Benton teenager soars to new heights PHOTO

Purchase Area Aviators EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Chapter 807 President Mike Fagan, left, present Ethan O’Neal, 17, of Benton, with the Ray Aviation Scholarship on Jan. 16. Fagan said Ethan was already taking flying lessons from Takeoffs, Inc. at the Mayfield Graves County Airport before 2020 ended. Also pictured are Ethan’s parents, Bob and Beth O’Neal.

MAYFIELD — A Benton teen is flying high after recently receiving a scholarship at the Mayfield Graves County Airport.

Seventeen-year-old Ethan O’Neal accepted the $10,000 Ray Aviation Scholarship from the Purchase Area Aviators Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 807 on Jan. 16. The chapter’s president, Mike Fagan, said O’Neal was already taking flight lessons through Takeoffs Inc. and he was already in the air before the end of 2020.

Fagan said O’Neal’s strong work ethic in starting his own lawn care business at a young age made him a prime candidate.

“Ethan, he’s kind of worked hard, bought his truck, trailer, mowers, got himself a pretty good little established business at a young age. And you know, we kind of thought that that work ethic he had put into that, if he’d put it into aviation he’ll be successful in completing his private pilot’s certificate,” Fagan said. “We have high hopes for this young man.”

O’Neal’s mother, Beth O’Neal, described her son as laid back but very determined, especially when something interests him. While he didn’t have an interest in aviation before, she said that changed once he spoke with members of the local chapter. She added Ethan’s not one to take his time, and hopes to finish class in a few months.

“He’s hoping to complete it in a very timely manner,” Beth said. “When he does set his mind to something he doesn’t fool around.”

Ethan was particularly nervous the first time he rode up in a Cessna 172 because the instructor unexpectedly handed the controls over for his “first flying lesson.” However, since that first lesson he has flown across the area around four times.

“Honestly, it’s like driving a car. You’re just up in the air doing it instead of on the ground,” Ethan said.

So far, he has flown to Murray, Union City, and Paris, Tennessee. While he hasn’t learned to land the plane yet, he has learned to take off. He was also allowed to briefly take the controls of an RV-7A aircraft, which was completely different from the Cessna. The Cessna, he said, “slopes” into the air on takeoff, while the RV-7A “shoots up in the air” and “definitely puts you in your seat.”

Though she was naturally nervous the first time her son went in the air, Beth supports Ethan completely.

“I am very proud of my son,” Beth said. “Everything he’s ever tackled I’ve been proud of him for.”

She said Ethan isn’t sure yet if he’ll pursue a career in aviation, but if he does, he’ll likely fly cargo planes.

Fagan said this is the first time the 2-year-old local chapter presented the Ray Aviation Scholarship Fund, which is “supported by the Ray Foundation, managed by the EAA, and administered through the local chapter network.”

While last year the local chapter couldn’t hold any special events because of the pandemic, they hosted “young eagle events” in 2019. Fagan said during these events, some children between eight and 17 years old are given “their very first ride in a general aviation aircraft.”

Through these flights, Sporty’s Pilot Shop, an aviation retail chain, provides their online ground school to the participants free of charge. Fagan said ground school plays a big part in learning to fly, and teaches basic aviation knowledge regarding weather, basic aircraft systems, and some regulations. The goal is to spark interest in pursuing aviation as a hobby, or even a career.

Fagan said Ethan was awarded the 2020 scholarship, but the pandemic delayed the local chapter presenting it. They are hoping to give that away at the next Ray Aviation Scholarship, which can be up to $10,000, this spring.

Fagan said the EAA is an organization that promotes general aviation within communities across the country. Last year, it awarded 120 other youths the scholarship through their local network chapters.

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