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Boy Pilot, 10, Starts Cross-Country Flight : Three-Pillow Lift Aids Quest for Record

Times Staff Writer

Fourth-grade student Christopher Lee Marshall, 10, took off Saturday from an airstrip just outside this coastal city at the controls of a single-engine Piper Warrior on a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and--he hopes--into the record books.

Chris, who needs three pillows to see over the instrument panel, hopes to become the youngest pilot ever to fly from coast to coast and back. Carrying a shopping bag full of chewing gum, candy bars and sugar-coated cereal (“for snacks on the way”), he strode confidently to the airplane and climbed onto the left wing, pausing only for a final hug from his grandmother.

“I never expected this to be such a big deal,” he said. “All I wanted was to have some fun.”

More than 150 spectators, friends and relatives came to watch the takeoff. Chris waved to them as he climbed into the pilot’s seat of the plane. His flight instructor, 53-year-old Rowe Yates, took the seat next to him.

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“The adventure is about to begin,” said Yates. “Are we ready?”

Chris carefully reviewed his checklist and scanned the instrument panel. “Everything looks OK--we even have fuel,” he said. “Everything has gone so fast. Today’s really the day.”

The craft taxied to the end of the runway and Chris pushed the throttle forward and pulled back the wheel, holding a little rudder to counteract a 30-knot crosswind.

The Earth dropped below.

“So long,” said Chris, waving to the crowd as he climbed to 5,500 feet on a course toward his first stop, Bakersfield, at a cruising speed of 120 m.p.h.

Chris said he wanted to make the flight “so I can be No. 1 in the Guinness Book of World Records,” but admitted the original impulse came from his father, Delta Airline captain Lee Marshall, 53.

At the moment, the distinction for the youngest cross-country pilot is held by John Kevin Hill, an 11-year-old from Texas who set the record earlier this month when he flew a turbocharged single-engine Cessna 210 from Pacoima to National Airport in Washington.

“A couple of days after Dad saw John on TV,” said Chris, whose parents live apart, “he got a brainstorm and called me and said ‘Let’s go for it.’ ”

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Like John, Chris will have his flight instructor in the airplane with him throughout the flight. Despite the hours of flight experience they have logged, both boys are years too young to be legally permitted to solo.

Not Just for the Record

All agreed, however, that record-setting is not the primary goal.

“The record is secondary,” Marshall said, “because this is part of an ongoing education (for Chris). Gail and I believe that parental input is important in keeping kids active in what they enjoy. This will keep him away from dope and stuff like that.”

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“Both Lee and I have told him to forget the record stuff,” Gail Marshall said.

Nonetheless, the National Aeronautics Assn. has agreed to make the record official if Chris remains at the controls himself throughout the flight, and officials of the Guinness Book of World Records asked Chris to document all his flight statistics.

Chris, who is on summer vacation from Shell Beach Elementary School in this San Luis Obispo County town, said plans for the flight got mixed reactions from his friends.

“Some don’t believe me when I say that I fly,” he said. “They say, ‘Sure, and you’re Superman, too’ Now they’ll believe me, all right.”

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‘Floating in Air’

He finds things less complicated in the air.

“When I’m up there,” he said, “I just stare at the controls and pretend that I’m a Delta pilot . . . once you’re off the Earth, you’re free . . . you’re like floating in the air.”

The leg that began in Oceano Saturday ended 45 minutes later in Bakersfield, designated as the first overnight stop on the trip. Other overnight stops are planned for Palm Springs, Albuquerque, N.M., Dallas and Montgomery, Ala.

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After arriving at their final destination in Florida, Chris and instructor Yates plan to spend a week taking a cruise around the British Virgin Islands, after which Chris said he plans to fly all the way back to Oceano.

But his mother said she is still a bit apprehensive.

“It’s not easy letting my baby go off today,” she said. “I was lying in bed this morning, and it suddenly hit me that today was the day. Reality set in. I just want him to be safe.”


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