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Taking flight: High school senior gets pilot’s license, sets lofty goals

Jake Letson looks back as he runs through his checklist while sitting in a Cessna 172. The teenager hopes to become an aerospace engineer. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Jake Letson walks toward a Cessna 172 he learned to fly. He received his pilot’s license at 17. Monte Draper | Bemidji PioneerAs Jake Letson tied down the yellow and white Cessna 172 at the Bemidji Regional Airport Wednesday night, he told the story how his parents met in the very same plane.

According to the tale, his mom, Liz, started taking flying lessons at the airport, where his dad, Tom, was an instructor.

About 20 years later, she was nearly brought to tears as Jake flew that plane over their house this summer. And in mid-August, he got his pilot’s license at the age of 17.

Letson, a senior at Bemidji High School, started working at Bemidji Aviation as a line technician before taking an interest in learning how to fly. He asked his dad, a pilot for Delta Air Lines, to teach him.

“I said, ‘Man I want to be in one of those planes,’” Letson said. “So I just went after it.”

Letson began training to get his license in May and received it in about four months. Tom Letson said normally it takes closer to a year and pilots are usually a bit older when they first get the license.

“It’s much different than a driver’s license,” he said. “He’s a natural.”

Tom Letson points to the fact that he’s been a pilot for Jake’s entire life, giving him knowledge of phraseologies and acronyms before he even started flying.

Jake Letson also attributes that fast turnaround time to plenty of practice. Occasionally, he would take the plane up during down time while working at Bemidji Aviation, where he fuels, cleans and helps repair some of the planes.

“When it’s busy out here I wouldn’t trade the job,” he said.

ChecklistNext steps

The pilot’s license fits in nicely with what Letson hopes to do after high school: become an aviator in the U.S. Navy.

Letson has yet to hear if he got into the highly competitive U.S. Naval Academy. His next step is to interview with local politicians for a recommendation – which is required to get in.

Letson said the license could give him an edge in applying.

“Not so much the pilot part,” Letson said. “But they’ll see the persistence and going after goals.”

Besides being a trained pilot, Letson is also a member of the track and cross country teams at BHS, as well as the National Honor Society and Math League.

Jake Letson cleans the windshield of this Cessna 172 before a flight. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer BHS principal Brian Stefanich said Letson has been enjoying engineering classes that he’s taken at the high school for college credits. He described Letson as “passionate” and determined to meet his goals.  

“He’s a quiet young man, but he speaks volumes in the classroom,” Stefanich said, adding that Letson will be a leader in the aerospace engineering class that he’s currently in thanks to his flying experience.  

Stefanich said Letson has the qualities to get into the Naval Academy. It had an 8 percent acceptance rate in the fall 2010 semester according to U.S. News and World Report, one of the lowest in the nation.

Still, Letson is confident in his chances. He said after four years in the academy and two years in flight school, he would spend about eight or nine years as a pilot. That should provide some job security, he said.

But more than just that, Letson said he feels compelled to serve. His family has some military history, with one grandfather enlisted during the Korean War and a great-grandfather stationed on the U.S.S. Minnesota near the beginning of the 20th century.  

“I just think serving the country would be something to talk about,” he said. “I really want to live my life without any regrets … I don’t think I’ll regret doing it.”

After that, he hopes to become an aerospace engineer. He also applied at the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering, which offers the major.

A passion for flying

Letson remembers being fairly nervous when he took the plane up for his first solo flight.

He also remembers thinking that he didn’t have enough training.

But his dad was reassuring.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,’” Letson said.

What happened next is what brings Letson back to the skies for more.

“I was scared all the way until I took off,” Letson said. “When I took off, and when the wheels of the plane left the ground, all my fears fell away with the ground.

“It just kind of takes away all my fears about other things.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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