By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — A junior at Jesse C. Carson High School didn’t need help from reindeer to soar through the air this Christmas Eve.
Zahra Khan, 17, is training to get her pilot’s license, and she took her first two solo flights this month.
Since early November, she has been training at Sugar Valley Airport in Mocksville with pilot Eddie White.
“The first time I went up, it was a thrill,” Khan said. “There’s just something different about it than being on the ground. … It’s so beautiful.”
She said driving a car feels “restricted” compared to the freedom of moving around in the air. She also loves the new perspective flying gives her.
“Also, there’s so much you can see from the air that you can’t see from the ground,” Khan said. “There’s things that you would never realize are here.”
Khan lives in China Grove with her grandparents, Allen and Barb Weller.
She said it was her grandfather who suggested she look into aviation. Allen told her about a Young Eagle flight day sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association at the Rowan County Airport, and Khan decided to go.
After going up in an airplane, she realized she liked flying, so she signed up for a week-long introductory program at the airport called Ascend.
“When I started, I wasn’t really that interested in it,” Khan said. “I thought, ‘This is just going to be another summer program.’ But by the end of it, I loved it.”
She then got to participate in the EAA’s Women Soar “You Soar” program in Oshkosh, Wis. It was there that she met people from the Sugar Valley Airport.
Khan squeezes in time to fly among completing her schoolwork, attending drama department meetings, volunteering at American Legion Post 146 in Landis and participating in the Explorers program at the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
Khan’s grandparents said they know she’s safe, because they have faith in her ability to learn and fly, and they trust White to teach her well.
“You just have to get over your fears, especially for the sake of your children,” Barb said.
Allen, who last flew a plane in the 1970s and wants to get re-licensed, said he’s not afraid for his granddaughter. But Barb said she was literally worried sick the first time Khan flew alone.
“I didn’t even know about it (ahead of time), so I wasn’t there to watch her,” she said, laughing. “But I have a nervous stomach. I was just a little bit sick afterward.”
Fortunately for her grandmother’s health, Khan said she isn’t looking to start a career as a pilot. She’s more interested in how airplanes are built and the way they work.
Right now, her dream is to study aeronautical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Khan said she’s disappointed by how few opportunities Rowan County high schools offer for students to explore aviation. She said they could probably find corporate sponsors who would help pay for new courses.
“My school needs an aviation program,” Khan said, leaning forward and talking rapidly as she shared her idea. “Intro to aviation, aerodynamics — something to get young people interested.”
Despite high unemployment, Khan said there is currently a pilot shortage, and young adults also can find work as engineers or air traffic controllers. Many students just don’t know these opportunities are out there.
The costs also can be prohibitive.
A textbook- based ground school course can cost $300 to $400 for three months. Then, students or their parents must pay an hourly rate to pilots for flight instruction and a rental fee for use of an airplane.
But Khan said there are scholarships available to help young people enroll in flight programs, and members of the community also can help out.
Sugar Valley operates its ground school course free of charge. The plane Khan flies is loaned to her by a local pilot, for the price of the fuel she burns.
“For kids who are interested and want to fly, there is a way,” Allen said. “It keeps her out of trouble, it keeps her thinking… and there’s a future in it.”
Khan said the perfect way to start out is the same way she did — attend the next Rowan County Airport fly-in in January and try a Young Eagles flight.
“That gives you a feel of whether or not you like it,” Khan said. “Flying isn’t for everyone, but you might find out it’s for you.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
By Karissa Minn