A soaring 16th birthday

By Emily DeRuy


Most 16-year-olds are thrilled at the prospect of finally getting a driver’s license. But Tommy Graham decided to go one step further. He celebrated his birthday by obtaining not only a driver’s license, but a student pilot license, as well.

The La Jolla High School sophomore has flying in his blood. His grandfather, also Thomas Graham, was a pilot in World War II, and his father, Joe Graham, is a retired PSA and U.S. Airways captain.

“I am a third-generation aviator,” Tommy said. “My grandfather flew 210 combat missions out of Burma and India in the war, and my father was an airline captain for 33 years, so flying has always been a big part of our family.”

He began taking flying lessons at age 13, and over the last three years, he has logged about 80 hours of flying time.

The morning he turned 16, the minimum age required to operate an aircraft solo, Tommy took to the skies in his Piper Cherokee 140 trainer. He and his father took off together from Montgomery Field in San Diego and headed toward the Ramona Airport in Ramona.

Tommy selected Ramona because with the number of fires in recent years, large expanses of flatlands - ideal for emergency landings - surround the airport.

“We did three landings together,” Tommy said. “And then on the third landing, my dad hopped out, said you go by yourself, and I closed the hatch for the first time.”

Watching from the ground as his son executed his first solo landing, Joe Graham proclaimed it perfect.

But Tommy was nowhere near finished. After flying back to Montgomery, the father-son duo traded in the trainer for Joe’s Cessna 182 turbo-charged airplane. They flew back to Ramona, where Tommy performed one solo landing - all before lunch.

By afternoon, the 16-year-old - who had just soloed two airplanes and obtained his student pilot license - was standing in line at the DMV, a jittery mess.

“The entire time I was waiting in line, I was so nervous,” Tommy said. “I was more nervous for that than for flying.”

He passed the test on the first try, however, and promptly headed down to the beach to show off his birthday present - a truck - to friends.

So does the young pilot foresee a flying career in his future? Absolutely.

“I would love a career in aviation,” Tommy said. “I want to go to the Air Force Academy and then fly.”

Until then, he’s taking time to be a kid. Tommy plays starting center for the Vikings’ JV football team and is the drummer for The Intellectuals, a rock band he formed with friends from his team about six months ago. However, flying is never far from his mind.

“It’s what I want to do,” Tommy said. “There’s no better feeling in the world. It’s absolute freedom.”