Jess Atkins grew up in Isle of Wight County in Virginia in the 1940s. Like lots of kids, when he saw an aircraft flying overhead, he looked up. He didn’t know what model airplanes were overhead — they turned out to be B-17s — but he was inspired.
Seeing those planes flying became a dream for Jess. That’s a familiar story to anyone who gazes skyward.
But from Jess’s original email to me, one sentence stood out. “I do have an interesting story of how one’s dream to fly can be crushed for years by a single comment from one instructor.”
After high school, Jess enrolled in Virginia Tech’s ROTC program in 1958.
“I thought I’d found my path to aviation,” Jess told me during a phone conversation we recently had.
Toward the end of Jess’s second year in college, he was given a test that asked him to identify parts of an airplane and answer if a plane is climbing, descending, and/or banking based on illustrations of the instrument panel.
“Keep in mind, when I took that test I’d never seen the inside or outside of an airplane up close,” noted Jess. “And when the instructor handed out the results, he kept my test and asked to speak with me.”
After class Jess walked up to the instructor and engaged in the following very short conversation.
“Mr. Atkins, I understand you want to be a pilot,” to which Jess replied, “Yes Sir.” The instructor then said, “Mr. Atkins, based on the results of this test you should not go near an airplane, even as a mechanic.”
As you might imagine, Jess was crushed. The door to the path he thought he’d found had just been slammed shut.
Jess dropped from ROTC and switched majors. He finished Virginia Tech with a degree in mathematics. You know, one of those areas of education for the more simple-minded among us. (That’s sarcasm by the way).
Fast forward to 1972 — with his long-ago instructor’s words ringing in his head — he went to the local airport and asked how much it would cost to learn to fly. “About $1,000 in those days.” So he signed up.
Jess soloed in about eight hours. He went on to earn his private certificate and has co-owned multiple aircraft over the years.
He stopped flying in 2004 for other reasons but hopes to re-start one day. He keeps up with the industry via a number of aviation magazines.
“I can still hear those words in my head all these years later,” said Jess. “And they still bother me. There is a lesson in this for all of us and that is words really matter and we should strive every day to make sure we do not crush one’s dreams.”
They should bother Jess. Those words should bother all of us. Proof positive that words matter. Right he is: There is a lesson in this story.
Words matter. Choose them wisely.