DeKALB – It wasn’t long ago that Morgan Dirienzo, freshly 17, learned how to drive a car.
But by the end of this month, she hopes to be certified to operate something a little more complicated – an airplane. And a familiar face is taking to the skies with her.
Morgan has been taking flight lessons with Fly America at DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport alongside her father, David Dirienzo.
It was by accident that David and Morgan ended up taking flying lessons together.
The Dirienzos of Sycamore were both at Corn Fest last year and saw that Fly America offered Discovery Flights for $55, and the rest was history.
“It was really cool,” Morgan said. “You can see the Chicago skyline from here. You can see all that kind of stuff from a different perspective.”
David, 50, said he’s wanted to learn how to fly since he was in an Air Force ROTC at University of Wisconsin-Madison. An injury forced him to leave the program and he couldn’t fly after surgery, so his goal was put on hold.
He took his first Discovery Flight about a week after Corn Fest, and stuck with the flying lessons.
Morgan, who’s getting ready to enter her senior year of high school, wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue in college until she took that first flight. She’s already on track to pursue a commercial pilot’s certificate, with flight courses through Kishwaukee College and Fly America.
“I don’t think I was really sure about it,” she said. “Then we saw some air shows and that put it in stone for me.”
She hopes to have her private pilot’s certificate in hand by the time she enters her freshman year of college, and she’s been eyeing Southern Illinois University. Since the school is so far away, David plans to use his new skills to cut his travel time when visiting her.
Morgan said flying a plane like the Piper Cherokee Warrior doesn’t really compare to driving a car.
“It’s totally different,” she said. “You can’t just put it in drive and go.”
Every time they fly, the Dirienzos said they spend about five to 10 minutes on pre-flight checks, such as checking oil and gas gauges, and monitoring the weather.
And they have to be prepared for anything in the air. Flight instructors regularly test their skills, testing their knowledge of how to make an emergency landing, what to do when gauges fail and how to get back on track after getting lost.
Even with all the preparation that goes into flight training, both Morgan and David said they still were nervous about their first solo flights, which happened to be on the same day.
David said he was unsure of his own skills, but was equally nervous knowing that his teenage daughter was taking her first flight alone, too.
“I was pretty nervous,” Morgan said. “It was so quiet because the instructor wasn’t there,”
“I think I was more nervous than [Morgan],” David said. “There was always somebody on the other side to get you out of a trouble situation.”
Nerves aside, David said he’s proud of what he and Morgan have accomplished.
After their successful first solo flights, their “shirt tails,” or the backs of their shirts, were cut out, signed and dated – an aviation tradition. Their shirt tails, along with those of their classmates’, are displayed in the flight school classroom.
Morgan said the first solo flight experience last month was a little nerve-wracking, but she now has a few solo cross-country miles under her belt with recent trips to Pontiac and Aurora airports. The idea of Morgan taking solo trips across the country has gotten a lot easier for her dad to stomach.
“I feel confident [in Morgan’s skills],” he said. “I wouldn’t let her go anywhere without feeling confident.”
She’s about five lessons ahead of her dad, who hopes to receive his license this fall. Both are scheduled to take the knowledge portion of the Federal Aviation Administration test this weekend. By the time they get their licenses, they expect to have 60 to 70 hours of flight experience.
For David, who has a daily 3˝ hour round-trip commute to his job in Chicago, there’s nothing like being able to soar above the roadways.
“I love the freedom of it,” he said. “It’s peaceful once you get through the bumps.”