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Connor McKinlay: Meet the Lowcountry’s youngest pilot

Connor McKinlay

By the time he was 4, Connor McKinlay was steering his mom’s boat up Skull Creek and able to maneuver his way down the May River to the sandbar. It looked like he would be following his mom’s path to a boat captain license.

But as much as he loves the water, he is mesmerized by the sky. At just 9 years old, Connor is flying propeller planes as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program.

“As a baby, it was clear he loved planes,” said his mom, Christine Sullivan. “We would sit outside on the bench staring at the private plane field at Hilton Head Island Airport. He’d watch them takeoff and land, takeoff and land. The pilots took a liking to him. They’d see Connor waving and they’d do doughnuts or come talk to him and invite him inside to see their planes.”

His love turned into passion thanks to a layover in Atlanta during a family vacation to Walt Disney World two years ago.

“The Delta pilot was saying hello to everyone and he saw Connor playing with his plane toys,” Sullivan said. “The pilot commented on the toys but Connor told him what kind of planes they were and what model plane we would be flying in.”

The pilot invited Connor to see the cockpit and told his crew all the information the then-7-year-old knew about the plane.

“It was so cool,” Connor said of the experience. “I knew I wanted to do more of that.”

Sullivan said Connor began watching anything about planes he could find. He watched documentaries about plane crashes and told his mom, “You have got to always pay attention to your instruments.”

He began studying turbine engines when he was 8 and can tell you exactly how they work. He flies simulators in video games, but the real experience was what he craved.

He got the chance to make his dream a reality when Sullivan began networking with the close-knit island pilot community. Her inquiries led her to pilot J.T. Willingham, who was so impressed with Connor’s knowledge that he offered to give him his first flying lesson.

“My friends say, ‘No way, you don’t fly planes,’ and I just smile and say, ‘Yeah, I do,’” Connor said of his pilot-in-training status.

He has taken six lessons thus far as part of the EAA Young Eagles program in Walterboro. He is now able to take control while in flight and has practiced landings. He can’t fly solo or navigate a takeoff until he’s 16, but rain or shine, Connor is soaking up every bit of information about flying he can find.

“He loves the ground lessons just as much because he learns all about pre-flight checks, checking oil and flaps, instruments and how to navigate when taxiing,” Sullivan said. “He’s all smiles, no matter the weather.”

And he’s learning with teenagers, some twice his age.

Connor is more challenged by the new braces on his teeth than the lessons. He loves the Concorde, but also loves jumbo jets because of the engineering, he said.

He even plans to design his own plane one day.

“I’m still figuring out what kind of plane,” he said. “I have a couple of designs in my head.”