Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Staten Island teen is an airhead in the truest sense

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. - ANNADALE - Before Matthew Sclafani Jr. knew a thing about navigating Staten Island's roads, he was comfortable maneuvering in the sky.

The 17-year-old Annadale resident had flown a small plane by himself in October before acquiring his own driver's license a week later.

And now, the Monsignor Farrell High School graduate is in the process of becoming a commercial airline pilot. Sclafani Jr. will attend Farmingdale State College later this month, where he plans to study in the Long Island-based school's aeronautical science program.

He's been learning to fly since last March, and just two weeks ago, following countless hours of training and studying, became a certified pilot. The process wasn't simple, said Sclafani's father, Matthew Sr.

The younger Sclafani flew solo from Princeton Airport in New Jersey via a Cessna 152, a small two-seat plane, to meet a Federal Aviation Administration flight examiner for an oral exam and check ride.

Upon arriving in Old Bridge Airport, also New Jersey, he aced the oral exam, and then spent two hours in the air with the FAA official to prove his skills. The process included four successful, smooth take-offs and landings, among other difficult tasks, said Sclafani.

"After the final perfect landing," his father said, "The examiner shook his hand and congratulated him. He's now a certified pilot."

Sclafani Jr. became interested in air travel during a trip to the family's summer home in Westhampton, L.I., which was near Francis S. Gabreski Airport.

"I used to beg my dad to take me there," he said, noting planes often flew over the house. Sclafani Jr. said he loved walking around the airport.

When he was in the fifth-grade, the Annadale teen started exploring a flight simulator.

At one point, Sclafani Jr. nearly invested $1,500 to go to a baseball camp, but his father convinced him to pursue his passion for flying.

"He said, 'That's it. I'm taking lessons. And I'm going to be a pilot,' " his father recalled.

A family friend who took the Sclafanis on his own plane wound up being the teen's flight instructor.

The young pilot explained that the process of operating an airplane in comparison to a car is extremely different and requires much more preparation that could take between 15 and 30 minutes. It involves checking the weather and scratching off other checklist items, including walking the plane.

When in the air, Sclafani Jr. said sometimes stressful situations arise, such as low visibility or nearby aircraft, but on peaceful, clear days, "You say to yourself, 'Wow, I'm 2,500 feet in the air and I'm by myself. I'm seeing everything from above, and it's amazing.' "

On Friday, both father and son will occupy the cockpit together for the first time, with Sclafani Jr. manning the controls, of course.

"We're going up," said Sclafani Sr. "Him and I."

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