- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Downtown St. Paul’s tallest buildings obscured the sunshine, and the GPS on the four-seat Cessna wasn’t working.

“St. Paul tower, Cessna 87Niner, request to land,” the pilot said into his headphones. “The GPS is being a little bit wonky right now, so I’m just not gonna use it,” he said aloud.

The wind rattled the small plane, and the pilot, just-turned-18-year-old White Bear Lake High School senior Michael Wrona, veered left.

Over the past five years, there have been an average of 3,348 licensed pilots ages 16 to 19 a year in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. As of Aug. 26 — about nine months after he turned 17 — Wrona was one of them. And it wasn’t easy.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/1OYxyZZ ) reports that Wrona spent the past six years readying himself to fly. He took private flying lessons at Fleming Field at South St. Paul Municipal Airport. He took aviation tests while his peers took the ACT, and he flew planes while others enjoyed lazy weekends. He paid for it all by mowing lawns.

“I’m a bit of a nerd, I guess,” Wrona said.

From above on clear day, the seven-county metro area turns into large spots of green and blue with two gray outcrops — downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. Wrona pointed out the passenger window of the single-propeller plane to a football field surrounded by a track.

“That’s my school,” he said. “I’ve tried to find my house, but it’s hard.’

Wrona landed the plane at St. Paul Downtown Airport.

Sonya Wrona said her son spends Sunday mornings watching YouTube videos of airplanes while sipping coffee.

“Every time I walk into his bedroom, he’s doing something with planes,” said Nicole Wrona, Michael Wrona’s younger sister by two years.

When Sonya Wrona worked for Northwest Airlines and garnered free flights, young Michael would hang around the cockpits, she said.

“He was destined,” she said.

And when Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, a now-retired astronaut and longtime friend of Sonya Wrona’s, invited the Wrona family to watch her second space launch in Florida seven years ago, Michael went from interested in flight to obsessed.

“We didn’t think it going in,” Mike Wrona said of his son’s captivation. “But we sure knew it going out.”

As Michael’s infatuation with flight grew, so did the realities of his hobby’s expense. He began mowing lawns to earn money.

He earned about $6,000 over six years of lawn mowing, he said.

The money went toward flight lessons, not college.

“Most reasonable people save for college, but I, uh, I saved for this,” Wrona said. “I saved my whole life for this. … I’m lucky I had so many customers.”

Minutes after Michael landed at St. Paul airport, he was back in the air — a touch and go, he said. He was practicing takeoffs and landings.

Although Michael paid his way through flight training, his parents still had plenty to do. Michael began flight training before he could legally drive a car.

His parents drove him from airstrips to test-prep courses to band practice for much of his junior year in high school, Sonya Wrona said.

“It was like every single weekend,” she said. “Driving, driving, driving.”

Up in the air again, Michael Wrona looped around the airport for a few minutes. Then he again asked the tower if the plane, which he rented for about $130 an hour, could land. He lowered the wing’s flaps and began the descent.

Almost 16 minutes from the airport by car, the Wrona family resides in a homey taupe two-story in Vadnais Heights with their 3-year-old dachshund, Duke. And although Michael is the fastest family member in the skies, Duke has him beat on the ground.

Duke has placed in the past three Wiener Dog Wars — annual dachshund races — at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Nicole Wrona said.

Miles from the Wrona home was Michael’s next destination, Valters Aviation at Lake Elmo Airport.

“Elmo has the shortest paved runway in Minnesota,” Michael said. “You just gotta be a little bit more on your toes.”

After mere minutes in the air, Michael landed the little white-and-blue plane, then met with his father on the ground. He had completed another 1.1 hours in the air. So he added 1.1 to the 80 hours he had logged in his notebook.

A private pilot’s license is often called a license to learn, Michael said. He aspires to be an astronaut, professional pilot or an aerospace engineer.

With the hubbub of a junior year fraught with lawn mowing and studying everything from aviation to the ACT behind him, Michael Wrona said he is ready for college. He intends to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University or the University of North Dakota, he said.

Although it has been years since Michael Wrona saw Stefanyshyn-Piper go into space, she said she’s glad to have had such an impact on him.

“The dream stayed with him, and I have no doubt it will keep,” she said.

Not all Wrona family members have such busy years ahead.

Duke, after three successful seasons of racing and two victories, has decided to retire, Nicole Wrona said.

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide