Two years ago, when Jon Schmoll was 15, his father, George Schmoll, drove him somewhere with a secret surprise in mind.
Because of that surprise, Jon was in high spirits.
“We just went up to the airport,” Jon, a senior at Marion C. Early, says during an interview at the Bolivar Municipal Airport on a blue-skied day. “The first time I was ever in an airplane, I was the one behind the stick.”
George’s surprise two years ago was letting Jon co-pilot an introductory flight, which allowed him to do most of the flying on an airplane, along with a certified flight instructor.
“He was always interested in aircraft and flying,” George says, explaining the motivation behind the surprise.
That early interest in aircraft translated into a first-time experience that felt “natural,” Jon says.
He says he didn’t take off at the beginning or land the plane on its descent — skills that are mastered later in the learning process — but the instructor told Jon afterward he did the correct footwork and maintained all the turns, much like a natural.
“He got hooked at it, so I bought the materials, and he started studying and taking lessons,” George says.
Now, with around 50 hours of piloting experience on his resume, Jon says he’s set to earn a private pilot’s license around Christmas this year.
The license will allow him to fly freely on a whim, but since it’s a “first step,” as George describes, it comes with restrictions.
“You can’t fly for hire,” Jon says. “You can’t fly through a cloud.”
He says to earn that license, he’s racked up piloting hours at Bolivar Municipal Airport for the past seven months through Service Oriented Aviation Readiness.
One of Jon’s recent milestones with S.O.A.R. has been the completion of his first solo flight, which he accomplished on Sept. 23, he says.
Per tradition, a snippet of his shirt was cut off at the end of the flight. It’s a rite of passage for young pilots, Jon says, and his shirt now hangs on a wall at the airport, along with dozens of other solo-flight cutoffs.
Given his natural inclination for aviation, Jon says one of the hardest parts of learning to fly was landing the plane.
“You have to get everything right whenever you’re landing,” Jon says.
Initially, when he was learning to fly at his previous hometown airport in Aurora, he would “flare wrong” on his landings, he explains. Flaring is “pulling up” the plane as it descends to land, he says.
“I always flared too early, and it would kind of make us drop,” he says. “Once I got here to Bolivar, I had a different instructor, and he had a different approach … and I learned it right.”
The learning curves of flying are what he thrives on, although learning to fly a plane before he earned his driver’s license made it disorienting to learn how to drive cars, Jon says.
His penchant for being challenged is another reason why he’s taken up aviation, he says, because “once you’ve got one thing down, there’s always another level.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” Jon says. “I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t a challenge, because I like a challenge.”
Getting a private pilot’s license at 17 is not only a stepping-stone for securing further licenses, but it’s also a way for Jon to be a step ahead in college by saving class hours and money for his major in aviation, George explains.
“You never stop going to school as a pilot,” George says, with Jon adding, “You never stop learning.”
He’s been accepted to — and plans to attend — the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“I feel great about it,” Jon says, thinking of his transition from Missouri.
And he won’t be flying there alone.
“I’m not letting my son go 4,000 miles away without me,” George says, chuckling softly.
The father-son duo are looking to buy a specific property near UAA, which “already has a runway,” Jon says.
While Jon believes UAA is the best aviation college in the country, one appealing aspect is the school’s partnership with FedEx Corp and Alaskan Airlines, Jon says, which provides career opportunities to aviation students.
Another positive is Alaska’s climate, which Jon says is ideal for pilots in training.
“If you learn to fly in Alaska, you’ve got all the different conditions in Alaska that you don’t have in the lower 48,” George elaborates. “It actually makes you a better pilot.”
Aviation students learn to fly in snow, storms and over the ocean, which exposes them to “all the inversions of temperature,” Jon says.
At college, Jon says he plans to earn a commercial pilot’s license and then later earn a certified flight instructor’s certificate, which will allow him to accrue more piloting hours, make profit and instruct other pilots.
“And then I’m going to teach him how to fly a plane,” he says, looking at his father, “and teach my cousin — he wants to learn, as well.”
Ultimately, Jon’s desired career is to work as a commercial pilot for FedEx Corp.
“That’s the goal,” Jon says. “I hope to fly around the world.”