A 9-Year-Old Californian Takes a Giant Step for Kidkind as He Flies from Coast to Coast and Back

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Nine-year-old Tony Aliengena had a busy spring vacation. A third grader from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., he visited El Paso, Memphis, Boston, Washington, D.C., Phoenix and points between. And when he made like the swallows and returned to Capistrano, he returned as a hero, having become the youngest person ever to pilot a plane across the country and back.

Tony lifted off from Orange County's John Wayne Airport on March 30. During the next 10 days—in about 30 hours of flying time—the youngster flew his father's Cessna 210 to Bedford, Mass., where he spent Easter with his family, and then back to Orange County, covering roughly 6,000 miles.

An enthusiastic crowd greeted the boy on touchdown, including about a dozen representatives of the media. Tony, who plays catcher on his Little League team, loves spaghetti and has been known to fight with his younger sister, Alaina, is very shy. He answered most reporters' questions in just a word or two. He was a bit more voluble when it came to describing his favorite part of the trip. "I liked flying into New Jersey the best," said Tony with a braces-filled smile. "They had the best milk." And with that, the peripatetic pilot headed home to go skateboarding.

The idea for the record-setting trip came to Tony last year when he heard a news report about an 11-year-old Texan who had just become the youngest pilot to fly from coast to coast. Tony turned to his father. "Hey, Dad," he said, "I can do that. I can beat that guy's record."

Tony's father, Gary, who owns a trucking company, just mumbled something like "Sure, okay" when his son made this utterance. "Later that day," says Gary, "he asked me again. His mother and I talked about it, and a couple of weeks later he asked again." Last November Tony's parents gave him the go-ahead to try for the record, which by then belonged to 10-year-old Christopher Lee Marshall.

Tony, who had been flying informally with his father since he was 3, began taking flying lessons three to five times a week. "I gave him every opportunity in the world to back out," says his father, "but he said, 'No, I want to do this.' " After 40 hours in the air, Tony was ready to go after his first record—becoming the youngest person ever to fly solo. Since FAA regulations prohibit anyone under 16 from flying solo, Tony made his attempt in an ultralight aircraft. (Ultralights are not regulated by the FAA.) In March Tony soared aloft for less than two minutes, but that was long enough to put his name in the record books.

By Easter break he was ready for his assault on the coast-to-coast record. Flying in his father's single-engine Cessna with his instructor, Ed Fernett, sitting next to him, and an observer from the National Aeronautic Association, a local reporter and a photographer on board, Tony headed for the East Coast. Because of his size (4'8"), Tony sat in a child's car seat, which was strapped to the pilot's seat.

The first two legs—from Orange County to El Paso and from El Paso to Memphis—went smoothly. The next—Memphis to Bedford—didn't. "By Chattanooga it was just terrible," says Gary, who spent about $10,000 on his son's record. "He ended up in a really bad storm, and he was getting bounced all over hell." At the height of the turbulence, Fernett briefly took over the controls, which meant that Tony had to fly that leg over again to avoid disqualification.

At this point another problem arose: Tony began getting airsick. The next day, still fighting nausea, he lifted off from Memphis and—with an intermediate stop—made it to Hanscom Field, just outside Boston. After a quiet Easter and a side trip to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where he received a citation for his accomplishment, Tony began an uneventful flight back to California.

Christopher Lee Marshall, whose record Tony broke, is reported to be considering an attempt to re-create Charles Lindbergh's 1927 New York-to-Paris solo flight. Tony Aliengena has his 9-year-old eyes set on an even more ambitious notion. "Hey, Dad," he said to his father after they were reunited, "I want to fly around the world."

Some kids are just never satisfied.

—By Michael Neill, with David Lustig in San Juan Capistrano

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