COMPTON — If asked to write a school paper on how he spent his summer vacation, 16-year-old Isaiah Cooper will have quite the story to tell.
Cooper became the youngest black male to fly an airplane across the continental United States last month.
Cooper traveled more than 8,000 miles over 13 days, flying out of the Compton Airport on July 5 and returning to Compton July 18.
The first leg of his flight took him from Compton to Vancouver, Washington. The next leg was supposed to take him from Vancouver east to Portland, Maine, but Mother Nature got in the way and Cooper had to make an emergency landing in Wyoming after he flew into a microburst.
“We had a microburst, which is basically Mother Nature taking us from the air to the ground, and I had to do a hard crash landing,” he said.
Flying with a flight instructor, Cooper brought the plane down, missing “two schools, three restaurants, a construction site and apartments” and then slid for two blocks.
With his plane heavily damaged, Cooper wanted to end the flight right then and come back home, but he spoke to his mentor, Robin Petgrave, who runs the Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum based at the Compton Airport and has been teaching Cooper to fly since he was 5.
“If you quit now, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,” Petgrave told him. “You have a dream; I am here to help you make your dream a reality.”
He continued the flight, reached the East Coast, flew South toward Florida and then returned home to welcoming crowds at the Compton Airport.
“It’s awesome. It’s exciting, you know, to see all these people here in the community that I didn’t know come and support me,” he told a television crew after he landed. “It really brings a warm place in my heart.”
Cooper is a student at the Thurgood Marshall Independent Study home-schooling program in the Compton Unified School District. He has been interested in flying since he was a young.
“I signed up for Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum’s after-school programs at the age of 5 and from there I’ve been learning to fly,” Cooper said. “But, when I started middle school in Gardena I jumped out of the program because I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. My grades dropped.”
His mother enrolled him in the Marshall Independent Study Program about a year and a half ago and Cooper got his life back on track with a grade point average of 3.7 and returned to Petgrave’s museum and instruction.
Cooper isn’t the first of Petgrave’s students to set records. Eight other students from the museumhave set 15 total world records to date since Petgrave opened his museum and school more than 20 years ago.
A helicopter pilot by profession, Petgrave said he started the museum and school to give back to his community and to provide opportunities for minority youth who might otherwise have trouble breaking into the aviation industry.
“People of color contributed a lot to the history of aviation and the place where it is right now,” Petgrave said. “Kids can come here and watch airplanes or get tutored. When they’re doing their work, our software tracks it and we credit them virtual dollars. When they want to take a flight lesson in an airplane or helicopter, the kids pay with these virtual dollars.
“We accept children as young as 8 and younger on a case-by-case basis, sometimes. The program goes until the kids are about 21. It keeps kids focused and really gives them an advantage when it comes to aviation.
“We rely on people donating to us but we have sponsors, too, including the Compton Unified School District, the city of Compton, Boeing and Virgin,” he said.
Cooper says his goal is to become a helicopter pilot and help Petgrave run his helicopter business.
His more immediate goal is to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person to fly solo around the world. He expects that to happen in a couple of more years after he turns 18.