What began as an informal family effort to offer free flights in a Cessna 172 has grown into a formal program designed to encourage kids to become involved in aviation and pursue careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.
STEM Flights, based at Winchester Regional Airport (KOKV) in Virginia, was the brainchild of retired Brigadier General Dave Brubaker, known by his call sign Bru.
After a 34-year career in the United States Air Force and Air National Guard – most of it flying fighter jet aircraft like the F-100, F-4, and the F-16 — he continued his passion for flight by buying a Cessna 172.
“When fighter pilots retire, what do they do?” asks Carley Walker, director of marketing for STEM Flights and Bru’s daughter. “They go buy a Cessna and start flying around because they just can’t stand not being in the air.”
While the family — who are all pilots — enjoyed using the aircraft, Bru’s favorite flights were taking up kids, talking to them about their futures, and inspiring them to go for a challenging career, not just a job.
“What he started noticing was that over the years, the youth would come back and say, ‘hey Bru, you won’t believe it, but that flight I took with you really made an impact. I’ve joined the Air National Guard or I’ve become a staffer on the Hill,’” she recounts.
While a single experience doesn’t shape a life, it can open a child’s mind to a wealth of opportunities they didn’t even know existed, she notes.
“It makes a difference when you get someone up in an aircraft and they’ve never had that experience before and you take the time to not only show them aviation, but give them a little bit of mentoring like, ‘This is what I did in my career and this is how aviation positively affected me.’”
Walker adds that her father is very passionate about trying to keep STEM in the U.S.
“It’s a problem that he noticed when he was active duty military working as a pilot. He just noticed that so many STEM jobs are being outsourced to other countries, so he took on a personal mission to encourage youth to keep STEM and aviation in the U.S.”
In 2018, the family decided to formalize their efforts, creating the non-profit STEM Flights.
They developed a process to recruit volunteer pilots and students, as well as develop a curriculum with local STEM educators.
Sounds like Young Eagles
Many of the volunteer pilots who fly for STEM Flights are also Young Eagles pilots.
And while no one can dispute the success of Young Eagles — with more than 2 million first flights for kids 8 to 17 — STEM Flights sees itself as “the next step.”
“We wanted it to be more than a 15 minute flight, ‘Hey, let’s fly over your house and look around. Okay, see you later.’ We wanted to really spend some time with these youth.”
Unlike a Young Eagles flight, STEM Flights require the kids to put some “skin in the game.”
They don’t just show up at the airport and take a quick flight.
Students must apply for a flight and submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher, parent or mentor illustrating why the student deserves a STEM Flight experience and what it could mean to their future education and career choices.
Once accepted, the student is paired with a pilot mentor. The next task is for the student to choose a mission for the flight.
There are several missions to choose from, including navigation, aerial mapping and photography, climate and weather, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The students must do some reading about the mission before coming to the airport, while the pilot mentor creates a flight specific to that student and that student’s mission, Walker explains.
STEM Flights gives each pilot a mission checklist for each flight. The checklist details what the pilot should go over during the pre-flight, as well as what to do in the cockpit during the flight. The organization also gives other resources to the pilot to ensure the flight experiences are similar no matter where the pilot and student live.
But there’s also room for individualization for each flight. For instance, if a student chooses aerial mapping and photography, the local geography would affect the flight and what the pilot discusses during the flight, she notes.
“It there’s a cool landmark in your town, you’ll want to build that into the curriculum,” she says.
The flight is free for the student and all the resources provided by the organization are free to the pilot.
STEM Flight has pilots in nine states, including Virginia, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana, Connecticut and Maryland.
It is actively looking to expand nationwide and is searching for many more volunteer pilots.
Mentor pilots must have at least 300 hours, be current, and their aircraft must be in good repair and current on all inspections. After a background check is completed, the pilot must go through STEM Flight training, which takes about an hour. All flights are day VFR.
Once a pilot is accepted into the program, STEM Flights then goes about finding students for him or her to fly by contacting local schools and through other avenues.
After the flight, students receive surveys on an annual basis to find out how the flight impacted them.
“The most important thing that we are doing is documenting what these youth who have had these flight experiences end up doing,” Walker says. “We’re aiming to prove that these early flight experiences and these early introductions to STEM can have an impact on the life or the career pathway of the student.”
STEM Flights has conducted more than 100 flights over the last two years.
“I know that sounds so small when we talk about 2 million Young Eagles flights,” she says. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”
And the success stories are starting to come in.
One person Bru flew was a little older. A friend of the family, she had already graduated high school and was working in Washington, D.C.
“During the flight she was lamenting that she was unhappy in her career, but felt she was too old for a career change,” Walker remembers. “During the flight, Bru talked about all the different ways she could change her career and get into aviation, telling her it wasn’t too late and that aviation is for everyone.”
Because of that flight and the mentoring process, she successfully changed careers and is now flying C-130s for the Air National Guard, according to Walker.
Another success story is a student who took a flight and through the mentoring process discovered that what she really was interested in was aerospace engineering. Specifically she wants to build something that will go into space, Walker says.
“We’re passionate about the military and general aviation, but we also want to hit home all of the other careers in aviation that don’t necessarily involve being a pilot,” she says.
And they are also passionate about reaching kids who didn’t grow up with a pilot in the family, as well as minorities and underserved populations.
“We’re looking for those individuals who would have no reason to be at an airport,” she explains. “Maybe they think it’s for rich old white guys and they would have no reason to experience that. And we’re super interested in reaching those youth because when you can get that student up in the air and show them that anybody can do it, their problems sometimes can seem a little bit smaller. It just gives you a different perspective.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended flight operations for STEM Flights, that doesn’t mean the work has stopped. They are taking this time to develop curriculum and write grants for more funding. The organization did receive a grant last year from the Ray Foundation, which supports aviation programs and organizations. Founder James C. Ray believed that the skills developed during flight training, such as self-discipline, self-confidence and ownership of one’s own decisions, can enable students to pursue their dreams and succeed in life.
They are also taking this time to encourage students and pilots to get their applications in now.
“That way when we get the heads up, we’ll be like, “Here you go. Here’s your person. Start flying.” So we’re hopeful that pretty soon, maybe this summer, we’ll be back in operation.
How Can You Help?
Want to get involved? You can always apply to be a pilot mentor. The organization hopes to soon have pilot mentors in all 50 states.
You also can donate, be it money or an aircraft. All aircraft donations support STEM Flight’s missions either by directly becoming a part of the organization’s fleet or as an investment in its flight operations.
And there’s a bonus: All tax-deductible monetary donations are matched, dollar for dollar, by The Ray Foundation.
But there’s something even simpler you can do: Share the story of STEM Flights, Walker says.
“If you know a pilot who would love to do something like this, share that story with that pilot. Or if you know a student who would love to be involved with STEM Flights and receive this kind of STEM education and mentoring, let them know about it so that we can get them in the air. Our passion is to grow and to get as many students flying as we possibly can.”