Grimes Field, Bethel. PA – If we think back to our earliest memories, we remember major milestones. We probably don’t remember our first words or our first steps, but maybe our first day of school, our 10th birthday or even our first crush. And who doesn’t remember the first time they got behind the wheel of the family car? It was an exciting time; getting your learner’s permit and with a parent riding shotgun, driving as carefully as possible because the last thing we want to do was to dent to dad’s pride and joy.
But what if dad’s pride and joy was a 100-year-old biplane? A what? That’s right, a 100-year-old Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny”.
Air Museum Network recently attended the Golden Age Aviation Museum’s Flying Circus Air Show in Bethel, Pennsylvania. During the event, we learned of this young lady who turned 16 earlier this year. While most soon-to-be 16 year olds are dreaming of a sweet sixteen party, Caroline Dougherty had dreams that soared even higher.
Caroline is the daughter of Paul and Melissa Dougherty. Caroline’s earliest memories are around aviation and airplanes. Her father has been flying since he was about 16. Paul has amassed approximately 22,000 hours in an assortment of aircraft and is the President of the Golden Age Aviation Museum. Since the age of 2, Caroline has flown with her father and spent many hours in and around the little museum with the picturesque grass field.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Caroline wanted to be a pilot. After watching Patty Wagstaff perform at an air show, Caroline got serious and began to pursuit her dream. Caroline didn’t have to look far to find an instructor. It is the aviation version of home schooling. Together, father and daughter, instructor and student, embarked on the flight path to that major milestone – the solo flight.
It was during one of certainly many father-daughter talks, that the question of soloing came up. “Which plane would you like to solo in?” After giving it some thought, Caroline looked at Dad and said, “Why not the Jenny?” Many fathers would have flashbacks of the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. You know, where Ferris’ friend Cameron destroys his father’s 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder. But not Paul.
Soloing in the Jenny wasn’t enough. It had to be special (as if flying a Jenny isn’t special enough). The decision was made for Caroline to solo in the Jenny, on the day of her 16th birthday.
The duo put in the time and hard work to ensure that Caroline was ready for the big day. There was one minor obstacle that was out of their control, mother nature. On the day of her 16th birthday, the weather conditions were less than favorable for Caroline to solo, much less in the Jenny. The two sat around at Grimes Airfield watching the rain come down, hoping things would get better. Just like in the movies, the rain stops, the wind dies down and cloud cover breaks. It is now or never.
They hop into the vintage plane and Caroline took her up. This wasn’t the first time the young aviator had flown the Jenny. It was as if it were just another lesson with the instructor. It doesn’t count as a solo if anyone other than the student pilot is in the aircraft. So Caroline lands the aircraft and Paul climbs out of the centenary plane. Paul then turns to Caroline and asks “Are you ready?” “Yes.” Caroline responds. Paul asks again “Are you sure?” and with a voice of a confident aviator, Caroline says “YES!”
One can only image the proud look that must have been on Paul’s face when the wheels left the ground. If Caroline ever had an ounce of doubt in her abilities, they vanished as she and the Jenny became one. Although Paul was firmly on the ground, his voice was in Caroline’s head every step of the way. As the flight progressed and the tension eased, Caroline realized “I’m flying a Jenny!”
This young lady isn’t your average teenager. Caroline grew up in and around aviation and aviation history. When asked what her friends and classmates thought about her accomplishment, Caroline said, some think it is really cool, others say “What’s the big deal? Flying a plane is easy, just move the stick around.” Of course we all know that the brain trusts that make comments like those, live in a world of video games and have no notion of how the real world functions. It is a big deal for many reasons.
Caroline did what no other 16 year old has ever done. When was the last time a student pilot soloed in a 100 year old Curtiss Jenny on their 16th birthday? That is a major accomplishment. It is also something special when a father and daughter do anything together.
The Golden Age Aviation Museum puts on several shows a year. Paul and Caroline are part of a large cast of volunteers that entertain the crowd with their family oriented show. This father-daughter team has also taken their act on the airshow circuit. Paul flies an aerobatic routine in a Christen Eagle II and Caroline does an impressive job as the announcer for “Dougherty Airshows“. Anytime a family shares a passion then yes, that is special.
We suspect that we haven’t seen the last of Caroline. This solo flight was just the first of what will surely be many milestones. When it comes to flying and being a pilot, this is only the beginning, but judging by the look in her eyes no worries Paul, Caroline is in it for the long haul.
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