Damian Hackett is focused and self-sufficient. Those traits have helped the St. Albans senior become one of the top cross-country athletes in the area, and they’ve sparked a rare hobby for a high school athlete — one that finds him 7,000 feet in the air, in the cockpit of a two-seater plane, soothed by the sound of an engine’s roar.

“It’s a liberating feeling,” Hackett, a 2019 All-Met performer, said of flying planes. “It’s similar to the reason why I enjoy running. It’s stressful at times, but it’s a type of active meditation.”

As the 1,166-pound aircraft goes down the runway, gradually gaining speed, Hackett is fearless and in control. He lifts the plane off the ground, and suddenly he is off into the clear blue sky. In the moments when he is in the air, he feels free from the burdens of daily life, and just like when he is running, he is the master of his fate.

Hackett, who had a virtual internship with NASA last summer during which he learned about satellites, robotics and space, has loved engineering and aerospace since he was 8 years old. He would fly drones and be fascinated by the function of an airplane engine. His mother, Colleen, recalls that the first drawing he gave her when he was little was an aerial map of their neighborhood. “Some kids might draw his family or a house. He drew a map,” she said.

When Hackett was in eighth grade, he approached his mom about taking flying lessons. But he had to be at least 16 to pilot an aircraft on his own. Hackett continued to ask his mother until after his sophomore year at St. Albans, when he was allowed to enroll in flight school at Manassas Regional Airport.

Hackett took a demo flight with an instructor during the summer of 2018 to determine whether he wanted to continue pursuing a pilot’s license. Hackett wasn’t sure what to expect from his first time inside the cockpit. Once he touched the wheel and took off into the air, his emotions were at an all-time high. Hackett was in love.

“It’s like the first time you drive,” Hackett said. “It’s something you will remember for the rest of your life.”

The process to get a pilot’s license was lengthy: Hackett had to balance flight lessons with schoolwork, cross-country and track. Once he passed the written exam, he had to accumulate 20 hours of solo flights during which he mastered taxiing, taking off, landing and conversing with air traffic control.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the airport, Hackett had to wait until the middle of August to complete the final stage of his flying lessons, which was an oral exam and a check ride. Hackett passed on his first try.

Hackett believes flying is similar to running — he has to be disciplined and rely on himself to get to his destination. Just like his casual runs through Rock Creek Park, flying allows Hackett to put aside his schoolwork for a few hours and appreciate the beauty of the world.

Jim Ehrenhaft, the cross-country and long-distance track coach at St. Albans, said he is not surprised Hackett became a pilot so quickly. Throughout Hackett’s cross-country and track career, he has been self-driven and seeking new challenges.

When the track season was canceled last spring, Hackett took his GoPro camera, went to an empty track and set personal records in the 1,600 and 800 meters. In the fall, Hackett, who is committed to Cornell, used the times he recorded and applied for cross-country meets in Virginia and Indiana, where he ran unattached.

In February, Hackett ran in the Adidas Indoor Nationals in Virginia Beach, where he broke the St. Albans two-mile record in 9:12.28.

“It’s been a natural thing for some of our runners to lose motivation at times,” Ehrenhaft said. “[Hackett] was more focused and determined than he had ever been.”

Flying has allowed Hackett’s passion for engineering and his adventurous personality to come together.

His mother said some have questioned her decision to allow her son to fly at such a young age, but she stands by it. “When he would come home at night after flying, he had a skip in his step,” she said. “That got me to the place where I was like, ‘I got to let him do it.’ ”

She got a glimpse of her son’s viewpoint when Hackett took her on a flight in September for her birthday. Hackett soared beneath the clouds as his mother admired from the passenger seat. He gave her a mischievous smile before doing a tailspin, which caused their stomachs to drop. Hackett then positioned the plane perfectly for Colleen to watch the sunset on a beautiful autumn afternoon.

“It’s just a different way to experience the world without going far,” Hackett said. “No roads — just total freedom.”

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