Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ryan Frank: It’s About the Journey, not the Destination

Ryan Frank, 17, discusses his preflight checklist in front of the Cessna 172N he flew during most of his training at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
(Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

For many children, watching a plane navigate the sky is a source of wonderment. For a young Ryan Frank, it was a glance into his future.

Last week Ryan, a 17-year-old junior at Brainerd High School, earned his private pilot's license just days after his birthday made him eligible to do so.

"If I didn't have that age limit, I probably would have had my license in October," Ryan said.

Ryan's earliest memories of flight come from a trip his family took to Arizona to visit his grandparents.

"(My) face was glued to the window and looking out all the time," he said. "Ever since then, I've really lived aviation and flying, always interested, always looking up when I hear the airplane go by."

What began as a pastime - spending hours on a computer flight simulator - grew into a full-blown passion last spring when Sun Country Airlines arranged for Ryan to meet professional pilots and see the cockpit of a jumbo jet. The invitation came in response to a letter he sent to the company, a letter he said he never expected to be answered.

His father, Dave Frank, remembers when Ryan received the call while the family was traveling to the Twin Cities in preparation for a flight to Mexico. The excitement he saw in Ryan, he said, made him realize how important this was to his son.

"He's passionate about it," Dave Frank said. "He has studied everything about it and he's made connections with other pilots already and really done the research, which has been fun for me to see. We've always been one to push him and say, 'Be open-minded and learn everything you can about a situation.'"

When the family returned from vacation, it was not long before Ryan found himself at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport where in June he began flight instruction through Airmotive Enterprises. Instructor Matt Van Cura said he watched Ryan's passion for aviation unfold as he began pursuing his license.

"It's nice to have a student like that, who's talented but also willing to put the work in to accomplish his goals," Van Cura said. "It's interesting to see the progression from someone who knows very little about aviation to someone who is a proficient pilot."

Ryan said his family and airport staff have been supportive of his goals and helped him accomplish them. His parents supported his instruction financially, although Dave Frank said when he saw how much it would cost he jokingly told Ryan he needed to get another job. Ryan took his dad seriously and picked up his third summer gig, washing planes at the airport, to help pay for his flying. He already worked five or six nights per week at Coach's Corner in Deerwood and also mowed about a dozen area lawns.

"When I said that, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek, but he went and got a job there," he said. "He worked probably 60- (to) 65-hour weeks all summer and he saved all of it."

As for Ryan, he said he enjoys working because it makes him feel accomplished.

"When I want to do something, I really commit to it," he said.

After several hours in the sky with an instructor over the course of the summer, Ryan took his first solo flight Oct. 11, a moment he said he'll never forget. His parents likely won't either. Dave Frank said he became unexpectedly emotional when he realized Ryan would be alone in the plane.

"I didn't anticipate it," Dave Frank said. "We were driving over and talking and saying some prayers, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks that my boy's going up there all by himself."

He said his fears stemmed from having known several pilots who did not survive ill-fated flights in small planes, not from a lack of trust in his son.

"He was on a snowmobile when he was 4 or 5 years old, and a four-wheeler, and he was always safe," he said. "I never had to worry about him."

Mother Debra Frank felt the nerves at first, but said the family has let their Catholic faith guide them in supporting Ryan's dream.

"I just trust the Lord is going to protect him," she said. "If it's (his) time in the air, or it's time on the ground, I can't control that. So I try to be proud of him and just excited about it for him."

So far, neither parent has flown with Ryan, although they have plans to do so soon.

Although Ryan has set his course for a career flying professionally, he has not lost sight of another of his passions, computer science. Upon graduation, he plans to attend Central Lakes College and go on to complete a four-year degree in the field, focusing on web design or application development. In an industry where pilots can sometimes be laid off, Ryan said he wants to ensure he has a back-up plan.

"I'd rather go flying than do homework, but you know, you gotta do the homework and do the school part so you can become whatever you want to be later on," he said.

For now, Ryan's flying is relegated to weekends - he's a "weekend warrior" per pilot lingo - but he's gearing up for the next step in flight training, to earn his instrument rating. This will allow Ryan to operate the plane in cloudy or dark conditions using instruments to fly rather than by sight.

The rest of his journey toward commercial flight is mapped out. First, 250 hours of flight to earn a commercial license, then he'd like to become a certified flight instructor to help complete the 1,500 hours of training required to pilot an airline jet. He'll have to wait until he's 23 to earn this final distinction, although it seems likely he'll be first in line to take his test in 2021.

"They always say, 'It's not the destination, it's the journey,'" Ryan said. "For pilots, I think that's really true."

Story and photos:

Ryan Frank, 17, talks about his flight training in the Cessna 172N at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
 (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

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