Flying Camp, For Free


Seventy-year-old Vietnam veteran and CFII Rafael Sierra has created a short summer camp program in Thermal, Calif., that provides select high school students with ground school, one hour of flight training, and a student pilot certificate — all free. Sierra’s Coachella Valley Youth Aviation Education Program selects students on the basis of their essay submissions and their desire to become commercial pilots. He runs the program on financial donations and contributions from like-minded friends and local businesses. Sierra told AVweb, Friday, that last year 57 students “graduated” from the program, and this June 22-29 he will guide another group. Sierra says his model is simple and can be copied successfully across the country.

The ground school portion of the camp covers weather, flight planning, aircraft systems, weight and balance and regulations. “We cover it all,” says Sierra. He has arranged for each student to participate in Young Eagles flights as part of his program. And he donates his own time to provide one hour of flight instruction to each student and says that local FBO Thermal Aviation has come on board to donate free fuel for the flights. Donations are key to what the program can offer. Sierra credits his friend Dr. Mort Gubin for donating 60 free medicals and thanks friends and local businesses for providing nearly $6000 in monetary donations to help fund the project. “All of them told me to come back and ask again next year” because they believe in the program, Sierra said. All funds go to supplies that include instruction materials, thumb drives, E6Bs and learning aids for the students, according to Sierra.

Sierra says his supporters are mainly “guys like me, 65 years and older who understand the pilot population is in decline.” He hopes to continue to grow the program and to see similar programs spread to other airports across the country, and maintains an active Facebook page that’s open to anyone.According to Sierra, aviation has been a wonderful part of his life. “We’re very much aware that we’re not going to take anything with us, and we’ve got to give it back.”