When I was a kid, I had big dreams. Really big dreams. If you’re the kind of person who regularly reads General Aviation News, you probably did too.
For years I thought I might play in the NFL. That was until I played freshman football in high school. At a diminutive 4’ 11” and well short of 100 pounds, I learned a hard lesson in the importance of being flexible in my long term planning.
My fallback plan was to become something akin to Paul McCartney. He was successful. He was popular. He played guitar. I figured I could do all that, too. And I did. Not nearly as well or for as long. Plus, I lost my hair and gained weight.
So, on to the next thing. For me, aviation came into the picture late. But I found it, and it found me, and we’ve been happy together for a few decades now.
That’s a win in my book.
Last week I spent some time at the Bill Duncan Opportunity Center in Lakeland, Florida. I’d been invited to meet and speak to students about aerospace careers and what it takes to be eligible to fill those positions.
In this part of the world, that’s not an unusual conversation. In fact, just a few miles away sits the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a public high school that boasts a 100% graduation rate, stellar academic resources, and four unique aerospace tracks to follow, including the option to become a pilot.
If the Central Florida Aerospace Academy is one end of the spectrum for dreamers and doers, Bill Duncan represents the other end of the scale. Nobody at Bill Duncan wants to be there. They attend because every other school available to them has pitched them out or barred access to them. This is not a group of entirely lost kids, but they’re close, and far too many of them won’t make it to adulthood without paying a heavy price.
The kids I met at Bill Duncan have dreams too, just like you and I did. Just like the kids at CFAA do. But they’re aiming a bit lower on the professional ladder. Much lower, in fact. One student hopes to either mow lawns or detail cars for a living. Another dreams that someday he might work his way into a job at the local supermarket warehouse.
Minimum wage labor is the most ambitious position they can see for themselves.
These kids are smart. They’re capable. They can adapt to difficult situations and persevere when the going gets tough. But they’re also scared of anything that exists outside their very narrow life experience. And much of their life experience involves poverty, violence, and a future that virtually guarantees incarceration in a county or state institution.
The life they lead is entirely foreign to yours and mine, and vice versa. Yet, it doesn’t have to be. We can help bring them into the mainstream and into aviation for the mutual benefit of all concerned.
Folks like you and me can lead them in the direction to a brighter future, one that will bring them a modicum of personal pride, upward mobility, and an income that will lift them out of their current day-to-day situation.
Aviation has a long history of turning farm kids into Buck Rogers. It’s transformed city toughs into engineering marvels, and given even the most back-woods hick a peek over the horizon at a world that’s larger and more accessible than they ever imagined.
That kid who hoped to one day mow lawns, he could be enticed to learn small engine repair. It would be relatively inexpensive to establish that program and get him and his peers involved. From there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to larger, more complex machines. The difference between turning a wrench on a Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine or a Lycoming O-360 can be measured in education, training, and quite a few extra dollars per hour. There’s opportunity there if we pursue it.
That kid who dreams of working in a supermarket warehouse, stacking boxes and moving pallets, has no idea that he could do similar work in a warehouse at Piper, JetBlue, Embraer, United Technologies, or dozens of aerospace companies clustered on the Space Coast of Florida. Those jobs could lead to a lifetime of education, advancement, and a lifestyle changes that would positively affect generations of his family.
If I seem particularly impassioned on this topic, it’s because I am. I’ve known people whose lives have been transformed by aviation, whose horizons have been expanded, whose income and personal potential became points of pride rather than anchors of embarrassment. All of that makes my visit to the Bill Duncan Opportunity Center and my discussion with those students so much more compelling.
The day after I visited and spoke with students, I received a text message from the gentleman who invited me to come dip my toe in the waters to see if there might be something I could do to help. Following the greeting, it read as follows: “I also wanted you to know how important our partnership is, one of the kids at Bill Duncan committed suicide last night.”
For you and me, aviation is a diversion, or a joy, or a job, or a way of experiencing life to its fullest. To the students at Bill Duncan and so many other places in America, it just might represent a way out of a terrifying existence, and a doorway through which they might pass in order to live and thrive.
I think I see a worthwhile way to use some of my free time to simultaneously improve my community, and strengthen general aviation. I’m in.
I can only hope you’ll find a similarly compelling reason to speak up, speak out, and make a real effort to make something positive happen in your community.
Somewhere, somebody’s life may literally depend on it.