While most young people are obsessed with getting their driver's license, Dominic Puntoriero has fed a loftier ambition: flying a helicopter.
After training for more than 65 hours over a four-year span, the San Juan Capistrano resident, formerly of Newport Beach, completed his first solo flight at Long Beach Airport on July 16, making him one of the few teenagers in the United States to fly a helicopter solo.
Dominic, 16, finished hours of helicopter training before obtaining his on-the-ground driver's license. Now he's focused on earning his driver's license for the sky.
"It's quite the skillset," said his instructor, Mark Robinson of Revolution Aviation at John Wayne Airport. "But doing it at that age, it's quite the achievement."
Flight training can start at any age, but an aspiring aviator must be at least 16 years old to fly solo. Beginning at age 17, a person can obtain a private pilot's license and fly any aircraft, within limits, with passengers.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, individuals who are issued certificates must have completed the required training and passed written and oral exams as well as a practical, behind-the-wheel test. At 18, one can become a commercial pilot.
Dominic, who is entering his sophomore year at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, in Rancho Santa Margarita, became interested in flying when, at age 12, he toured Hawaii with his family via helicopter.
"Dominic had a seat next to the pilot, and he could not get enough of it," said his father, Michael Puntoriero.
A few months after the family's vacation, Dominic approached his parents and asked if he could begin helicopter lessons. His father found Robinson and asked to schedule classes.
But the 12-year-old had a requirement to meet before he could sit behind a helicopter's flight controls.
Could he reach the pedals?
Robinson placed a cushion behind Dominic's back.
On his first day of flight school, Dominic arrived at Signature Flight Support, based at John Wayne Airport, where private planes can be flown in and out of Orange County. For the introductory lesson, Robinson flew the helicopter with Dominic as the passenger. The instructor wanted his student first to acclimate to sitting in the cockpit.
Dominic enjoyed the challenge of the ride.
"Helicopters are a lot harder than planes, because planes are very stable — they have two wings," Robinson said. "In a helicopter, it's like balancing a basketball on your finger."
For a while, Dominic finished a lesson every weekend, said his mother, Adriane. But because practices can be expensive — ranging from $250 to $525 — the family decided to stretch them out.
"He would love to go every day," his mother said. "Dominic started at age 12, but he was kind of like a 50-year-old at age 12."
During one training practice, Dominic was learning autorotation, where the descending maneuver of the engine is disengaged from the main rotor system, and the rotor blades are driven just by the upward flow of air through the rotor.