Ready for take-off, Gaines McCollum, a sophomore at La Cañada High School, sat comfortably behind the controls of a Boeing 737, plotting his course from KLAX to KLAS.
For the benefit of a guest in the cockpit on this particular afternoon, the 16-year-old explained that was pilot-speak for Los Angeles International to Las Vegas’ McCarran International: “And once I’ve been cleared, I’ll have to find my Loop Eight Departure and my Daggett Transition. I plan my entire flight because just like how there are lanes on a highway, there are lanes in the sky, so I’ll get waypoints I have to go on ….”
This flight, like hundreds of others like it, would be a virtual trip.
All of them — accounting for well more than 500 simulated hours, in addition to McCollum’s 14 hours of actual in-the-sky flying so far — will serve as connecting flights toward his ultimate destination: Airline pilot.
“I’ve wanted to be an airline pilot since I was about 4 years old,” said McCollum, who with his father has put together a flight simulator in their garage that’s so realistic that Tom Traeger, an LCHS science teacher who also is a licensed pilot, said it could be used for official flight training.
When McCollum mentioned the simulator to LCHS Principal Ian McFeat, he had to see it.
“I said, ‘Show me,’” said McFeat, who was wowed just by the photos he saw of the simulator. “It is unbelievable. Like a whole video game experience, if it took up the whole wall of my office, with gear and stuff. It was like an airplane, like the real deal Holyfield.”
Traeger said McCollum is one of a handful of LCHS students he’s known with experience actually flying. Lauren O’Brien, a senior, also currently is taking flying lessons; she’s considering joining Air Force ROTC in college.
She, too, is enamored by flight: “It’s very liberating,” she said. And she’s also impressed with McCollum: “He knows so much about everything. I love talking to him.”
McCollum has read Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s autobiography three times. When a plane flies overhead at school, his friends quiz him to see if he can name it (of course, he can). He takes pleasure in annoying his sister when they fly commercial together by predicting exactly what the captain will announce or when they’ll experience turbulence.
And, since 6th grade, he’s spent all of his Christmas and birthday money on upgrading the simulator.
Even without the sound working, sitting in the simulator felt like sitting in a cockpit.
Surrounded by walls of sky-blue-painted plywood, there are five monitors, including three that are positioned to deliver realistic visuals from what would be the plane’s windshield. There also are a pair of yokes, keyboards and headsets to communicate with actual people who are, in real-time, in accordance with real conditions, simulating roles as air-traffic controllers.
“The very first time, I didn’t know how to use it, and I just started typing things in like, ‘American 749 going to runway,’” McCollum said. “And [the air-traffic controller] was like, ‘What runway?’ And I was like, ‘The runway.’ And he’s like, ‘You have to contact me on the frequency.’ And I said, ‘How do I do that? And he’s like, ‘You have to know that.’
“After about a minute, they kicked me off.”
Now he’s a virtual veteran, with a growing number of hours logged in a real Cessna 172 out of Whiteman Airport in Pacoima.
“It’s a lot of fun,” McCollum said of those flight lessons, on which he’s joined by instructor Robert Illian, who also grew up in La Cañada Flintridge. “They make me feel like I’m one step closer to my dream. There’s just something about the transporting of people, I’m not sure why that appeals to me, but it just does.”
He hopes to get his pilot’s license at 17, which is the earliest he is permitted to obtain a license under U.S. guidelines. After that, he said, he’ll go after a lengthy list of additional licences, including, eventually, a commercial license.
McFeat said he was inspired by McCollum’s forthright passion — even after he told his principal he preferred to be in his simulator than in class.
“It got me thinking about him and his goals and how do we support students to find their passion and really what they’re interested in?” McFeat said.
Traeger’s weekly flight-themed home room helps, McCollum said. So, too, does his family’s support of his hobby.
“Obsession is a good word,” said dad Greg McCollum, who’s been instrumental in keeping the simulator running. “And I’ll tell you what, it keeps him out of trouble. He’s spoken to several pilots who fly for a living and they’ve really kind of made it easy on me, and made it very clear to him: ‘You get in trouble once and that’s it, it’s over, you can’t be a pilot, period.’ So they’ve kind of put the fear in him.”
Gaines McCollum sees a clear route ahead: He has plans to take physics and language courses at LCHS, an aviation course at Glendale Community College and, then, to major in aeronautical engineering at one of the universities known for its aviation program.
Then, he hopes to work his way up. He’ll start, he expects, as a regional pilot earning “living-with-mom-and-dad money,” to eventually, he hopes, piloting American Airlines planes to international destinations: “It’s a big world. There are a lot of places to see.”
His classmate O’Brien gets it, of course: “You feel very free when you’re up there,” she said. “You have to be very focused, but as much hard work as it is, once you’re in the air, it’s great.”
“As long as I’m in the cockpit of an airplane, I’ll be happy,” McCollum said. “It’s something I can really work for; it’s not like being in a professional [sports] league; it’s something that I can actually grab. And I swear, my first flight for an airline, I will cry afterward.”