By BILL WALKER
Retired Marine Col. Jack Howell’s longtime interest in aviation and his wish to assist the children of military members wounded or killed in action provided the inspiration for creating the aviation foundation Teens-In-Flight.
“We give flight instruction to the children of these service members,” Howell said. “Twenty-eight youth in two Florida locations and another student in Colorado are currently receiving free flying instruction thanks to our organization.”
Howell said the idea of doing more to help these children came up many times during his 25-year-Marine career when he was called upon to serve as a casualty assistance officer, often bringing tragic news of the loss of a family member to survivors.
“Even after I had done everything that was required under the regulations, I felt that more needed to be done for the children,” said Howell, who has an exhibit in this year’s SUN ’n FUN aircraft display area.
“When I retired from active duty in 1990 I began teaching Junior ROTC in high schools,” he said.
His most memorable assignment was 10 years at Jean Ribault High in Jacksonville. He reorganized the training and incorporated elements of a school aviation program with the JROTC training, he said. While he was mentoring students at Ribault, the idea of Teens-In-Flight began to take its final outline.
Howell, who is a pilot and gives introductory flights in his Cessna 150, is supported by local flight schools and uses local flight instructors for the training.
“Our kids pay nothing,” he said. “We just do fundraisers. I’m always out scrounging. I also teach online at two universities and I donate my salary from one university to the program.” Last year that amounted to $15,000 of his own money, Howell said.
“Initially the focus was strictly to provide support to those kids whose parents were killed or wounded in action,” he said. “Later we found that we also needed to include the siblings of service members killed or wounded in action.”
He said about 50 teens have gone through the program since it began in 2008.
“Now, they all did not get their private pilot’s license,” he said. “But I’ve had several that have got their license. And a 100% of the kids that are seniors in my program go to college. They go to West Point, the Naval Academy…I’ve got a slew of them down at Embry-Riddle — I could almost start a platoon there.”
The rules for getting into the program are stringent. Requisites begin with a 1,000-word essay on “Why I want to Fly.” Students must hold a 2.5 GPA or higher, go through an oral interview, pass drug screening, and have a recommendation from a school administrator.
He said the program at Colorado Springs currently has a single student, and that the program at Fort Hood, Texas, will be restarted when he finds a new flight school. “In Florida we have 16 students at Palm Coast and 12 in Jacksonville,” he said.
Can Teens-N-Flight make a difference in the lives of youngsters? “Yes, I got a kid right now,” he said. “He was an at-risk student. This program has turned him around. I’ve got other kids who just didn’t believe in themselves at all. Teens-In-Flight has helped them believe.”