being able to fly at night or take passengers.
Montgomery County Airpark instructor Sharif Hidayat, who has been teaching Youssef since July 2013, said he was pleased with Youssef’s performance.
“I would not have ever signed off on him if I didn’t think he was ready, and he proved he was,” he said.
Hidayat said he hoped Youssef’s milestone would inspire other youths to learn about aviation and take advantage of the opportunities that the small airpark offers.
Youssef reached this milestone at a young age, but it was years in the making. The International Baccalaureate student said aviation has intrigued him since childhood. He began taking lessons at age 12 at Frederick Flight Center Inc. Twice a week during the summer, Youssef attended three-hour training sessions that were split into ground and in-flight instruction.
After taking lessons for a year and a half, Youssef took a break to make more time for school and football. He started training again this July, spending about three hours each week at the Montgomery County Airpark with Hidayat.
“I feel free when I’m flying,” Youssef said. “You can see the world from up there. You can see it from a different perspective.”
Learning to fly isn’t a cheap hobby, according to Selim’s mother, Hwaida Hassanein. A two-hour training session runs about $200 to $250.
Youssef belongs to the Octopus Flying Club, a nonprofit organization at the Gaithersburg airpark. The group has helped offset training expenses, Hassanein said.
By paying a monthly fee of $75, Youssef gets access to three planes at the airpark, which he can fly at any time. There is still an hourly rate to use the aircraft, but the price is lower because of the club membership.
Hassanein said she is proud of her son, but was glad he was safely back on the ground.
“I am so relieved,” she said right after the flight. “I was counting down the seconds until he touched back down.”
The young pilot doesn’t plan on stopping here. When he turns 17, he will be eligible to fly cross-cross country on his own, and can take another step toward his ultimate goal of making a career out of his hobby.
“I’d like to become a commercial pilot, without a doubt,” he said.