At 21 years old, Toby Rice has built a lifestyle and career that many people twice his age would envy.

He’s a pilot and owns a plane, so he gets to experience the exhilaration and freedom of flying. He’s also a flight instructor, which brings him the joys of helping other people reach new heights.

And now he’s a businessman, the cofounder and majority owner of Wingman Flight Academy at Dickson County Municipal Airport.

So how has he put his life together like this when he’s barely old enough to buy a beer?

Maybe flying is in his DNA, as both of his grandfathers were pilots and he took his first flying lessons from a cousin.

In any case, it all began with realizing as a young child that he wanted to live and work in the world of aviation.

“Not everyone can say they always knew what they wanted to do,” he said in a recent interview at the Dickson County airport.

After understanding the goal, the key was then to maintain focus, putting in the work. He first flew solo at age 16 and earned his license at 17.

He was giving flying lessons at the local airport on a freelance basis before he and Gentry Allen, 28, founded Wingman last month. Allen, who like Rice was raised in Dickson County, is a healthcare executive. The two met when Allen — now an aviator himself — inquired about flying lessons.

Wingman has a website and a Facebook page. The company also issued a press release with the headline “Learn to Fly in Dickson!”

The amount of time it takes to pass the test to get a private pilot’s license varies by student, according to Rice and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA website says a minimum of 40 hours of flight time is required, which can be reduced in some cases to 35 hours. However, most people need 60 to 75 hours of in-flight training, so the minimum rarely comes into play, the FAA says.

Rice agreed, estimating most people need an average of 70 hours training in the sky before they’re able to pass the test.

Plus, there are rules and regulations that students must learn, so for that there are instructional videos that have largely taken the place of reading materials, Rice said.

Rice estimated that the non-flight learning time exceeds the in-air training by a 2-to-1 ratio. Altogether the learning process indeed takes time, Rice said -- but he emphasized that it’s not difficult.

“I can swear on a stack of Bibles that none of this is hard,” he said. “But there is a lot of it.”

Although becoming a pilot requires commitment, Rice said, the rewards are immense and aren’t limited to aviation.

For one thing, he said, earning a pilot’s license increases people’s confidence across the board in life.

“Learning to fly always boosts it,” he said. “You find out things about yourself that you didn’t know.”

He added: “Your situational awareness goes through the roof. You learn to think on your feet.”

Also, many people might not be interested in learning about science from a textbook if they don’t see how it applies to them, but in learning to fly they grasp principles of physics and enjoy the education, Rice said.

That’s largely how it was for him, a homeschooled student and the oldest of nine children.

“I enjoy information I can use,” he said. “I like practical knowledge. Being a pilot opens up your life to how stuff works.”

Of course, some rewards of becoming a pilot are more obvious: Soaring in the skies, perhaps with a few friends or family members; arriving at destinations a lot faster than by driving; skipping the hassles of commercial flights.

“There’s not much about it that is not cool,” Rice said with his usual smile.

Rice’s other cool interests include playing bluegrass music. He plays the fiddle, guitar and mandolin.

Rice said he’s considering other aviation careers in the future, like flying cargo jets for FedEx and UPS, or maybe commercial passenger jets.

Another area of intrigue is flying private jets, whisking around business tycoons, celebrities and other wealthy passengers.

Or maybe he’ll become a helicopter pilot and then proceed to teach people how to fly those.

With what he’s accomplished so far at his age, maybe he’ll do all those things and more.

But in the meantime, he’s all in on his current job and he has a message for Dickson County.

“Flying is achievable,” he said. “You can become a pilot.”

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