Clovis High sophomore Eli Prieto’s love for the air began at a very young age. After a trip to the Sierra Sky Park Airport with his family he quickly became addicted to flying.
“He’s been wanting to fly since he was probably eight or nine years old,” Eli’s father Matthew Prieto said. “He’s always been fascinated with the air and he is much more comfortable in the air than on the ground.”
At first Matthew said he saw Eli’s dreams to be a pilot as any rational parent would.
“We’re like, oh, you want to be a pilot? Sure, just like you want to be a teacher and you want to be a police officer and you want to be a firefighter and all kids have their dreams…but this one truly stuck.”
When Matthew saw how serious Eli was about his future career as a pilot, the family embraced his passion as if it was their own.
When owner of Fresno Flight Training Marty Bevill told the Prieto’s that Eli could fly solo on his 16 birthday this year, with the proper training, they quickly began making preparations.
Bevill started training Eli when he was 15 years old. He said he told Matthew and his wife, Erin, that one of the requirements to fly solo was that the pilot had to be at least 16 years of age.
“When we met, I said a year is plenty of time to get him ready for a solo,” Bevill said. “And then a year after that he can get his [pilot’s] license on his 17th birthday,”
Because of the pandemic, Eli wasn’t going to be able to get his driver’s license on his birthday, so instead the family thought, why not get him ready for his first solo flight instead?
From that day on, Eli began working hard and training with Bevill at the Madera Municipal Airport to prepare for his birthday on March 7.
Bevill said Eli is always well prepared when attending training sessions and that his ambition is palpable.
“You can tell by talking to him that he’s extremely well read…it’s kind of impressive for me to see somebody at 16 years old that is this driven to a goal,” Bevill said.
“It just goes to show that if it’s something you like and you really want to do it, you can do it.”
While there are many requirements before a training pilot is allowed to fly solo, Bevill said a lot of this process is up to the instructor’s confidence in the pilot’s knowledge about flying.
There are no required hours, but Bevill said everyone is different. Eli had been out flying before enrolling at Fresno Flight Training, which meant a lot of the two’s time together was spent learning the basics.
“We kind of had to go back to square one and make sure all the bases were covered before we continued along training him,” said Bevill.
“It’s kind of the judgement of the instructors as to how much time it takes [to fly solo]…some people solo at four hours, some people solo at 20, it just depends on the person.”
Matthew said Eli had 40 hours of flight training under his belt before soloing for his 16 birthday and that anyone who knows him, knows how passionate he is about flying.
When the day of his 16th birthday came around on March 7, Eli was ready for his first solo flight at the Madera Municipal Airport.
His dad, mom and younger sister Gabriella were there to support him along with his grandparents, cousins, uncle and his ROTC instructor for his Aerospace Science course at Clovis East.
The Prieto family even had custom shirts made to celebrate Eli’s first solo flight.
Although Matthew said he and the rest of his family were nervous for Eli’s flight, more than anything he was proud of his son.
“I could not have been more proud of what he was going to accomplish and what he had already accomplished in short little time he’s been around,” Matthew said.
Eli’s passion for flying is seen in his school and everyday life too.
As a sophomore, Eli has been nominated for a national recognition award with the JROTC program and was the Clovis JROTC representative to speak in front of his peers at the Wreaths Across America event in December.
“He has always been an ‘old soul,’ [he] truly enjoys helping others and often goes over the top to support his friends and family,” Matthew said.
As for Eli’s future, his family and flight instructors are confident in his ability to accomplish his dreams of someday becoming a commercial air pilot.
Matthew said his son’s response to what keeps him flying planes was, “In the air, destinations are closer and the higher you go the smaller the world becomes.”
“I see an extremely bright and long future ahead of him,” Matthew said.
“Obviously as his father, I don’t see any limitation to what he could possibly do with his career…his mom and I are behind him 100% and are going to support him through the entire process.”