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  1. Headline
Image: Robert Wilson Pinksten
Courtesy Robert Wilson Pinksten
“It’s surprising!” 15-year-old Robert Pinksten said of the people who donated money toward his flight lessons. “I didn’t think people cared. I certainly want to thank them.”
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 6/29/2012 12:59:12 PM ET 2012-06-29T16:59:12

On Monday, Robert Wilson Pinksten of Nashua, N.H., will do two things: 1) turn 16; 2) become the youngest helicopter pilot in the United States.

To clarify: Pinksten isn’t the first person ever to fly solo in a helicopter on his 16th birthday. Just last February, Austin Bowa of Northern California marked his 16th birthday the same way, and other 16-year-olds have taken whirlybirds for spins on their own over the years.

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But on Monday, weather permitting, Pinksten will technically be the youngest solo helicopter pilot in the skies — at least until the next whippersnapper flight enthusiast comes along. And he wouldn’t have reached his goal without the generosity of a whole bunch of strangers.

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Flight lessons are expensive — $275 for an hour with an instructor — and Pinksten had to come up with a way to pay for them. His grandmother lent him some money, but it didn’t quite cover the costs, so he started a donation page on GoFundMe.com where he outlined his high-flying dreams. To his astonishment, he racked up $3,500 in donations from friends, acquaintances and a slew of supportive strangers.

“It’s surprising!” said Pinksten, who just completed his sophomore year at Nashua High School North. “I didn’t think people cared. I certainly want to thank them.”

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Pinksten got excited about the prospect of becoming a helicopter pilot during a school project in his social studies class last fall. He had to do a job shadow where he spent time with someone in the workforce.

His mother works in the aircraft insurance business, and she put her son in contact with Bob Cloutier, president of C-R Helicopters in Nashua. Pinksten got to spend about an hour and a half in a four-seater helicopter that day, and he was hooked.

“I loved it,” Pinksten recalled. “I knew it was something I wanted to do.”

Image: Robert Wilson Pinksten's point of view while flying a helicopter
Courtesy Robert Wilson Pinksten
Rebert Pinksten has been posting point-of-view videos and updates about his flying lessons on his blog at CopterBoy.com

Federal Aviation Administration rules dictate that pilots must be at least 16 years old to fly solo without a flight instructor, and at least 17 to get a private pilot’s license. Pinksten said he needs to spend 40 hours up in the air to qualify for his license — 30 with an instructor and 10 solo. On Monday, he’ll start chipping away at that 10-hour requirement by spending about half an hour flying on his own in a Robinson R22 copter.

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“I’ll probably do some hovering and an approach,” he said, noting that his instructor has been preparing him for his solo flight by practicing engine failures and teaching him about emergency procedures.

“It can be pretty scary!” he said of the fast falls in the air. “But, you know, a helicopter is relatively safe compared with public perception.”

Story: Whiz kids: These 11 small fry have giant talents

Pinksten plans to start in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in September and join the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot when he graduates from high school in 2014. As evidence of the profound effect the job-shadow school project had on him, Pinksten said his career goal is to become a pilot and flight instructor at C-R Helicopters after completing his military service.

Cloutier, president of C-R Helicopters, is thrilled that the job shadow was such a hit.

“Robert is quiet but a very driven 16-year-old — listens well, loves what he is doing, takes in all the information he can and retains it as well,” Cloutier said. “Gives me hope for our young teenagers not stuck to a TV or computer.”

Pinksten’s flight instructor, Adam Baldwin, agreed.

“He will save many lives as a professional helicopter pilot,” Baldwin said.

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In addition to needing 10 hours of solo flying time, Pinksten also needs another 10 hours of dual flight time with Baldwin. He’s been posting point-of-view videos and updates about his flying lessons on his blog at CopterBoy.com and on his donation page, and he said he’s grateful that the kindness of strangers has helped him get this far.

“This has changed my entire life,” he said.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Mensa kid proves even a genius tot is still a tot

Explainer: Whiz kids: These 11 small fry have big talents

  • TODAY

    Mozart started plunking out chords on the family clavier at the age of 3, and was composing by the time he was 5. Too bad little Wolfgang was born a couple of centuries too soon to show off his chops in a TV competition, or even on TODAY — but plenty of other talented tykes display similarly prodigious skills today, in everything from music (like Clara Tu, right, tickling the ivories at the tender age of 6) to sports to amazing feats of mental prowess.

    How amazing, you inquire? We’re glad you asked. Click on the word "next" at left, or click on "Show more items" and keep scrolling down.

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    Elizabeth Barrett was only 17 months old when she wowed the nation in March 2008 by reading sheets of paper held up by TODAY’s Ann Curry. Unrehearsed but unhesitant, the tot clearly enunciated such words and phrases as “flower,” “kangaroo,” “take a bath,” “nice to meet you” and “Good morning, Ann.”

    It may have helped that little Elizabeth’s parents, Katy and Michael Barrett of Lubbock, Texas, are both speech pathologists who taught their daughter sign language right along with how to talk. Still, they were both astonished when, at 13 months, Elizabeth read aloud the word “corn” off a cereal box in the supermarket — especially because there was no picture of corn next to it. “I think she has some special abilities,” Michael told Curry.

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    Eric Clapton picked up the guitar at age 13, whereas Jimi Hendrix waited until he was 15. But Tallinn La started strumming at 4 — and by age 9, he was playing licks so hot that even blues legend Buddy Guy called him “amazing.”

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    He was so overcome, wife Tiffany told Holt, that he had trouble telling her what had happened and had to hand the phone to little Nolan. “Mom, I just got a hole-in-one,” the boy told her. “And Daddy's crying.”

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    “That's when I move his tee boxes back,” Haynes replied.

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    Afterward, the administrators were telling his dad something else — that Moshe needed to be taking advanced mathematics. So when Moshe visited TODAY at age 10, he had just completed his second year at East Los Angeles College, a community college.

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    He declined Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn, Cornell, Georgetown, Stanford and New York University in favor of — who else? — Harvard.

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    BNPS.co.uk
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    Bob Watts of the Dorset Orthopaedic company, a renowned developer of prosthetics, was so impressed with Leo’s gift for golf that he came up with a gift of his own — a golf prosthetic free of charge. The silicone sleeve around Leo’s right wrist enables him to insert any golf club into a handle holder that rotates 90 degrees as he swings. The result: Leo quickly doubled his drive distance to 200 yards.

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    Aside from her angelic voice, the youngster from Villejo, Calif., plays lead guitar, bass and drums as well as piano. At 9, she was opening for band like the Ohio Players. At 10, she played the legendary Apollo in New York.

    Gabi came by her prodigious talent naturally: Her father was a teen-age music prodigy who grew up to lead his own band. “When I was still in my mom’s stomach, my dad and his band used to practice in the living room and I’d hear a lot,” Gabi explained as her parents smiled off-camera.

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    And less than six years later, he was still on one set up outside the TODAY studio to demonstrate a tennis game better than most adults play, including topspin forehands, overhead smashes, and a killer one-handed backhand — all with an adult-size racket nearly as big as himself.

    Jan’s talent is so staggering that his whole family moved to France so he could attend Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, at the academy’s expense. Still, he's only 5: Occasionally, he has to be bribed with ice cream to practice.

    Don’t worry, Meredith Vieira told Jan: “You’ll get ice cream today after this.”

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    After earning an M.S. and a Ph.D., she was hired as a professor at Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea. She was three days short of 19 — making her the youngest college professor in history, according to Guinness World Records.

    When she appeared on TODAY, Sabur hadn’t started her Korea gig yet, but she had been teaching some math and physics at Southern University in New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “I thought it could be something I do to help,” she told Ann Curry. But though she was old enough to teach in the Big Easy, she was too young to drink in any of its many bars.

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Photos: Meet 'Mini Monet'

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  1. Meet 'Mini Monet'

    Kieron Williamson, who just turned 8, is drawing collectors from as far as New York City and South Africa to his little British town of Holt. An exhibition of his paintings fetched the equivalent of $235,804 in under 30 minutes. London's Daily Mail dubbed him "Mini Monet." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Wending water

    This pastel by Kieron Williamson is titled "Morston Buoys." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cloudy view

    Young Kieron Williamson is particularly attracted to landscapes of his native Norfolk, England. (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tide of talent

    This pastel by Kieron Williamson is titled "Morston Low Tide." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. "Wherry at Dusk"

    Another pastel by Kieron Williamson, whose parents say was inspired to start creating landscapes at age 5 during a family vacation. (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. "St. Benet's Abbey"

    "We have no garden or outside space," said young artist Kieron Williamson's mother, Michelle. "Perhaps he's had to create his own scenery." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. "City Temple, London"

    Kieron Williamson told the London Daily Mail: “I like painting because it’s fun and inspiring. It makes me think of places I can’t see.” (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (7) Meet ‘Mini Monet’
  2. Fame Pictures
    Slideshow (17) Pint-size prodigy’s paintings sell for $250,000

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