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Ambitious LHS student makes solo flight with new aircraft
October 11, 2013 · Corey Munson

After three days and nearly 900 miles, 17-year-old Cole Norton of Lisbon is home safe and sound and is the new owner of an ultralight, experimental aircraft.

Norton started pilot lessons when he was 13. Four years later, the high school senior routinely flies on his own. That included the recent big trip - the occasionally harrowing flight from Central Pennsylvania, where he bought the Fisher FP-202 Koala plane, to the Marion Airport, where he houses the ultralight and takes flight lessons.

"I've been curious about flying for as long as I can remember," Norton said. "I told my mom when I was 12 that I wanted to get a pilot's license. I don't think she believed me."

Norton saw another Fisher FP-202 fly into Marion earlier this year and he fell in love with the plane. After researching the model and spending a lot of time looking around the country for one for sale, he finally found one out east. The only problem: getting the plane back to Marion.

Norton hopped a commercial flight to Philadelphia, meeting a friend there. The friend drove him more than an hour out of town to a private airfield where the plane was waiting.

"The place seemed deserted," Norton said.

Norton called the plane's owner, who was in flight. He arrived shortly after and they spent some time with the Koala. Norton ended up spending the night with the owner's family, a devout Mennonite family who seemed really interested in his story and how someone so young was already a pilot.

"They were incredibly nice and kept calling me brave for what I was doing," Norton said.

He packed up the next morning, checked the forecast, and pointed his new plane west toward home. The set-up of the private field was different than he had seen before. Rather than a long, flat field to take off from, using a headwind for lift, the field sloped downward, allowing speed and air to provide lift. One trip down this and Norton was in the air, morning sun to his back and blue skies ahead.

He only stayed aloft for about an hour, stopping at a small airport in Dubois, Pa. He refueled and headed out again, for two more hours to Grove City, Pa., where things got hairy.

The winds picked up to more than 12 knots, making the prospect of landing a lot harder. For an aircraft of this size and weight, 7 knots is a maximum safe wind speed for take offs and landings; more than that and the plane becomes very hard to control. Norton made four attempts to land on the hard-surface landing strip. Each time as he approached, the wind pushed him off course. It was obvious at this point a soft landing was not possible in these conditions. Instead, he opted for a hard landing in the grass along the runway.

Damage to the landing gear grounded him for the rest of the day. After repairs and spending time talking with airport staff and other pilots, Norton settled into a hotel for the night.

The next two days were less eventful. He made it to Joliet, Ill., the second day, and ended his trip in Marion on day three.

The FP-202 can reach top speeds of a little more than 60 miles per hour, but average cruising speed is about 55. It can hold seven gallons of fuel in the talk, which allows just over three hours of flight time per tank. The plane itself only weighs about 250 pounds and can carry a maximum of 300 pounds of weight. This includes Norton himself and his luggage. For much of the flight he cruised at a height of about 3,000 feet.

In addition to damage to the landing gear on the first day, he also had one of his windows open while he was in flight, puncturing the canvas of one wing.

During the interview for this story, Norton brought the plane out of the hanger. Even standing outside on a moderately windy day, the plane kept lifting off the ground with each gust of wind and almost got away from him a few times until he turned it out of the wind.

Because he completed all his requirements to graduate high school before his senior year, Norton now takes most of his classes at Kirkwood Community College, though he still plans to walk across the stage next spring and graduate with his classmates. He plans to finish his associate's degree through Kirkwood and then look to four year schools toward his ultimate goal of becoming a commercial pilot.

He credits the flight school at Marion Airport for getting him home safe on his first solo cross country flight.

"The real value of the Marion Flight School is that we learn to use traditional methods of navigation. Dead reckoning, timing and landmarks," Norton said.

For most of the flight the GPS system he had brought did not work. Instead, he reverted to the maps and a compass mounted on the dash.

"I couldn't depend on the GPS," he said. "I used the skills I learned here at Marion and made it back safe."

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