Alex Vanover started racing drones as a teenager. Today, the 2019 Drone Racing League (DRL) Champion, flies professionally. When he’s not competing across real-life, esports, and metaverse drone racing events, Vanover can be found filming immersive FPV footage for Michael Bay films, Justin Bieber music videos, and other A-list celebrities. He credits his mother, Cathy Vanover, as his biggest advocate. So, this Mother’s Day, we talked to Cathy to understand how she nurtured a sporting prodigy.
Hailing from Texas, Alex first became interested in aviation around the age of eight. This is when his mom bought him a flight simulator. “At first, he crashed and crashed and crashed,” Cathy recalls. “But it wasn’t long before he was on the simulator setting up commercial aircraft for transatlantic flights. He would take off before bedtime, set it to auto-pilot, and go to sleep, then wake up in the morning to land somewhere in Europe.”
Meanwhile, Alex’s first real airplane ride was at a private airport in Roanoke – the same place where he now resides with his mother. Charlie Yates, his first flight instructor, took Alex up in a Cessna 172 and told Cathy her son was a natural.
“Mind you, Alex could not even reach the rudder pedals, nor could he see over the control panel,” Cathy says with a laugh. “He flew his first flight for the most part on instruments, something he had learned to do in the flight simulator. Stacking cushions solved the problem for future VFR (visual flight reference) flights but he still had to ask his instructor to provide rudder inputs until he grew tall enough to reach the rudder pedals.”
It soon became apparent that it would be cheaper to own an airplane than to keep renting one. So, Cathy, who has been a professional photographer for the last 25 years and a full-time high school Spanish teacher for the last 13, bought a Cherokee 180 with a few partners to share the expenses. She also bought an airplane hangar and built an apartment around it.
“There are many that would think that Alex had it easy, but I worked two jobs to afford these opportunities for him,” Cathy explains, adding that she has worked 50 or more hours every week (except summers) for nearly all of Alex’s life.
The boy was naturally inspired to work hard too – mowing, climbing into small spaces to help airport mechanics, sweeping out hangars… doing anything that would earn him an airplane ride.
Every summer, the duo would travel to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and camp out next to the HobbyTown where Alex had bought his first model airplane. Cathy says:
I would wake up at 7 a.m. to find Alex had disappeared from his tent. From the age of 12, he would show up at the HobbyTown booth to break down boxes and help in any way just so he could be around the model aircraft. By 13, he was running the simulator in the booth and at 14, he had a HobbyTown shirt with his name and was coined “the kid expert.”
When Alex turned 15, Cathy earned herself a private pilot certificate. She put that certificate to good use by planning an ultimate mom and son trip, tracing the path followed by Cherokees to Oshkosh flying group. From there, things began to take shape pretty rapidly for Alex.
“One day, Alex showed me some video from a drone competition in New York and flat out told me that he wanted to fly drones and fly in DRL and be a champion,” Cathy tells. “So, he ordered the parts, built his first 5-inch drone, and we trudged through the mud to his first grassroots race where it was a struggle for him to get through the first gate due to equipment malfunctions and nerves. There, he met mentors, who taught him to build drones and ferried him to races.”
Cathy says she finds the sheer speed and movements of racing drones to be mesmerizing.
I was almost always available to take him to the races and enjoyed taking my camera and photographing the event. I would also charge batteries as needed, but mostly allowed him to focus on his race.
By 16, Alex was actively flying drones. At 17, he moved from being an “OK” pilot to completely transforming himself into a world-class pilot in one summer. It was that fall that Alex won the MultiGP National Championships (earning a spot in the DRL) and the rest is pretty much history.
“When Alex got his Drone Racing League contract, he watched every race of the past couple of seasons and studied the strengths and weaknesses of each pilot,” Cathy reveals. “He flew 100 batteries a day to prepare for his first season. He went into that history breaking-season knowing how to win and with the practice to back it up.”
Cathy says watching Alex excel at his passion has been the biggest gift she could have ever asked for.
Every child has an innate talent for something. It is our job as parents to provide opportunities for them to have experiences that introduce them to the world around them and guide them in the ways of their natural talents.