On The Road: Flying Solo at the Age of 12

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By Annette Hinkle

Last Wednesday, my husband and daughter drove to Newark Airport to pick up a summer visitor — 14-year-old Annika from Berlin who is staying with us for the month of July.

We’ve never met Annika, so my daughter, Sophie, made a big sign with her name on it and held it up at the spot where international passengers exit after clearing customs. The plan went off without a hitch and Annika has settled nicely into summer life on the East End.

This is Annika’s first visit to the U.S. and she comes to us via Homelink.org, the home exchange website we use every summer to find places to stay abroad. There is a “hospitality” exchange option on the website, which basically means, “if you host our kid, we’ll host yours,” and over the winter Annika’s mother emailed us asking if she might come here to improve her English. Though our summer plans were set and we knew Sophie wouldn’t be going to Berlin, we thought it would be fun to play host family. So after a quick Skype call a few months back, the details were set and Annika was on her way.

A lot people we’ve run into in recent days are shocked that parents would allow their 14-year-old to fly alone to a foreign country she’s never been to where she’ll stay with a family she’s never met. While I suspect Europeans are a little more casual about this kind of thing, I also think a lot of it depends on the child. For example, at this point Sophie, who is also 14, rejects any notion of flying anywhere alone, let alone Europe, to stay with people she doesn’t know.

But Annika is an entirely different breed. Self-possessed and adventurous, she loves air travel and big ocean waves, as we’ve come to realize after a week of watching her dive in the surf like a dolphin. She also has no fear of traveling alone and in that, I understand her completely.

When I was 12 years old, I went on my very first airplane ride — and I flew alone. It was a trip from Dayton, Ohio, where we lived, to New York City where my big sister, who was 10 years older, had taken a job with American Airlines. I was going there to spend Thanksgiving weekend with her.

I’m still surprised that my parents would put me on my very first plane ride alone. But I was always one of those kids who wanted to be taken seriously and in my mind, flying solo was part of being a grown up.

So naturally, I was thrilled.

While the flight to New York was exciting, I can’t say it was eventful. It was dark and I didn’t have a window seat, so I wasn’t sure what was going on out there, though I do remember the impressive city lights as we banked sharply to come in for a landing at LaGuardia.

But for me, the real fun came on the flight home. It was a night flight out of New York in the midst of a major snow storm and I convinced the man sitting next to me to let me have the window seat so I could see the action outside.

For some inexplicable reason, the airline had seated me in the very last row of the plane. This was back when it was still legal to smoke on commercial jets and the smoking section was always in the back. So there I was, a 12 year old nonsmoker sitting in a cloudy haze surrounded by all these chain smoking adults.

This is something that strikes me as so politically incorrect now that it makes my head spin. But at age 12, I was in my element. I struck up a conversation with the man next to me and his two friends across the aisle and they started asking me questions. I call them “men,” but in hindsight, they were probably no more than 25 or so.

Naturally, I had plenty to say. I told them it was my first plane trip, that I had been to New York to visit my 22-year-old sister (for some reason they wanted to know all about her) and that we had eaten bagels and cream cheese for Thanksgiving dinner in her studio apartment. These guys were nice and we had a great time. It felt odd to be on my own like that and despite my young age, I was able to make them laugh and they seemed to genuinely enjoy my company.

I also noticed they were getting a lot of those little airplane bottles filled with booze. It was a bumpy ride with snow and even lightening, so I was having a blast even without the booze or the cigarettes. But I was fascinated by those little bottles, having never seen them before, and I thought they’d make great souvenirs for my friends.

When I told the guys that, they quickly handed me all the bottles they had, several of which were still full. Then they asked the flight attendant if I could have a few more. She happily obliged by bringing back a garbage bag full of mini-liquor bottles (including lots more unopened ones) and handed it to me.

When we landed in Dayton and got off the plane, I proudly walked through the door of our gate with my garbage bag full of booze bottles, reeking of cigarette smoke and surrounded by a group of men twice my age who were laughing and telling jokes.

To this day, I still can’t imagine what was going through my parents minds when they saw that scene.

But I know what I was thinking … I had arrived.

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