Young pilot to fly to all of S.D.'s public airports (USA TODAY)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — When his classmates were learning to drive, Brandon West was learning to fly.

Now, the 18-year-old is on a mission to fly to all 72 public airports in South Dakota.

Only five pilots have completed that feat since the South Dakota Pilots Association started its FLY South Dakota Airports! program in 2010.

"He would be by the far the youngest person to complete it," said Steve Hamilton, the executive director of the pilots association. The average time it takes to complete the program is three to four years.

West isn't flying alone. His mother, Karla West, has been along for every takeoff and landing. So far, the pair has visited 16 airports.

Both are active in the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. Brandon is a cadet major, and his mother is a captain.

"It's hard to find things to do with a teenage boy," Karla West said. "We both enjoy this a lot, so this is what we do in our free time."

Each runway in the program is a unique experience, with some made of grass or mud and others paved.

As a young boy, West wanted to see the cockpit of commercial planes whenever he flew on vacation.

Now he's finally in the pilot's seat.

"Every aspect of it is just amazing to me, and it's just an awe-inspiring perspective. You're up there where no one else is," Brandon said.

Each Civil Air Patrol cadet is offered 10 orientation flights before he or she turns 18. Most cadets spread their flights over several years, but Brandon — 13 at the time — took much less time after he joined the program.

"He took his the first month he was here, and he was hooked on flying," his mother said.

Brandon began training for his private pilot's license in June 2013 at age 16. His flight instructor, Jordan Hull, said he was the first person to give Brandon an orientation flight in the Civil Air Patrol.

There is no minimum age required for flight lessons, but the Federal Aviation Administration does require students to be at least 16 before taking solo flights and at least 17 before getting a private pilot's license.

"It's a little less common nowadays to see young people taking flight lessons, but I think it's coming back around," Hull said.

In the cockpit, Brandon showed no signs of nervousness and was excited to start his lessons. After receiving his pilot's license, Brandon went to work for Hull at Legacy Aviation in Tea, where he still works.

"He's a good kid. He works hard and he pays attention, and that's important," Hull said. "You kind of have to be hyperaware around aircraft."

Since receiving his license, Brandon has taken friends to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha for the day and has flown to other cities with his mother to have lunch.

Not all flights go as planned, however.

A few months ago, Brandon was flying out of the Watertown airport headed to Tea when the engine "started sounding rough." He declared an emergency and landed back at the airport. It was later found that one of the distributor coils in the right magneto, a part that's essentially a generator that powers the engine, was loose.

It's a minor problem, one that Brandon said he probably would not have thought much of at the time if he knew what it was.

"It's just one of those things where you don't want to take a risk; you just want to get down on the ground," he said.

After flying to 20 airports, Brandon will receive a "bronze level" award, and after 40, "silver level" award. At each level, he also has to take a set of safety seminars and visit air museums.

The mother-and-son team rent the planes they fly from the Civil Air Patrol and airports, paying for fuel and maintenance out of their own pockets. They plan to reach the silver level before Brandon leaves to attend college at the University of Minnesota.

Brandon's end goal is to get a doctorate in nursing, but he plans to stay in aviation and would like a part-time career of either corporate or charter flying. He eventually wants to become a certified flight instructor.

"I absolutely love it," he said.

Malachi Petersen