View of the La Sal Mountains after takeoff from Canyonlands Regional Airport. [Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

Akekaphop Kesavadhana, a Grand County High School junior who goes by Sam, decided he wanted to be a pilot when he was in second grade.

“I was watching a lot of movies related to flying and I thought, ‘That’d be really cool if I could actually get in the cockpit and be able to fly around,’” he recalled. He said the ambition was effective motivation for him to excel at math and science, subjects that hadn’t interested him until he formed a goal.

“I was like, ‘Well, that does give me an excuse to be better at something,’” he said of his dream of manning the cockpit. When he was 16, he began working on the requirements to earn a basic pilot’s license: He completed groundschool, about 80 hours of flight training (double the required 40), and passed his check ride with a flight instructor. This year, Sam was certified as a private pilot, which allows him to fly single-engine planes on noncommercial flights.

In a gesture of community appreciation, Sam invited his school principal, Dr. Mary Marable, and me on a short scenic flight over Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park.

A scenic flight

On Saturday morning, I met with Sam and Marable at the Canyonlands Field Airport. In sneakers and a flannel, Sam played his role as pilot and tour guide with confidence and seriousness, explaining each step and answering questions with expertise.

Marable was more than ready for the adventure: With a twang from her hometown of Memphis, she recounted various experiences skydiving in Florida and riding in ultralight aircraft and a hot air balloon. She described Sam as a hard-working student and expressed complete trust in his abilities as a pilot, saying one of the perks of being an educator for over 30 years is that she sometimes meets former students serving important roles.

“For instance, my mom was pretty sick,” she said. “You might see a nurse come in that you know as a former student and you’re like ‘Oh, thank god it’s you!’”

Marable has an easy, approachable manner. She and Sam casually discussed the latest Red Devils basketball game as we walked out to the tarmac, where Sam described the plane we would use—a Cessna 172 rented from Redtail Air Adventures, a local aviation company—and helped us board. He had already done his preflight inspection of the aircraft and went on to brief us on the itinerary, doors and seatbelts, fire extinguisher location and operation, and communication headsets.

Watching Sam prepare for flight was not unlike a movie that may have inspired him in second grade. He read aloud from a preflight checklist, ticking off items in technical jargon while checking and adjusting dials and switches.

“Electrical equipment: all off,” he said to himself, verifying on the dashboard. “Breakers are all in… off, off, off… carb key in… out, out, off on this… carb heat off… mixture, full rich… throttle slightly open, maybe an inch…”

Eventually, he called, “Prop clear!” out his open window, a procedural warning to anyone who might be close to the plane, and started the engine. With a whine and a rumble, the plane rolled down the runway and lifted off.

A birthday gift

“The license was kind of a 17th birthday present,” Sam’s father, Noy Kesavadhana, told the Moab Sun News. Noy used to be a pilot himself, and encouraged Sam in the pursuit, helping him pay for classes and flight time, riding with him and giving him tips in flight, and helping him understand the “old-school” methods for trip planning. He said he, too, had become interested in math and science when he was younger through the practical application of flight.

“When I learned to fly, that’s when it dawned on me, ‘That’s why I need to know cosine, that’s why I need to know hypotenuse,’” Noy said. “That’s how I try to teach him, is through application.”

When Noy was a pilot, route planning and navigation was done with paper maps and manual calculations. With current technology, he said, pilots can plan and evaluate trips with a simple “plug and chug” of data into an app or program. Noy made sure Sam is also competent with pen and paper tools, which won’t lose power or malfunction.

“You can’t park between the clouds,” Noy pointed out, like you can pull over off the side of the road in a car. “You’ve got to be able to come down safely and walk away.”

Sam began his training through Redtail Air, but began going to the airport in Grand Junction when Redtail shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions. Sometimes he would go to Grand Junction twice in a weekend to practice flying.

“It was a lot of commitment on his part and a lot of commitment on our part,” Noy said. Though the time and expense have been significant, it’s clear Noy and Sam have enjoyed the experience.

“We connect over a lot of different things,” Sam said of his dad. “Flying is definitely one of them.”

Sam is already looking at colleges that offer aviation programs, such as Southern Utah University. He said he’d like to learn to fly helicopters and is considering serving in the military in a capacity that allows him to learn more flying techniques and get experience with different aircraft. He’s also interested in engineering.

While the early days of his flight training absorbed a lot of his time, Sam said that now he’s certified, he is better able to balance flying with other hobbies, like mountain biking, and schoolwork. Math and science come easily to him now, he says, but he still has to work hard in his AP English class.

Meanwhile, he is also working on an additional endorsement which will allow him to fly in cloudy weather by relying entirely on the plane’s navigation instruments rather than visual navigation. He’ll also have to complete more ground training, which he’s doing online, before working on the practical skills in a plane.

Back in the air

The Moab landscape spread out below us as we gained altitude. Marable, who used to teach math, asked technical questions, like how much fuel the plane uses per hour.

“It’s complex,” Sam replied. “About nine gallons an hour is our average consumption rate, but with winds and all that, that will change.” He explained the difference between airspeed—ours was about 115 miles per hour—and groundspeed: the latter measures the plane’s speed relative to a fixed point on the ground, which will be affected by wind direction and speed; the former measures how fast the plane is flying relative to the air mass around it.

The La Sal Mountains gleamed white with snow above Behind the Rocks. The Green and Colorado Rivers twisted in bowknots. Buttes and towers cast sharp shadows over the desert, and I was able to recognize a few landmarks throughout the trip: the North and South Six Shooters, Airport Tower, Washer Woman, Monster Tower, Candlestick, and the White Rim and Schaffer trails.

Sam loves the scenery and geology around Moab, but it’s not just this specific location that interests him. He feels that the birds-eye view allows a unique connection to any landscape. He said one of his dream flights would be over the White House, which requires a special permit.

He’s enjoyed being able to take friends on flights—one of his classmates that he’s taken up in a plane has also sprouted an interest in learning to fly. Sam also took his prom date up for a flight, a memory that made him smile.

I started to get queasy about halfway through the flight, though I was still impressed by the sight of Dead Horse Point Overlook and the settling ponds at the potash mine from above as we turned back toward the airport. Increasing winds made the landing more technical than usual—a complication that Sam took in stride, communicating with airport officials over the radio and swooping past the airport to come around from another angle, dictated by the wind direction. The plane landed gently back on the runway and we taxied back to the plane’s parking spot, where Sam secured the aircraft and walked us back to the terminal.

“Wow, that was awesome!” Marable said once we’d removed our headsets. She smiled at her student. “I’m impressed, dude!”

Local high-schooler earns pilot’s license at 17