It was a breezy and sun-splashed afternoon when the teenage student pilot began a pre-flight inspection of 5586 Romeo, a four-seat Cessna 172.
Gerrit Zondag, a 17-year-old Early High School student, had a bit of an audience at Brownwood Regional Airport that included his mother, Leann, and his grandparents, Jake and Carrol Zondag. The senior Zondags were visiting from Canada.
"Mind your own business, Mom!" Gerrit joked as his mother — also a pilot — scrutinized his work while he pre-flighted the Cessna. His mother just laughed.
Gerrit waited for his instructor, Brownwood Flying Service owner Pete Michaud, to arrive. Plans were for the two to fly together for a few minutes and land, then Gerrit would take Cessna back into the air for some solo work.
Gerrit recently started taking lessons to obtain a private pilot's license. He inherited a passion for flying from his mother, who earned a private pilot's license a little over a decade ago.
Her instructor: Michaud, a veteran flyer who isn't surprised that he's now teaching a younger Zondag.
Leann is married to chiropractor Dan Zondag, and they have also have a daughter, Jessica, 19, and another son, Christopher, 13. So far, Gerrit's the only one of the three siblings who wants to fly.
Michaud cleared Gerrit to solo a few weeks ago, but the young flyer still has plenty to accomplish before he has enough flight time — and until his instructor decides he is ready — to take a check ride to obtain his license.
His remaining flight time as a student will consist of solo flights as well as flights with his instructor.
"I'm checking to make sure the tires have air … I'm checking to make sure the suspension is working … I'm checking for cracks or anything wrong with the propeller," Gerrit explained as he worked his way around the front of the Cessna, then moved to the tail and wings.
"I'm checking to make sure the hinges are clear and making sure they have all the parts that they need, and that everything moves with no binding … now I'm making sure that all the screws are tight …"
Gerrit looked into the Cessna's fuel tanks. "How many gallons do you burn an hour?" asked Leann, who likely knew the answer — she had, after all, once co-owned a Cessna 172.
"Nine," Gerrit replied.
Gerrit is thinking about the Air Force as a post-high-school destination. He's considering going through ROTC to earn a commission as an officer, and, hopefully, becoming an Air Force pilot.
"Any plane," Gerrit replied when asked what he'd like to fly. "Anything with wings."
Gerrit just barely remembers the day he flew in the back seat of a Cessna 172 as his mother took an orientation flight with Michaud to begin her pilot's training.
Leann's logbook shows the date of that flight as March 27, 2002, and Gerrit was 10 day shy of his fifth birthday.
Via Facebook, Leann related other memories of her early flying days:
"Christopher was born in 2001, and he was a baby when I learned to fly. Such fond memories of him in his car seat (wearing headphones), and Gerrit and Jessica in the backseat.
"Apparently we stunned more than a few landing at airports (like in Denton to see friends) and me unloading three little ones from the airplane."
When Gerrit had his first flight with Michaud a few weeks ago, Leann reciprocated, riding in the Cessna'a back seat.
"Oh, I am so proud of him. So proud," Leann said as Gerrit and Michaud prepared to take off together in 5586 Romeo. "I was hoping one of my three kids would share my love for aviation."
Leann described her son as "a Godly young man" who is a member of the youth group at Salt Creek Baptist Church.
Michaud was asked if it's been a unique experience to teach mother and son to fly. "Well, the son is real good …" Michaud said mischievously.
He was asked who's the better Leann or Gerrit. "Don't answer that," Gerrit called out.
"I refuse to answer on grounds it may tend to incriminate me," Michaud said.
"Carburator heat, cold … Gerrit recited as he began the engine-start procedure from the Cessna's left seat.
"Two shots," Michaud instructed.
"Clear prop …"
Gerrit hit the starter, the two-blade propellor rotated briefly and the engine rumbled to life.
"I've taught the kids they can do anything they want to do if they're willing to do the work," Leann said. "And this is work.
"You have to treat it like a class. Gerrit was a little surprised at all the bookwork."
Earning high marks
Early High School principal Jennifer Kent's reaction when she recently learned that Gerrit is learning to fly, was a simple "wow."
She'd heard he was thinking about it.
"He must've talked about it in one of his classes," Kent said. "I knew that there was a possibility of flying lessons but I didn't know it was now."
Kent gave high marks to the senior.
"He's so humble," Kent said. "He is such a fabulous young man. We just adore him. He's so responsible. For students to find their passion so early on is exciting."
The principal agreed with Leann Zondag's assessment of Gerrit's Godly character. "A lot of our students here are like that," Kent said. "He is that guy. That's who he is. You can see it in the way he acts and the way he makes decisions.
"He is fabulous. Maybe he'll take me up."
After watching Gerrit and Michaud lift off from Runway 35, Leann quoted her son: "He says 'mom, sometimes it bounces. Did it ever bounce on your landings?' I said 'well, yeah. It's part of learning.'"
Leann hasn't been as active with flying the past couple of years as she once was, but her son's pursuit of aviation is spurring her to return to the sky.
"I love watching airplanes fly," Leann said. "It's pretty cool."
5586 Romeo touched down with a chirp of its tires, and Gerrit and Michaud taxied back to the ramp and stopped. Michaud left the Cessna and sent Gerrit back into the air.
'I'm west of the airport, Mom ...'
Michaud asked Leann if she, Jake and Carrol Zondag would like to go flying in a different Cessna. The three Zondags and Michaud strapped themselves into the plane's four seats.
"I would radio to ask (Gerrit's) location," Leann recalled in a later Facebook post. "After all, no need to meet up in mid air! 'Gerrit, baby, where are you flying right now?'
"His reply: 'Do I know you? … I'm west of the airport, Mom, over the lake.'
"'OK, sweetie, I'm flying northeast of the airport over our house.'"
While that might not be normal radio conversations, Leann had an explanation: "What mom could resist?"