Japanese students come to Lakeport for pilot training


Aspiring pilots Noboru Watanabe and Souichiro Yamashita recently completed their training at Solo Flight School. Photo courtesy of Nancy Brier.



LAKEPORT – Forty years ago Kelseyville resident Don Lampson taught a teenager named Noatake Manaka how to fly at a local airfield.

Lampson was an expert aviator and dedicated instructor. Manaka was a remarkably talented student who was a foreign exchange student from Japan. Today that local airfield field is named after the Lampson family, and Manaka is just retiring after a distinguished career as a Boeing 747 captain for Nippon Airlines.

As the years passed, Manaka never forgot Lakeport. He had deep roots in the community and would often call down to the field from the cockpit of his 747 just to say hello. Some friendships, particularly one with local businessman Sandy Falconer, flourished over the years. The conversations from 40,000 feet at 400 miles per hour were short, but those local roots and Lakeport memories were not.

The Lakeport-Japan ties were strengthened again recently when Manaka sent two young Japanese business associates to Solo Flight School in Lakeport to follow in his footsteps. He wanted them to experience the Lake County he grew to love while learning to fly in our near perfect flying conditions.

Lake County has grown since the days of Lampson and Manaka, but its crystal clear skies, light air traffic and close proximity to major airports still makes it a perfect training base.

Gary Trippeer, owner of Solo Flight School, welcomed 24-year-old Souichiro Yamashita from Yokohama and 32-year-old Noboru Watanabe from Tokyo to the world of aviation on a beautiful morning this fall.

Their Visas were valid for only three months, and they both wanted to leave with a command of the English language, a taste of American culture and a private pilot’s license – a tall order for even an English-speaking student.

After a brief conversation, it was apparent that both students would need total immersion in the English language and American culture before their flying lessons could even start.

Solo Flight School’s retail store at Lampson was quickly converted into an English classroom, and a hangar office was set up for ground school lessons. Certified English teacher Nancy Brier provided English instruction everyday at the store.

Two additional evenings each week were spent with Rebecca and Mike Patterson of Lakeport, who took the two young men to their home, local restaurants, parks and other points of interest, and encouraged them to practice, practice, practice.

“At first the guys were so shy, we didn’t know what we’d talk about,” Rebecca Patterson recalled. “But after a couple of sessions, we couldn’t get them to stop talking!”

As for American culture, Yamashita and Watanabe experienced the Kelseyville Thursday night street dances, the Lakeport County Fair, the Taste of Lakeport, the Seaplane Festival, the Steele Winery Farmer’s Market and even the Blue Angels in San Francisco.

“Noboru and Souichiro became fixtures at almost every event Lake County offered,” said Trippeer. “Scores of local residents volunteered to meet, teach and entertain Noboru and Souichiro during their stay and we want to thank all of them.”

English is the universal language in aviation, and all radio calls, around the world, are done in English.

“Radio calls are an important part of flying,” explained Solo Flight Instructor Tom Wilkerson.

Yamashita and Watanabe needed to learn how to make and understand radio transmissions in order to fly safely. “At first just the reading back the tail number '3480Q' was a challenge for them,” remembered Wilkerson.

Wilkerson accepted the challenge of teaching the young men in the air. A pilot and Certified Flight Instructor for over 30 years, Wilkerson speaks several languages and has experience training Japanese teachers how to teach English.

“He holds a doctorate in language and has more than 22,000 hours of flight time, in over 100 different aircraft and is a huge asset to Solo Flight School,” said Trippeer.

“The key to teaching a student to fly is to determine early what makes that person tick,” Wilkerson said. After that, the rudimentaries of flying can come naturally to anyone.”

While Wilkerson was busy with training and the students were immersing themselves in the world of English language and aviation, Trippeer had a huge task of his own.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other government agencies have developed strict new guidelines. Flight schools with foreign students are closely scrutinized, and each student must submit to a thorough background check.

As the owner of Solo Flight School, Trippeer managed that process. A mountain of time-consuming requirements must be met before a foreign student experiences even one minute of in-air instruction. After the FAA and Transportation Security Administration gave the green light, the students began their lessons.

Yamashita and Watanabe completed their first solo flight with just over seven hours of flight instruction. They flew Solo Flight School’s Piper 140 aircraft. It was a remarkable accomplishment for both the young pilots in training and their instructor, Wilkerson.

“The first solo is critical,” Wilkerson explained. “It provides the motivation and confidence students need to propel them forward. That first solo flight is a thrill for everyone involved. You never forget your first solo.”

From that point on, Yamashita and Watanabe flew nearly every day, sometimes with their instructor, sometimes on their own, or “solo.”

They landed the airplane over and over again at airports far and near. They practiced radio calls at Santa Rosa’s towered airport, flew solo cross country flights, and practiced flight maneuvers required for the FAA flight test.

After just 50 hours of training, the pilot candidates were signed off by their instructor to take their final FAA flight test in Santa Rosa.

With just three days left before their Nov. 1 flight back to Japan, Yamashita and Watanabe passed their FAA oral test and then the FAA flight test. They flew back to Lampson from Santa Rosa at sunset as licensed private pilots.

Less than 1 percent of the world’s population has a pilot’s license. There are about 450,000 private pilots in the U.S. Since Solo Flight School opened two years ago, approximately 20 people, mostly from Lake County, have earned their license or an additional pilot rating at the school.

Aviation experts predict that over the course of the next decade, more than 10,000 new pilots will be needed to fill Asia’s growing demand. Trippeer hopes to fill some of that demand here in Lake County.

What's next for Noboru Watanabe and Souichiro Yamashita? Watanabe wants to return and live in Lakeport, and Yamashita wants to get married and become a millionaire. Only time will tell, but Lake County will be waiting, if necessary, for another 40 years.

Nancy Brier is a co-owner of Solo Flight School.



Souichiro Yamashita, Nancy Brier and Noboru Watanabe at Lampson field. Photo courtesy of Nancy Brier.