At last, Ken Trinchitella sat alone in the cockpit. Ahead of him stretched 2,000 feet of concrete runway that disappeared into a starless night. It was his 16th birthday. He was so nervous his knees were shaking. After two months of training, the Upper Marlboro boy was finally ready to take his first solo flight.
He checked the instruments on the panel before him. He made sure the flaps were just right. Then, as his family and instructor looked on last Sunday, he eased the Cessna 150's single engine into gear, sped down Runway 230 and flew off into the night.
Twenty-three minutes later, after circling the airport at 1,100 feet, Trinchitella returned the black and white plane gently back to earth and the spectators broke out in cheers.
At Hyde Airfield in Clinton, Ken Trinchitella made history. With his solo takeoff and landing, he became the youngest licensed student pilot in the United States, the first pilot on record to fly an initial solo at night, and the youngest pilot ever to qualify for night flying.
All this by a shy, dark-haired teen-ager with a mouthful of braces who doesn't yet know how to drive a car.
"The record was in the back of my mind, but mainly I just wanted to fly," Trinchitella said of the feat, which was planned months ahead by his father and his instructor, and officially recognized by the National Aeronautics Association.
"It's just such an incredible thrill, being up there alone and looking down on the world."
It seemed fitting that this derring-do should happen at Hyde Airfield, an out-of-the-way dream factory surrounded by tobacco fields and raspberry patches in southern Prince George's County. For the last 43 years this modest airport and a flight school called Beacon Flying Service have been a proving ground for hundreds of people yearning to fly.
There's no control tower or radar dish at Hyde, and only a few red windsocks that tell which way the wind is blowing. Home to about 200 single- and twin-engine light aircraft, a couple of rickety biplanes, and a dozen or so weather-beaten hangars, the airport seems frozen in time.
It's a place where you simply look both ways before taking off--as Trinchitella did--and steer with pedals at your feet. When on the ground, you half expect to see Charles Lindbergh or Eddie Rickenbacker march through the front door of Beacon's sparrow-infested hangar in goggles and leather helmets.
At major airports, like National and Dulles, flying often seems as pedestrian as a ride on a school bus. At Andrews Air Force Base, four miles north of Hyde, supersonic jets equipped with automatic pilots and the latest in computer software take off like rockets.
But at Hyde Airfield, where the drone of propellers goes on from sunup to sunset, flying is still a hands-on, seat-of-the-pants human adventure in which novice pilots heed their instincts instead of silicon commands. The place may look like a scene from the old film "God is My Co-Pilot," but the dreams it gives birth to are always alive and well.
In short, it's a haven for daring people. Consider the cast of others who come here to fly. There's Siobhan Morrissey, a 23-year-old Georgetown woman who dreams of flying in an airplane rally in France this summer, and Emily Trapnell, a trial lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration.
There's Edgar Boyer, a 66-year-old retired accountant from Southeast Washington who saved his money for years just to fly. Some people plan on spending their retirement in Florida or Arizona. Boyer is spending his in the sky.
And there's a white-haired Frenchman known to everyone as Mr. Montague, who comes out on weekends when the weather is nice to regale listeners with tales of the times he flew Sopwith Camels during World War I against the Germans. "Now that," he is fond of saying, "that was an airplane."
Hyde Airfield was built in 1940 by developer Arthur C. Hyde, who still owns it. During World War II the Navy used it to train pilots. Since then the airport, which has three runways, has changed very little. The red-checkered control tower there, once manned by Navy officers, is now boarded up and empty.
The neighborhood of Clinton, however, has changed. In the early 1800s, according to county historical records, Clinton was a stagecoach stop called Surrattsville, named for the village's postmaster, John Surratt. When Surratt's wife, Mary, was hanged as a co-conspirator in the murder of Abraham Lincoln, the village elders decided to change its name.
To this day, however, no one is quite sure whether Clinton, an unincorporated town, is named for De Witt Clinton, an American statesman at the turn of the 18th Century, or George Clinton, who was vice president of the United States from 1805 through 1812.
Within the last 15 years the neighborhood, once entirely rural, has witnessed the arrival of shopping malls, fast-food eateries and several suburban housing tracts. Its population has grown from 10,000 in 1970 to 17,000 today, many of them people who commute to Washington or work nearby at Andrews.
But if there's one place that retains a sleepy, backwoods look, it's Hyde and the Beacon air service, where passersby come to sit around an electric heater and watch old black-and-white movies on the tube.
The school is owned by Harry J. Lehman and manned by radio dispatcher Judy "Blue Eyes" Myers, instructor Bob Brown and chief gasoline attendant and janitor Jeff Cook. Lehman, a leather-coated, cigarette-smoking pilot in his 60s, calls himself "chief latrine orderly and pipe-fixer" at Hyde, and says he really doesn't know how many people his school has trained to fly over the years.
"Thousands, probably," he says, adding that there are close to 100 students on the school's active list.
It costs $26 to rent a gassed-up Cessna for an hour, and $12 to fly with an instructor. Flight teacher Bob Brown says anyone can walk in and learn to fly, "as long as they're big enough to see through the windshield and their feet can reach the floor."
In fact, last weekend, part-time instructor James R. Green, a U.S. Weather Service computer analyst who trained Trinchitella, said he flew up with a wide-eyed 13-year-old girl whose father "wanted her to see what flying was all about."
(To obtain a student license to fly solo, however, a person must be at least 16 years old, pass a medical examination, and be trained by an FAA-certified flight instructor. Training time varies, but the average flight time spent in training averages 12 hours before an initial solo is taken.)
Handyman Cook, 21, is learning to fly as well, though never without an airsickness bag nearby. Myers, meantime, who says she wouldn't be caught dead "in one of those little things," contents herself with running the airport radio, telling incoming planes which runway is active and, on particularly busy weekends, arbitrating radio disputes between bickering pilots over air space and rules of right-of-way.
Since 1940 there has been only one fatal air crash at Hyde. It occurred in 1974, when a twin-engine plane hit a wire on a high-tension power pole during a landing approach. Four men were killed.
"The problem with that," Lehman said, "is that the pilot wasn't familiar with the airport. Anybody who flies around here knows about those power lines and what to do to stay away from them."
Ken Trinchitella said the red lights atop those power lines, several hundred yards off the end of the runway, were among the landmarks he used as he undertook his solo. He also watched the yellow beacon atop the flying school, the red runway lights at Hyde and several bright lights at Andrews.
The flight was planned months in advance by his father, a United Air Lines pilot, and instructor Green, in conjunction with retired Air Force Col. Milton Brown, the official custodian of records at the National Aeronautics Association.
The NAA is the oldest aviation organization in the U.S., and documents and maintains all world and U.S. aviation and space records.
"They approached me about the possibility of setting a record," said Brown, "and I went through the books and couldn't find anything there on anyone flying their first solo at night . . . So he Trinchitella went into the record books on that score." Trinchitella may not be the youngest licensed student pilot today, Brown added, because other youngsters may have tried their wings on their 16th birthday during the past week.
Trinchitella's flight took place at 7 p.m. March 20. His birthday is March 21, and he actually was still 15 by a matter of five hours. But all aviation records are coordinated to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). And 000 hours GMT, March 21, occurred at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, March 20.
At 6:59 p.m., Trinchitella, waiting for Green's signal to go, sat in his black and white Cessna, shaking so badly "that my feet on the rudder pedals were shaking the rudder back and forth."
On Green's wrist was a digital watch coordinated to the second with GMT. When Green dropped his arm, Trinchitella released the brakes and rolled down the runway.
On previous night flights, said Trinchitella, who logged 15 1/2 hours flight time before his solo, he was able to appreciate the view northwest of Hyde of lights atop the Capitol Dome and the Washington Monument. But as soon as he took off on his first solo, he said, "all I thought about was getting back in one piece."
On his approach back to Hyde he cleared the power lines at the end of the runway by the standard 600 feet and landed right on target. It was, said his father Nicholas, "a real grease job."
Next month the NAA will award a certificate to Trinchitella at his high school, Riverdale Baptist. Another award ceremony is tentatively scheduled for September at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Meantime, Trinchitella said, he'll try to get his driver's license and will continue to practice solos at Hyde. He hopes to enter the Air Force Academy when he graduates from high school, and plans on becoming a fighter pilot. Until then, he said, he'll help teach his sister the ropes.
She's 13, he said. And wants to fly as well.