• 45°

Young pilots to fly around the U.S.

A lot of college students go on road trips during summer vacation.

But Zach Laser, who was flying gliders at 15, and Ryan Taylor, who began flying planes at 16, have taken to the skies to see the United States this summer.

The 21-year-old seniors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are both members of the Air Force ROTC. They began their three-week flight around the United States on Saturday and plan to return Aug. 13.

“After a year of planning, I can’t believe we’re really doing it,” Laser said the day before the flight, walking on the tarmac outside the hangar of the Tidewater Flight Center, which is providing the plane, a Piper Arrow.

“I’m wicked excited,” Taylor said, echoing his friend’s enthusiasm.

With a total of 700 hours of flight time between them, the aspiring U.S. Air Force pilots have flown to Washington D.C., New York City and other east coast destinations. They spent more than a year developing and planning their trip, which they estimate will cost around $9,000.

With fundraising and family support fueling their dreams, a year’s planning now can be seen as a 200-page spiral notebook with their itinerary.

“It started as a far-fetched idea, and we decided to run with it and go big,” Laser said. “There’s so much more of the country to see. When you’re in a commercial jet, you’re at about 30,000 feet. We’ll be flying at 5,000 feet, so low we’re going to be able to fly through parts of the Grand Canyon.”

The pilots are appropriately calling their trip “America by 5,000 feet.”

After taking off from Chesapeake Regional Airport on Saturday, their first stop was to have been Washington D.C.

Other stops will include Oshkosh, Wis.; Seattle; Gold Beach, Ore.; San Francisco; Catalina Island, Calif.; Phoenix; Texas and New Orleans.

Sometimes they’ll be staying with family and friends, but for most of the trip they’ll be setting up a tent next to the plane. They have a strict no-hotel policy.

“We called ahead, and most of the airports are letting us set up our tent next to the plane, and we’ll be gone before they open the next morning,” Laser said. “We didn’t think about it, but it probably won’t be too pleasant from D.C. to Washington. Hopefully, we can find a river.”

An average day will include a three-hour flight, with their longest flight lasting six hours.

While three hours might not sound long to a driver, flying can be mentally exhausting.

“We’re flying an older plane with round dial instruments,” Laser said. “There is no autopilot on it. We’re hand-flying it.”

“It means we’re constantly checking all the instruments to make sure everything is right,” Taylor said. “It’s not physically demanding, but it is mentally demanding.”

The last stop on the map will be at Cape Hatteras, N.C., where they’ll will spend time on the beach before flying to their respective homes — Laser to Suffolk and Taylor to Lebanon, N.H. School begins Aug. 30, and they both have business to wrap up first.

While Taylor, who was largely responsible for setting the itinerary, and Laser have mapped their trip out well, there are many unknowns that can be encountered.

But they embrace the challenge.

“I most enjoy the things we’re not expecting,” Laser said. “Things go wrong sometimes, and it’s overcoming the challenges and adapting. I love being hit with challenges. We’re still joking about the fact we probably haven’t quite grasped what we’re getting ourselves into.”

“I love the high-tempo environment,” Taylor said. “It’s the challenge of keeping up with everything going on around you. Air traffic control can throw a lot at you at once.”

But they have an unwavering confidence in one another.

“We’ve been best friends since freshman year,” Laser said. “On the ground, there are days we come close to ripping each other’s heads off, but we make an awesome flying team.”

Keep up with the journey at www.sunlitsilence.com.

The tracking number for the plane is N1451T.