After a lifetime of preparation, Olivia Jenkins was ready to fly.
She boarded a Cessna 172 Skyhawk — and her instructor stayed on the ground.
She took off from Tampa North Flight Center in Lutz on Sept. 23 and flew her pattern, soaring to 1,000 feet, then she touched down flawlessly to begin a run of three landings.
Her quirky goal was complete.
“I flew a plane solo before I drove a car solo,’’ she explained.
Jenkins, 16, has many more goals in mind (including getting her driver’s license — one day). On her birthday — Feb. 10 — she intends to take her last check ride and finalize her private pilot’s license. Then she can fly without restrictions and even take some passengers aboard.
She’s a member of Mitchell High School’s Navy ROTC program and will seek a congressional nomination to a military service academy. One day, she hopes to fly for the U.S. Air Force or perhaps fly helicopters for the Army.
“I would not put anything past Olivia,’’ said Robert Crews, her flight instructor. “For a 16-year-old, she approaches it so professionally. When you ask her to do something, she does it and she understands it.
“You know how 16-year-olds are? They say, ‘Yeah, I got it, I got it.’ Then they don’t have it. When Olivia says she’s got it, she’s got it.”
Jenkins, whose family lives in Trinity, has a 3.9 grade-point average. She has honed her skills and training through the North Tampa-Lutz Cadet Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary unit of the U.S. Air Force. As a cadet commander, she has taken advantage of the opportunity to participate in orientation flights, where cadets fly with instructors and take the controls themselves, while soaking up knowledge.
“Beyond the flight experience, the Civil Air Patrol has allowed Olivia to build a lot of character and leadership skills, as she has progressed through the ranks,’’ said Rich Jenkins, her father. “I think it has all shown her raw ambition. Whenever we set a goal for her, she has always outperformed that goal. She takes it on and masters it, whether it’s schoolwork or anything else.
“But, clearly, she has a passion for flying. And, she had it from a very early age.’’
Jenkins’ father helped with that. As a private pilot himself, he took Olivia on flights when she was still in a car seat. She doesn’t remember much from those early days. But, the father recalls when they were at the top of the old Pier in St. Petersburg. She had a clear view of Albert Whitted Airport. She spotted the landing indicator lights and knew if the planes were coming in too low. Olivia was 4.
She attended the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland annually with her father, but her flight interest really took off at age 10, when she participated in the Experimental Aircraft Association (EEA) Young Eagles program.
That’s when she set her goal. She wanted to fly solo before she could drive solo.
“I just love the feeling of flying,’’ Jenkins said. “I always had an interest, I think, but the Young Eagles experience really showed me what it’s like to be in the air.
“I was a little nervous on my first solo flight, but I was prepared. I studied hard and was confident in what I was doing. When I flew the approach nicely and touched down nice and smooth, that was absolutely the best part. It’s like achieving a lifelong dream. I’m excited for what’s ahead,” she said.
Jenkins is nothing but prepared.
She served an internship last summer in the office of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents the 12th congressional district in Florida.
Jenkins is back in Bilirakis’ office for occasional work, some of which involves helping organize students who are seeking nominations to military service academies. By next summer, with her connections firmly in place, Jenkins will be seeking her own nomination.
She also has maximized her experience with the Civil Air Patrol, taking five orientation flights (almost mini-flight lessons), getting accepted into a summer flight academy and securing most of her Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) examinations, the precursor to a private pilot’s license.
She has about 13 sessions remaining with Crews, her flight instructor, before the birthday flight that will make things official.
If the weather conditions are right, Jenkins can rent a plane at the Tampa North Flight Center for a brief flight. On a whim, she did that recently. It was after-hours, calm and quiet. Taking the plane up was a thrill. The landing was perfect.
“The sunset was amazing that night,’’ Jenkins said. “It was just awesome. I think I’m always going to love the feeling. I can’t wait for what’s ahead.’’
Off she goes into the wild blue yonder. She’s ready to fly.
By Joey Johnston
Published October 21, 2020