On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, Connor Golden stood with his father, James Golden, outside the family's Bethpage home and watched military jets streaking across the sky toward Manhattan.
Connor was 3, and his mother, Nassau County Police Officer Patty Golden, had responded to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
James Golden was nervous, but he didn't want his youngest son to feel that way, so he pointed at the planes and said, "Your mom's going to Ground Zero and that plane is going to protect her while she's there."More storiesNewsday's coverage of September 11, 2001See alsoList of Sept. 11 victims
Fourteen years to the day, Connor passed the written portion of his pilot's license exam. A week after that, he aced the flying test, making him one of about 3,500 fully licensed private plane pilots under the age of 20 in the United States, according to 2014 Federal Aviation Administration data, the most recent available.
Connor, now 17, dreams of admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy. While many of his Bethpage High School classmates have spent spare time at sports practices or hanging out with friends, he has spent his in the air above Long Island.
"I always wanted to go into the military and serve my country, and flying was a very good outlet for that," he said. "It's just the idea that you're free up there."
Sunday afternoon, the sky was clear and the temperatures were warm. The Golden family gathered at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale for a 1 p.m. appointment -- a special reservation Connor made to fly for the first time with a passenger: his mother.
Patty Golden, 54, insisted she wasn't nervous. She stood in the reception area of the Academy of Aviation office at the airport, looking at the deep blue carpet and black leather couch that had become so familiar to her over the years.
"I would drive here and sit here and wait until he was done with his flight and read those magazines," she said, motioning to a coffee table with a stack of glossy trade publications.
Connor strode onto the tarmac with her, a blue and white Air Force Academy lanyard dangling from the pocket of his khaki pants, saying he felt confident about the flight. He planned to take his mother over the Northport area.
His parents describe him as a good kid, and he has the resume to match -- president of his high school class for four years and active in the philosophy club and the ethics team. He's a familiar leader to other students, social studies teacher and philosophy club adviser Wendy Way said.
"He said he wanted to go into politics and I laughed. I think we're kind of jaded about politics because we know how politicians are," Way said. "He's the total opposite of how politicians today are."
His parents said he is soft-spoken but eloquent when he talks about his passions -- flying and philosophy.
"You see everything up there and you realize what it all truly means," he said. "People stay very ignorant of what's around them . . . it's opening your eyes."
Connor wanted to be a pilot since the day his dad pointed out the planes. He liked G.I. Joes and toy planes when he was young, and at age 13 he began asking to take lessons.
"I thought, 'Let him fly,' " said James Golden, 54, a retired consultant. "Maybe he won't like it and that will be the end of it."
Connor couldn't get enough. He went to weekly lessons twice a week, aiming to be ready for the pilot's license exam when he turned 17. He quit the football team and stopped playing lacrosse. He scaled back on flying time only to study for his Advanced Placement exams when he was 16, just after completing his first solo flight.
His father said he is confident in Connor's ability, though sometimes he still pulls up the air traffic frequency network on his computer so he can listen to his son communicate with air traffic controllers.
"I trust him fully," James Golden said, adding: "We always joke that when the zombie apocalypse comes, we'll jump the fence and hot-wire a plane and get out of here."
Fortunately, there wasn't that sort of pressure Sunday during Connor's flight over the North Shore with his mom.
"She was a little nervous at first. She wouldn't tell me, but you could tell by her face," Connor said, adding that he, too, wanted to ensure everything went well. "It's a little nerve-wracking that I had precious cargo."
Patty Golden was impressed by her son's flying skills and the spectacular views aloft.
"He flew well," she said. "It was beautiful."