In the weeks since September 11, I've found that I have sometimes avoided visiting with my friends in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport simply because of the gloom and doom that has become the preferred conversation of so many pilots. While I join them in not being impressed by the manner in which many politicians at all levels of government have dealt with aviation, every once in a while I like to be reminded that the world is not falling apart.
Sure, sometimes we pilots are cynics, dwelling on the challenges, the bad stuff; the frustrations of aviation. We get preoccupied and forget to look around and take in the bigger picture. It seems to me it's a good idea to take a walk around the airport every once in a while and try to realign our internal gyros.
When I took my own advice and just strolled around the virtual airport, I immediately realized that one group of people I most treasure in aviation is still here: the airport kids are looking through the fence or in the pilot's lounge shyly asking questions or sending me emails about flying. Looking at their intensity, I remember that no matter how many challenges there are, kids somehow rise to them. Certain kids want to learn to fly; you can see it in their eyes. They face huge roadblocks: parents who say no, peers who attack anyone who has a dream and takes steps to accomplish it, the idiot politicians who want to erect roadblocks before those who wish to learn to fly, and most of all, the money to reach the dream. (After all, we all know that the thing that makes an airplane fly is money.)
The slang and the clothes worn by the kids changes each year, but what continues to impress me is the intensity of the desire to fly I see in those teenagers. Several months ago, my column was a letter to an airport kid I had just met. I feel strongly that the kids looking through the airport fence are aviation's future. What I see pleases me, because the desire and dedication is every bit as strong as it was when I was a kid burning to fly. I believe that aviation will be in good hands for years to come if a way can be found for more of the teenagers to learn to fly. It was teenagers who learned to fly the airplanes in World Wars I and II, and did so well; the ones today are no less smart or determined.
Recently, I had the incredible good luck to run into a guy who is dedicated to the future of aviation. He was an airport kid not all that long ago. He managed to learn to fly because of the incredible generosity of someone and is now taking steps to help kids learn to fly.
When Aaron Singer was growing up in Enid, Okla., he wanted to fly more than anything in the world. By high school, his dream seemed so far from reality that it began to fade; family tragedies and the turmoil all adolescents experience made him wonder if he weren't wasting his time having dreams of a future. He began the slide that too many kids make, first into behavior problems, then away from the people who care about them, that so often results in becoming just another statistic, a person who exists rather than living.
Aaron got a break. His life was turned around because a local family had lost a son in an automobile accident. That family found a wonderful way to create a memorial to their late child. Their son had wanted to learn fly, so they established a scholarship in his name, Matt Dillingham. The scholarship would allow a dedicated, motivated, high school student learn to fly. It was a break, not a gift; any student who wanted the scholarship had to work to win it. Aaron entered the competitive essay contest for the scholarship. He won.
Because of the Matt Dillingham scholarship, Aaron Singer learned to fly. Flying caused him to realize that he was capable of accomplishing all sorts of things; after all, because of what he, a kid, knew, he could cause an airplane to leave the earth and travel to a destination far over the horizon. Because he applied himself, learned effectively and demonstrated his ability, he was trusted with a machine far more valuable then a car at an age when he couldn't even rent a car. He learned that focus and hard work pay off. He carried that knowledge into adulthood. The result was that he did well enough in the business world to create a foundation to grant scholarships for high school kids to get their private pilot certificates. The result of his efforts is the Blue Yonder Foundation, a nonprofit foundation under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code that administers the Dreams of Flight Scholarship Fund. (Donations to it are tax-deductible.) Each scholarship goes to a high school junior through a competitive process. The winner gets what amounts to a full ride scholarship, books and flight training through a private pilot certificate.
Aaron explained to me how Blue Yonder works. The foundation looks for high schools where the students don't necessarily get all the breaks in life. The high school should be in a community that has a general aviation-friendly airport that, ideally, can be reached by public transportation. Once the combination is found, the high school and flight school are approached. A teacher, guidance counselor or administrator at the high school who believes in the value of the scholarship is asked to be the coordinator or Education Sponsor. Similarly, the foundation works with a flight school at the airport to find a flight instructor who is willing to work on the process of selecting the student and doing the flight training. He or she becomes the Flight Instructor Sponsor.
The Education and Flight Instructor Sponsors get together with the foundation to organize and tailor the program for the high school and flight school. An announcement of the scholarship is made to the junior class. Those interested attend an informational meeting where they get the rules of the competition: an entrant must be 16 years of age; be a junior in good standing with no record of expulsion, truancy or police record; have a 3.0 (B) grade average; provide two letters of recommendation; write a 500-word essay on the meaning of achieving one's dreams; be willing to undergo an interview before a committee that selects the winner; be prepared to spend a summer consistently dedicated to flight training; and be willing to promote the Dreams of Flight Scholarship program during his or her senior year.
Once the students have written and submitted their essays, a selection committee made up of at least the Education Sponsor and the Flight Instructor Sponsor, plus someone from the foundation, reviews each submission. The committee then interviews each applicant and is faced with the extremely tough decision as to which student receives the scholarship. Near the end of school year the selection is made.
So, how has it worked? I talked with the first winner of a scholarship, Ariane Cornell, of Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, Calif. Ariane has wanted to fly and to go into space since she can recall. The summer before her junior year she managed to get an internship with NASA, but hadn't figured out how to come up with the money to learn to fly. Then she heard about the Blue Yonder Foundation scholarship and went after it. She wrote her essay about her dream, to become the first human to walk on Mars. A few weeks later she experienced one of a teenager's worst nightmares: She walked into a room with eight adults, each of whom fired questions at her. Afterwards, she recalled that the questions ranged from being asked to describe her background to what majors she expected to pursue in college and how well she handled stressful situations. She still laughs about the last one.
Within a week she got a phone call telling her that she had won the scholarship. She spent much of the summer working on her Private Pilot certificate with her flight instructor, Michael Johnson at Diamond Aviation in San Carlos, Calif. Things were going well until she was sidelined with ankle surgery, and, as of this writing, is still in a cast that doesn't allow use of rudder pedals, so she hasn't finished up her Private. She will.
I spoke with Michael Johnson about his experience with the Blue Yonder Foundation. Michael is one of those airport kids who had his CFI rating by the time he was 19, so he identifies with the concept of the foundation. Naturally, he was pretty fired up about it, and spoke highly of the idea behind the foundation itself. Michael indicated that the selection process for the scholarship winner was extremely difficult as the applicants were all very good. He said he looked at the applicants from the standpoint of who seemed to deeply want to learn to fly, what the level of need was and who would respond best in flight training. He said he hasn't been disappointed, as Ariane has proven to be "a great student, the kind every instructor wants. She comes to each lesson prepared and learns fast." Michael had nothing but praise for the idea behind the Blue Yonder Foundation and hoped that it would be able to spread out over the country rapidly. He and I talked about the steadily increasing importance of aviation in a more complex world and Michael commented that the Foundation has the potential of opening up a lot of doors for those who get scholarships.
Talking with Ariane, I was impressed with her determination, drive and ability. About an hour later I found myself laughing at an acquaintance when he told me how the kids of today are all lazy, unmotivated and useless. From talking to Ariane and Michael, I came to the conclusion that there are a number of driven teenagers who are already accomplishing a great deal. If nothing else, for Ariane to go through the process of beating out all of the other kids in her class who wanted to fly and win a scholarship was no mean feat. I got to thinking that she'd be a tough act to follow within her family and said so. She laughed and said that her big brother did kind of trump her ace a few months later; he was one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize for physics.
I figure she will be the first human to walk on Mars, if only to put her brother in his place. Never underestimate the power of sibling rivalry.
Right now, the Blue Yonder Foundation is engaged in fundraising. Its goal is to eventually give one annual scholarship in each of the 50 states. To do so, and for it to be self-perpetuating, will require an endowment of about $10 million. That's a quite a chunk of change. However, when thinking about the money needed, I recalled that some years ago, the noted author Richard Bach wrote about a flight school for perfection. In it young people learned all that could be taught them about every phase of flight over a period of years. They paid no tuition, but once out in the world, they all voluntarily sent back a percentage of their income each month. That kept the school going. In maybe 10 or 15 years those who have received Blue Yonder scholarships will be the ones keeping the program going and growing as they pay back, with interest, the incredible gift they received. For now it's up to us, we who have gotten a lot of help along the way in learning to fly. This is our chance to give something back to aviation.
Several people asked how they could help out the airport kid I wrote about a while back. This is the way. Send a check to the Blue Yonder Foundation at:
The Blue Yonder Foundation
822 D Street
San Rafael, CA 94901
You can also call the associate director, Jennifer Taibbi, at 415-482-1692. Help one of those airport kids get a pilot certificate. It's time to put a little money into aviation's future.
See you next month.