Two weeks ago a high school teacher asked if I could come speak to the students taking his aerospace class. Always being up for a good time, I agreed. Wow. Just wow, am I glad I did.
The students turned out to be a group of more than 100 teenagers spread over five class periods. Their level of interest ranged from open disinterest, to absolute fascination, with a lot of casual curiosity in between.
At least a quarter of the students filling the seats in front of me were motivated enough to give the impression they might really become pilots, or mechanics, and possibly even an engineer or two. In a couple cases, I could see them pursuing all three options.
It was a good day, let me tell you.
During the third, or maybe it was the fourth, class period of the day, I noticed one particular student went out of his way to sit far back in the classroom. He appeared to fall into the casually interested category, but with a real possibility of shifting into the openly disinterested group. Initially his eyes spent far more time perusing the floor and the ceiling than they lingered on me. However, as the discussion continued through the class period that changed.
He began to ask questions. Quite a few questions, in fact. Some were practical, some were a bit odd. But none of them were out of line for a kid who is in the midst of having an epiphany. By the end of the class he made his way to where I was, shook hands, and asked if I was serious about being willing to take students flying.
I assured him I was. I am. I will continue to be willing. In fact, that exact experience is one of the great joys of my work. Taking students on their first flight, letting them see the world from above while putting the controls of a single-engine airplane in their hands gives me at least as much of a rush as it gives them.
And then he was gone. Shuffling off to his next class, as a new contingent of students shuffled in. The process repeated itself until the last bell of the day rang out.
I do this sort of thing from time to time. I enjoy it, too. And sometimes a kid follows up. More often, his or her parents follow up. We get to go flying or at least we have the chance to meet up at a local coffee shop to continue the conversation. This time, it was a bit different.
My phone began buzzing at dinnertime. I let that first call go. It buzzed again half an hour later. I missed that one because I was already on the phone chatting with someone else. When we wrapped up that conversation I called back to connect with the missed caller. Man, am I glad I did.
It was a woman. The mother of one of the kids I spoke to earlier in the day. With great excitement she told me that her son had called as soon as he got out of school, while she was still at work, to tell her he knew what he wanted to be. He wanted to be a pilot.
She was clearly overjoyed. She explained that she’d pulled her son from the big city school system more than 200 miles south of where I met him. It was too dangerous for him there, she said. The schools weren’t getting the job done. So, she sent him to live with his sister and grandfather in a town where the high school has just this year begun offering aerospace as an elective class. Happenstance. Nothing more than happenstance.
Near tears she told me her son had never shown a serious interest in anything before. Never. But now he was fired up. Truly motivated. Was I really willing to take him to the airport, show him around, and let him fly an airplane?
Yes, I would be happy to.
Two days later her son, his grandfather, a friend he’d made at school and the second kid’s father all met with me at the airport FBO. Thunderstorms were lying just off the end of the runway. It was no time to fly. But it was a great time to visit the hangar, let the kids sit in the front seats, talk them through the controls and instrumentation, and explain to the grandfather and father that aviation really was within the reach of these two excited kids, if they chose to pursue it.
Then the question popped up. “If I start learning to fly now, when will I be done with school?” This from a kid who has never shown an interest in education before. A kid with tattoos down both arms from shoulder to wrist. A kid who bears absolutely no resemblance to Lindbergh, or Armstrong, and talks with an affectation that says, “I’m from the big city, ya’ know.”
“Well,” I answered honestly. “If you wanted to be a private pilot you could be finished by the end of this school year, easy.” He nodded to indicate he understood. “But you said you wanted to be a professional pilot. If you fly for a living, education becomes a lifelong requirement. You’ll be going to school, taking tests, participating in check-rides, and learning new equipment and procedures for the rest of your career.”
He continued nodding. Made eye contact with his grandfather, gave a slight nod, and asked, “So, when can we go flying?”
And just like that, inspiration, motivation, and aspiration all combined in the noggin of one young man. He’s seen the path. Now all he has to do is follow it. At the other end is a life and an experience he never knew was available to him. Yet it is.
I wonder how many kids he’ll tell and how many of them will catch the bug as a result? More than one, I’m sure of that.