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Bradenton teen on way to earning a commercial pilot's license

Bradenton teen Jordan Craig certainly has his feet off the ground and his head in the clouds.

Craig is on his way to earning his commercial pilot’s license and he’ll be one of the youngest people to do so.

Chances are, if you’ve seen a small plane soaring high in the Florida sky, the 18-year-old is piloting it. Up there, he has a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Bradenton.

The tall, sensible Sarasota Military Academy alumnus has been flying planes since he was 15 years old. At 16, he flew solo and at 17, he received his private flying license.

It’s hard for Craig — who has more than 280 hours under his belt — to put into words why flying fascinates him.

“I just love the feeling,” said the sandy brown-haired teen. “It feels like — when you’re alone especially, even practicing maneuvers — it’s just a really free feeling. It’s like sort of a getaway.”

The avid outdoorsman has already taken the written exam for his commercial license. He’s also completed his instrument ratings, which is the use of navigational and radio aids. That part was fairly challenging, he said. It took him about a year just to get his instrument ratings down pat.

“That just makes you an all-around better pilot,” he said. “So that was a big step.”

There are few more maneuvers in the air he has to learn before taking the flight portion of the commercial test, though. They include lazy eights and steep spirals — flight patterns that are performed just like they sound.

Craig said he doesn’t see many people his age earning a commercial license. His grandfather Bob Olree, a private pilot, said it’s a rarity. Most often, people are in their mid-20s or older when applying for such a feat.

Olree, who is proud of his grandson’s accomplishments, isn’t surprised about Craig’s desire to get his commercial license so young.

“Jordan, when he gets something in his mind, he’s like a little bulldog,” Olree said. “He doesn’t let go of it.”

Craig’s first experiences with flying came from his grandfather. From as early as age 13, Craig would join Olree for a few spins in the air. But his spark for flying didn’t develop until he befriended fellow academy student and aviation enthusiast Kyle Chmielewski his freshman year. Chmielewski’s love of flying inspired him. It wasn’t long before Craig signed up with Cirrus Aviation near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport for lessons.

He knows the lessons will pay off in a big way when he becomes a professional pilot. Craig hopes to pay back part, if not all of the money his parents and his other grandfather, Thomas Craig, have paid for lessons over the years.

Lessons are an average $140 an hour, which includes plane rental. It takes 40 hours or more of flying to earn a private license. Craig received his with 70 hours under his belt. He said the best part overall was flying solo. On that day, his instructor went up with him for a few laps before letting him go on his own.

“He got out and I was like ‘Wow, there’s nobody over there. It’s just me,’” said Craig, whose 14-year-old sister, Jacey, is more into gymnastics and singing than flying. “That’s exciting.”

Now Craig flies every chance he gets with flight pal Chmielewski.

“The two of them are always going someplace,” said Olree, who occasionally receives text messages from his grandson about their travels. They’ve flown into Lakeland, Orlando and even Miami International Airport — large airports some private pilots tend to avoid because of the air traffic.

“But these kids think nothing of it,” Olree said.

Besides flying, Craig has another talent not seen in most teens his age: his ability to play the bagpipes.

When his father, Pete, discovered the family’s Scottish ancestry, he became a big fan of highland games, taking his family to highland events in Sarasota.

While attending the festivities, Craig, who was 13 years old at the time, grew to enjoy Celtic music and everything that came with it.

“I’ve always dug bagpipes,” he said with a smile. “They’re different but they’re just so awesome.”

Craig said bagpipes were known as musical instruments of war in early Scotland because they motivated soldiers . As an accomplished bagpiper, he has competed in many state level bagpiping competitions. He occasionally is hired to play at weddings and funerals around town.

Though bagpipes are a fun hobby for the teen, his life revolves around flying. Through it, he said he’s learned leadership skills.

“You learn to just take control of the airplane,” he said. “You’re the final authority on that airplane. When you’re up there alone, or with passengers, you have other lives in your hands — you’ve got to be focused.”

After he gets his commercial license, he’s looking forward to earning his multi-engine rating, which will allow him to fly planes that have more than one engine. Then he plans to get his Certified Flight Instructor license.

Craig wouldn’t mind working with a large commercial airline, flying passengers to and fro.

But to be considered for such a job, he has to have a large number of flight hours, plus a college degree. The teen is enrolled at Manatee Community College, leaning toward a degree in business.

In the meantime, after he gets his commercial license, he wants any type of flight job — even if it’s toting banners through the air.

Because being in the air definitely makes life more interesting, he said.

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