The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left many firmly planted in place. But for one Moorestown family, recent events have inspired a father and son to take flight.
Since March, pilot Kevin Laufer has been teaching his son, Michael, the ins and outs of piloting a plane. This summer, at only 16 years old, Michael manned his first solo flight.
Eye on the sky
Kevin also started flying at a young age. At 16, he lived about a mile from a small airport in Vincentown. As a child, he used to watch the planes take off and land, and for as long as he can remember, he was just drawn to the idea of flying. So, when he was old enough, he asked for a job at the South Jersey Regional Airport. He remembers the group there as close-knit, and in their free time, the local pilots volunteered to teach Kevin how to fly, with the understanding that when it was his turn, he’d do the same for others. In that way, he learned how to fly practically for free.
At 18, Kevin became an instructor himself. Throughout his college years, he flew a plane towing banners along beaches, and upon graduating from Stockton University, traveled to Florida, where he flew chartered Learjets for a time.
In 1999, he was hired as a pilot for US Airways, but when 9/11 occurred and people were less inclined to fly, he found himself furloughed. So, he moved to the corporate sector. Today, he flies corporate Gulf Streams and serves as director of aviation for an insurance company.
A family tradition
For the Laufer family, a flight down the shore is as normal as a drive on the Garden State Parkway. Michael said from a young age, his father took him flying and growing up around aviation sparked an interest in the subject.
At 12, Michael began making scale-model airplanes, and through that process, he got to know the parts of an airplane well. From there, he started watching YouTube personality Swayne Martin, a pilot who began flying as a teenager. It was watching Martin that led him to seriously consider learning to fly himself.
A silver lining
By law, if a person can reach a plane’s controls, brakes and foot pedals, he or she can receive flight instruction. But a student is not permitted to fly an aircraft solo until his or her 16th birthday.
Given Michael is tall for his age, Kevin started giving his son the occasional lesson when he was about 13. Approximately once a month or every other month, the pair would log a lesson. When Michael was 14 and 15, their busy lives had them flying together less frequently.
Then COVID-19 hit, and life came to a screeching halt. Kevin said his busy work schedule had suddenly been cleared, but he and his son chose to see it as an opportunity. Their schedules were now open, and both lived in the same house, eliminating the need for masks or keeping a distance. If they timed it right, they could get Michael enough instructional hours to take his solo fight on his 16th birthday.
Taking the wheel
In March, the pair started flying with regularity. Kevin said Michael was meeting all the standards, and he wasn’t going to let his son take flight by himself if he wasn’t prepared. The day before Michael’s 16th birthday, they went out once more. Michael admits it wasn’t his best lesson: He found himself going a little too hard on the landings and things just weren’t coming together. Looking back, he’s grateful for that experience, because it was the reset he needed to get into a more focused head space the next day. On July 3, the pair woke at 6 a.m. and went to the airport. They flew the traffic pattern of the airport together twice, and Kevin hopped out. It was time.
Michael said it was a special moment as he took off and was alone over the roads he wasn’t yet old enough to drive a car on. “It was beautiful up there,” Michael said. “The sun was rising. It was just an amazing thing to me.”
He took off and landed by himself three times and then taxied back to the airport. He was met on the ground by his family and some people working at the airport. Traditionally, a pilot has his or her shirt cut to mark their first solo flight, so when he exited the plane, Michael’s shirt was cut and photos were taken to document the moment.
Like father, like son
Like his father, Michael would one day like to make a career of flying. He currently works on the ground at a banner towing company in Ocean City, but wants to build up enough hours to eventually fly with the company.
There are still many flight hours and tests ahead for Michael before he can earn his license. But for Kevin, the bond the pair has formed during the process has already created something special. He’s grateful to have shared his interest with his son.
“It’s a proud moment when a son is following in his father’s footsteps.”