Seventeen year-old Kevin White never wanted to be a firefighter, a police officer, or any of the popular professions children dream of growing up. Instead, he's only ever wanted to earn his wings. “I always saw them flying and I said that’s something I want to do," said White. "As a kid, people see Superman, all these heroes flying around, who doesn’t want to fly.”
In fact, these dream of his has been narrowed down to a very specific profession which keeps him in the air most of the time. “I would hope to fly a transport aircraft, for probably like Fed-Ex or something like that because it’s a decent job, it pays well and it’s something stable,” said White.
He's not alone. Fifteen-year-old Donegal Chin found her interest in flying from her father, a pilot. She was able to make those dreams a reality when she joined the Coachella Valley Youth Aviation Education Program.
Local pilot Rafael Sierra started the program four months ago. The class teaches the young students everything that makes the plane work on the ground all the way to preparing them for a solo flight. “All of the different components inside, and how to judge the weather, and all the things you’d need to fly, to get up in the plane especially," said Chin.
While these young pilots are unable to test for their private pilot's license until seventeen, the idea of preparing for it so young is certainly exciting. “It’s pretty cool because we can start early, and some of us we can get our pilot’s license before we get our car license, our driver’s license," said Chin.
The program is not only to help the students fulfill their dreams, it is also helping to combat a steady decline in people pursuing a career in the air. Numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration show a nearly 40% drop in the number of people studying to become pilots over the last thirty years.
“We’re down by about 200,000 pilots from 1980 and nationwide there’s been attention paid now to developing youth programs so that we can have enthusiasm from the youth and create more pilots. It is anticipated by 2030 we’ll need an additional 400,000 pilots. “
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks paired with the rising cost of flight school is keeping hopeful aviators on the ground.
“It cost me $837 to become a private pilot, the G.I. bill paid for the rest of it," said Sierra. "Kids nowadays have to come up with $10,000, $11,000 to become private pilots. To become professional pilots, they would have to spend $60,000-$70000 dollars, it’s very expensive.”
Expensive for a few reasons:
-The post 9/11 G.I. bill does not cover stand-alone flight training.
-Few loans are given out to students for flight school
-Pay has decreased steadily for pilots
-More pilots are choosing to staying in the military, rather then going to the private sector
While other flight schools exist across the country, this one is different, because it's free. Students do not pay anything because it's funded by private donations and scholarships. This reason prompted a huge response to the young program.
“We never expected as many," said Sierra. "We can’t possibly give instructions to all. We’ve seen what the reaction is, the numbers, and we intend to do it again, the next year, and the next year."
These students are ready to lead the next generation of pilots. “It is declining, there’s not as many but I think it’s a great opportunity for all of us," said Chin.
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