As the Blue Angels soared overhead, 3-year-old Joshua Norris gazed upward and was forever changed.
From that moment on, the son of LaRon Cousin could do nothing but talk about airplanes and how someday he was going to be a pilot. It took him 14 years - he first had to start elementary school and learn to read.
Now 17, Norris is one of the youngest students to receive his private pilot certification from Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal, Va. This brings him one step closer to his dream of becoming a pilot in the military. The high school junior is on the honor roll, football team and track team and is a leader at the academy, which is the only high school in the U.S. with an in-house flight program.
Norris now holds the distinction of being the first junior at Randolph-Macon Academy to earn his private pilot certification. Most students are seniors before they achieve this goal and not all seniors complete their certification to fly.
"He is the joy and the light of my life," his proud mother said from her Conyers home. "He always wanted to build and fly planes and he found the school on his own. It's a wonderful school. ... It's the best investment I ever made."
He said he thought attending a military school was an interesting idea that complemented his career goals and when he learned about the academy's in-house flight program he said, "I was like, 'I can fly here?' Oh, yes!"
Norris did indeed find out about Randolph-Macon Academy on his own five years ago as he searched the Internet. He never got over seeing the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels streak across the sky during an air show at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., which he was attending with his grandmother. From that moment, his life was all about airplanes.
"They said they saw the fire in my eyes," he recalled his family saying at the time. "I knew then what I wanted to do and that was pretty much it. I set a goal at an early age and worked toward it.
"The in-house flight program is the whole reason I came here," said Norris said from his boarding school in Virginia. "I love it. It's a great place. I was in the seventh grade when I started here - I was about 12."
Randolph-Macon Academy, founded in 1892, is a college-preparatory, co-educational boarding and day school for students in grades six to 12. It is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Students in grades nine to 12 participate in the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
A native of Washington, D.C., Norris and his mother lived there until four years ago when they moved to Conyers, where Cousin's husband, Tracy, lives. He has a son, Dallas, a ninth-grader at Victory Christian School and a daughter, Brittney, a student at West Alabama University.
Cousin said Norris' father left the family when Norris was only 3 and said he has not been in her son's life since that time.
"It was around Christmas and Josh and I were eating breakfast and I asked him if he ever thought about his dad," Cousin said. "He said, 'No, but that's OK. He'll hear about me one day.' He never looked up and never stopped eating. I think that is one of the drivers for him to be successful - to show his dad that this is what you abandoned."
When Norris learned about Randolph-Macon Academy, Cousin said she was a single parent trying to raise a son on her own with the help of her parents and family in Washington, D.C. She also had help from her best friend and former college roommate, Yolanda Wade, who is Norris' godmother and still lives in Washington, D.C. With no children of her own, she treats Norris as her own son, Cousin said, adding that she is grateful Wade loves her son as much as she and her family do.
"One of the most influential people for Joshua, even more than me, is Yolanda Wade," Cousin said. "She exposed him to the planes and took him to the air shows. She was in the delivery room when I had Joshua. She helps with his tuition. She is the epitome and definition of a godmother. Any credit when it comes to Joshua's success - Yolanda is the one. ... She goes to the school more than I do. She's closer."
With a pilot in the family, Cousin said she is looking forward to flying with her son, but laughed and said she might have to take a Valium first. She is afraid of flying, especially in small planes.
Norris' favorite plane is a Cessna 152, he said, and he has already logged 110 hours. He is scheduled to fly two to three times a month now, which is much less than during the time he was training. During that time, he would try to fit in extra flights any way he could, even if he sometimes had to miss an academic class or two, he said. He often waited to see if other students would cancel their flights so he could slip into their slots. As a result, he soloed a Cessna 152 in January, after only a half year of lessons.
To become a private pilot, Norris had to complete a minimum of 40 hours of flight instruction with 20 of those hours being with an instructor. He had to fly three hours at night, three hours solely by reference to the flight instruments, ten hours solo, and five hours solo cross-country, which means flying to an airport over 50 nautical miles from Front Royal. Last month, he completed the final requirement of passing both an oral exam and a check ride with a Federal Aviation Administration designated pilot examiner.
What does he like best about flying?
"Freedom is the feeling I have," he said. "That's what I feel. You're on the ground, you're all cluttered and packed in here and weighed down by all the troubles you have at school or work. When I go up in the sky, I am quite literally on top of the world. It's just a really liberating feeling. I love it to death."
Norris also loves his mom.
"She is the greatest lady in the world," he said. "She tells me to always keep moving forward and to never give up the fight. She is the best mom. Anything I need, she'll do it. Anything I've wanted, she'll do her best for it. She works hard and does it all for me."
While she is proud of her son and pleased that he is getting such a great education, Cousin still misses him, especially when she walks into his room at home and sees all the airplanes he has collected since he was 3.
"He has a room full of model airplanes," she said. "I would buy him Lego airplanes when he was little and before I could lay out all the pieces and read the instructions, Joshua would have it almost put together. He would just see the picture. To this day, every single plane he's had is in his bedroom. I've tried to box some of them up, but he says, 'No.' At 17, his room is full of everything from little stick planes to Lego planes and bigger planes."
This summer, Norris will attend the Naval Summer Seminar at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He said he hopes to continue with his flight training and work toward his instrument rating. He also said he hopes to attend the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after graduating from Randolph-Macon Academy in 2010.
Beth Sexton is a freelance writer based in Snellville. If you have a story idea, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.