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What did you get for your 18th birthday? For me, it was a set of golf clubs. Unfortunately, there were no instructions.

Leighton Rutherford is on track to receive his private pilot’s license on or near May 22, the day he turns 18. His “present” comes with plenty of instruction.

That is good news for Rutherford and any aspiring pilot. It is great news for Marlene Rutherford, who is still a bit squeamish about all of this.

“My dad (Shane) is OK with it. He thinks it’s pretty cool,” Rutherford said. “My mom is a little skeptical about my flying.”

It’s understandable. Moms champion their children’s best interests, fret over potential threats to their well-being. We love them for it.

But here’s the issue. Rutherford, a senior catcher/first baseman on Olympia High School’s baseball team, loves flying. He learned that last summer after riding in a two-seater plane owned and operated by a neighbor in rural McLean.

Rutherford rode multiple times and quickly was hooked.

“I had flown on bigger planes on vacation. But going up with him and him telling me all these things, it was pretty cool,” Rutherford said. “Actually flying around, looking at where I live and seeing things from a whole different perspective was cool.”

About the same time, Rutherford saw a television report detailing a need for commercial pilots. Now he wants to be one.

The first step was pursuing a private pilot’s license, which Rutherford has done this semester. Having completed nearly all of the required coursework to graduate from Olympia, he goes to school in the morning and heads to Bloomington’s Synergy Flight Center for training in the afternoon.

He has attended classes and spent numerous hours in a simulator. He recently passed a Federal Aviation Administration exam. He has been flying with an instructor at his side for about a month, with 11 hours in the air so far. Soon, he will have his first solo flight.

“I’m very excited about that,” Rutherford said. “It’s going to be nerve racking, but it’s going to be really cool.”

Probably best to tell Mom after the fact.

Rutherford has performed takeoffs and landings. He also has worked on emergency procedures with guidance from the instructor.

One involved shutting off the engine in mid-flight and practicing how to manage an engine failure.

“We did that around here,” Rutherford said from the press box at Olympia’s baseball field. “I had to pick a point where I wanted to land. My point to land was on Olympia Road. We swirled around and acted like we were going to land right there … but we didn’t land.”

It is part of a process that demands discipline and a level of mental toughness. Rutherford has grown up on a farm. He is no stranger to hard work. He used to play hockey. He fills a leadership role on the baseball team.

Olympia coach Mark Finchum describes him as “kind of a quiet guy,” but one who is “not afraid to call you out if that’s what you need.”

“He’s the kind of kid who even at 18 years old, I’d trust him,” Finchum said. “If he said, ‘Hey, let’s take a ride,’ I’d say, ‘OK.’ That’s just who he is. He has the mental strength to handle those situations.”

It’s quite an endorsement for a guy whose flying career is in its infancy. Rutherford will study aviation at Lewis University, where he hopes to make the baseball team as a walk-on.

It is no coincidence Lewis’ athletic teams are known as the Flyers. It has a highly respected aviation program that Rutherford considers a perfect fit.

He seeks to learn and grow as a pilot while chasing his dream of flying for a commercial airline.

Look what it’s done for him already.

“With aviation there’s a lot of communication in talking with control towers and stuff,” Rutherford said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at talking to other people.”

There’s also this:

“Aviation makes you feel a little bit like a leader,” he said. “You’re all by yourself and doing everything by yourself. I feel so much smarter after doing this. I feel like a whole new person.”

Count that as the real gift in all of this.

It beats golf clubs.

Contact Randy Kindred at (309) 820-3402. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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