To most, gripping the control sticks of an airplane thousands of feet in the air seems terrifying, but it’s the feeling of being in complete control that really thrills Palo Alto High School senior Ryan Ehrlich.
Growing up in Canada, Ehrlich and his family would often canoe up a lake to watch seaplanes take off and land. Since then, Ehrlich has been fascinated with planes, but never got the chance to build on his interest until the summer before his first year of high school. This was when, Ehrlich says, he interned at a software startup which gave him flying lessons as compensation for his work.
After his first lesson, he was hooked. Ehrlich then started regularly taking flying lessons, working directly for software companies to help pay for them. The more he flew, the more interested and dedicated he became.
“As I flew more, I became more interested in it,” Ehrlich says. “It’s very complicated and I really enjoy it; it is kind of an application of everything I’ve learned at school, which is really interesting because it made me enjoy my classes more.”
A pilot’s education
When he entered high school and began renting a plane once or twice a month at the West Valley Flying Club to practice, Ehrlich says he had to figure out how to balance his academic life and that in the cockpit of the plane.
Luckily, his pilot training translated directly to his school life, allowing him to learn more about subjects like chemistry, physics and math through a practical, hands-on process.
“It’s a very real application of it [my classes],” Ehrlich says. “I’ve been doing a lot of work [at school] and it’s nice to take that and apply it to something.”
Ehrlich views flying as a one-of-a-kind learning experience that has helped make him a more procedure-oriented person.
“You have to be very responsible as a person, and you can’t leave anything up to chance,” Ehrlich says in regards to his rules of thumb when flying. “You have to make sure you know everything that you’re about to do, and you have to be very confident in what you’re doing.”
No easy process
Whether it be spent at a desk or in a plane, Ehrlich says he always makes sure to organize his time wisely, double- and triple-checking everything he has to do. His flight instructor, Wes Irish, says he admires this dedication and attention to detail, from the countless hours of work he put in to pass his pilot’s test to his meticulous inspection of the plane each time he prepares to go flying.
“He’s not only measured the tanks, he’s figured out their implications, how it affects our flight, and how to deal with it,” Irish says. “And that’s why he’s an exceptional student.”
The process of becoming a pilot is a long and strenuous one, a challenge Ehrlich eagerly took on. Although only able to obtain his pilot’s license at the age of 17, in the time leading up to that, Ehrlich practiced rigorously. He tirelessly studied for the exams that lay between him and his license. Ehrlich also spent hours flying in the cockpits of planes under Irish’s careful guidance, preparing for the practical portion of his exams.
According to Irish, Ehrlich first had to go through a six-inch stack of basic reading before taking the Federal Aviation Administration written exam and FAA practical exam, made up of an oral and flying exam. They require not only book smarts, but hours and hours of flying practice, Irish says.
“You have to be methodical and diligent, and if you’re not, you’re not going to become a good pilot,” Irish says. “It’s something that takes a real dedication to doing properly.”
More than just a plane
Ever since his first day of flying, Irish noticed Ehrlich’s fascination with planes, and his determination to become a pilot.
“From the very beginning, Ryan exhibited the proper qualities [of a pilot],” Irish says. “He was genuinely interested in learning to fly, and he was, from day one, willing to do the reading and willing to do the work.”
From his first time flying alone in a plane last September to flying his first solo cross-country flight from one airport to another, Ehrlich says these moments have only fueled his passion for flying.
“Ultimately, you’re not competing with someone else, you’re competing against yourself to make yourself better.”
— Ryan Ehrlich, Paly senior
“It was just really enjoyable,” Ehrlich says, reminiscing on his first solo cross-country flight. “We had a really beautiful day, there wasn’t a lot of traffic in the sky, and it just went really well.”
However, not everything has run smoothly, this year being an especially tough one for Ehrlich. The wildfires causing limited small plane travel and college applications taking up most of his time, Ehrlich has not had the opportunity to fly for a couple months. These restrictions have not lessened his joy of flying, though.
Although Ehrlich says he is not sure how much flying he will be able to do in the future, his love for the hard work, complexity and most of all, feeling of satisfaction every time he safely gets his plane from point A to point B, continue to motivate him.
“I definitely love doing it [flying],” Ehrlich says. “I don’t know so much as a career because of logistics, but I’d like to fly ideally in college — I don’t know what the situation will be like there depending on where I am, but I really enjoy doing it.”