16-Year-Old Sets Record for Cross-Country Flight : Aviation: Baltimore high school junior touches down in Long Beach after 12-day solo trip. He returns his father's credit card too.


As soon as 16-year-old Jimmy Mathis set foot on solid ground at Long Beach Airport on Tuesday after becoming the youngest person ever to fly solo coast to coast, his Dad gave him a bear hug and made a down-to-earth request.

"Give me my credit card back, son," Jim Mathis said.

"You can have it," the 6-foot, 3-inch younger Mathis replied. "But I'm afraid it's no good anymore."

The younger Mathis said he hasn't yet totaled up the gas, food, motel and airplane repair bills from the 12-day, 2,500-mile flight in a rented, single-engine Cessna that earned him a place in aviation history.

But whatever the cost, he said he's proud. "I wanted to prove I could fly cross-country solo and I did."

Two 9-year-olds claim to have piloted planes coast to coast, but they were accompanied by instructors because Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit anyone under 16 from flying solo. Mathis, who has been flying since he was 10 and has a student pilot's license, said he wanted to better that record by flying on his own.

The difference between winging it solo and having an instructor along is that the high school junior from Baltimore had no one to ask for advice over Kansas when the plane's luggage door somehow worked its way open at the same time that one of his navigational devices gave out.

What he did was consult his map for the location of a local airport and, by locating landmarks, find his way there. Next, he had to figure out how to land while making only right turns because banking left might have sent his clothes and other belongings fluttering across the sky.

Another device, which sends out a radio signal that helps airport flight control towers track nearby planes, failed on the first leg between Ocean City, Md., and Cincinnati. But Jim Mathis said his son didn't panic. He made radio contact with the Baltimore tower and advised them he was going to fly at a lower altitude to avoid other aircraft.

The younger Mathis said the final leg of the journey from Arizona to Long Beach was probably one of the most nerve-racking. While flying through a pass near Banning, three military helicopters startled him when they suddenly appeared nearby.

Then, when he had Long Beach Airport in view, air traffic control told him to fly out to the Queen Mary before landing so that a television news helicopter could rendezvous with him to photograph the final few minutes before touchdown.

"The point that I saw the airport, that's when the relief came," he said. "I knew then I couldn't get lost."

When Mathis landed, he was greeted by his parents, Jim and Marylou, his two flying instructors from Baltimore, representatives of the airport and the city of Long Beach. Also on hand were executives from Toyota and one of its subsidiaries, both of which paid some of the flight's costs.

Jim Mathis, creative director for an advertising firm in Baltimore, said he was "very proud" of his son, "not just for the flying thing" but also for the maturity and the coolheadedness he exhibited.

Although he said he would become anxious each day to hear the beep sound of his pager that would signal him that Jimmy had landed safely, he said he never doubted his son's flying skills. Still, he said, "This is the longest he's ever been away."

The younger Mathis said he learned a valuable lesson along the way, in addition to racking up 25 additional solo flight hours.

"If I got into a situation where I was on my own, I learned that I could handle that," he said.

The Mathises said they will spend the rest of the week in Southern California and make a trip to San Francisco before Jimmy flies back, this time with one of his instructors at his side.

Eventually, Jimmy Mathis wants to become a commercial pilot. But he has a more immediate goal for the rest of the summer: getting his driver's license.

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