The number of pilots in the United States is decreasing. Pretty much anyone who flies is aware of this unfortunate fact. Consider the irony: Although aviation is more ubiquitous than ever and the overall population of the nation is increasing, the number of us who have a valid pilot’s certificate is actually diminishing.
In my little corner of the world, and by corner of the world I mean, this big ol’ sandbar that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean, there is a program intended to reverse that trend. I’m particulary enamored of and tremendously excited about the mission they’ve set themselves on, as well as the success they’re having.
Yes, actual success. They really are making a profound difference that extends well past the cockpit.
Before I go any further, let me offer a tip of the hat to a man of significant importance to this story: James Ray.
It was his vision that put these programs in place. It was his tenacity that pushed them from a mere concept to being fully realized.
Mr. Ray did what so few of us even attempt: He dreamed big, worked hard, and brought life to a quest that was considered to be nearly impossible. In short, James Ray’s dream of engaging and encouraging young people to fly has become the realization of the American dream for many.
Currently, the count is 30. Yes, there are 30 young men and women flying today thanks to the partnerships entered into by James Ray, the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, the Lakeland Aero Club, and SUN ’n FUN.
It’s probably worth mentioning too, they’re just getting started. Thirty isn’t the number of pilots they’ll produce in the end. It’s the count right now.
Next year it will be higher. Each subsequent year will see increasing numbers of pilots coming out of this program.
And make no mistake, this isn’t a program designed to serve the most affluent among us, or high academic performers to the exclusion of others. No, not at all. This program is designed to share the allure and the benefits of aerospace careers with young people who are dreaming of a future they can’t fully conceptualize as of yet. It reaches out and tempts them with the potential they might have within them, and then shows them a way to set the bar high and achieve the goals they’ve established for themselves.
This most recent success was a two-fold win. Donovan Richards is 17 years old. He earned his private pilot certificate this summer thanks to his hard work and the availability of the James Ray/CFAA/Lakeland Aero Club/SUN ’n FUN partnership. He took his check ride in a classic taildragger operated by his flying club. The Taylorcraft he flew was built in 1939. This particular aircraft is not only flown by teenagers who are reaching for the stars, it’s maintained by their fellow high school students who are also members of the Lakeland Aero Club.
This bunch isn’t just creating pilots. They’re building better citizens, smarter people, and launching young adults into the world with a solid background in engineering, electronics, and a wide range of other applicable insights that will improve their educational and employment options considerably.
John ‘Lites’ Leenhouts, CEO of SUN ’n FUN, puts the partnership’s methods and goals succinctly. “Everybody’s in this together,” he says. “We want them [high school students] to be successful.”
And that commitment shows. Lites, like the other members of the team, often refer to themselves collectively, making it clear that although they are personally committed to the task at hand, it’s the partnership that really makes it work so well.
“We want to be an inspiration to others,” says Lites. And he means it.
That may be the most important message of all. The success of this program is not tied up in Donovan Richards’ accomplishment, or that of his peers. Rather, it is the proof-of-concept the partnership represents, and the appealingly unselfish stance the partners take when discussing what they’ve done so well.
“This can be done,” Lites acknowledges, “but it takes a group. If you come together collectively there’s enough manpower and finanical support to be successful.”
How successful? When I started writing this column program officials had been shouting from the rooftops that their 30th student had just earned his private pilot certificate. Now, as I wrap it up, that number has increased to 31.
Yep, partnerships work. Flying clubs offer opportunities that wouldn’t exist without them. Mentorship of high school students can pay remarkable dividends, both in the short and long term.
High school can be a place where students do more than sleepwalk through classes made up of exercises for which they see no practical application. And there will be more pilots, mechanics, engineers, and administrators coming into the system each and every year thanks to those who feel the call and make the effort.
The magic number was 30. Now it’s 31. Who knows what it will be by the time the next class of CFAA seniors graduate?
Now, just imagine what the impact might be if a substantially similar partnership of individuals and corporate entities came together in your neighborhood. What if every club or chapter or association on every airport in America produced just one new pilot each year. Can you imagine what the long-term benefit of that might be?
Let’s commit to making that happen, shall we. After all, we’ve got a pretty good roadmap to base our efforts on. All we have to do is start. And tomorrow is a brand new day.