Taking flight in AFJROTC
Published on Friday, April 8, 2022
Photos / video by Monica Kreber
On a clear Saturday morning at Summerville Airport, 10th-grader Elika Figueroa is feeling a little nervous, but excited.
Excited because it is the day she gets to fly a real plane, nervous because the only other time she has ever “steered” a plane was in the classroom, using a fancy flight simulator situated in her Air Force JROTC class at Philip Simmons High.
Climbing into FFA-certified flight instructor Jay Aldea’s four-seater Diamond DA40, Figueroa is first given a rundown of the controls and instruments (though she is already pretty familiar from her flight simulator training), and then Aldea taxis the plan from the airport to the runway.
Minutes later, they are up in the air, 2,500 feet above the ground, heading toward Lake Moultrie, soaring over familiar places like Cane Bay High and the Volvo plant.
Shortly after reaching altitude, Aldea gives Figueroa the go-ahead to take over controls; to prove to his guest in the backseat that he is no longer flying, Aldea looks over his shoulder and gives a quick playful wave with both hands.
Aldea instructs Figueroa to work on climbs, turns and descents – which she does, with flying colors, over the course of a few minutes before Aldea takes back over the controls.
Despite the nerves, Figueroa said the feeling of flying made her happy.
“I really want to fly again,” she said.
Figueroa was actually one of three Philip Simmons High AFJROTC students who came out bright and early on Feb. 26 to the Summerville Airport to participate in what is called LIFT Camp, which gives local high school students the opportunity to fly planes. AFJROTC Students from Cane Bay High also came out later in the day to take to the skies.
The LIFT Camps, in combination with students’ ongoing training on the flight simulators at Cane Bay High and Philip Simmons High, are getting these students ready to get their pilot licenses, and potentially land themselves a job in the industry sometime after they graduate high school.
Boeing’s 2021 Pilot and Technician Outlook projects that 612,000 new pilots, 626,000 new maintenance technicians and 886,000 new cabin crew members will be needed to fly and maintain the global commercial aviation fleet over the next 20 years.
While the industry took a hit from the pandemic, passenger demand has begun to recover in many areas of the world and will accelerate as travelers regain a sense of safety.
With Philip Simmons High still being a relatively new school, so is its AFJROTC program, which is led by senior aerospace instructor Lt Col (Ret) Christopher Ott and aerospace science instructor CMSgt (Ret) Michelle M. Siau.
Ott is also the Chief Operations Officer for Lowcountry Aerospace Academy – or just “LCAA” – which is a non-profit educational charity geared toward educating, inspiring and empowering diverse junior, high school and college students through formalized aviation, aeronautical and STEM education, professional aviation training, and special events.
The organization provides the monthly Lowcountry Inspirational Flight Training (or LIFT) Camps out of Summerville Airport. The JROTC programs at both Philip Simmons High and Cane Bay High utilize this non-profit to introduce cadets to flight (along with other JROTC programs throughout the Lowcountry). The LCAA flies 16 students one Saturday each month, August through May (AFJROTC students are not required to participate in the camps – and not all of them do – but it is an option available if they are interested in flying).
Each student receives ground, simulator and flight instruction from an FAA-certified flight instructor in a modern training aircraft. Students leave the camp with a logbook endorsement for their first training flight. They also have the opportunity to meet volunteers from Boeing South Carolina, Tuskegee Airmen Inc., and Women in Aviation International.
Ott said the minimum number of flight hours required to earn a private pilot’s license is 40 hours, 10 of which must be solo – as in no instructor, just a student pilot flying alone. Both Cane Bay and Philip Simmons High have several AFJROTC students who are interested in pursuing their pilot’s license, and some of them have plans to attend the Flight Academy, a national scholarship program sponsored by Air Force Junior ROTC.
Previous flight time is not required to apply for the scholarship, but it helps cadets score better on the application exam if they have flown before or have an understanding of flight concepts, and BCSD’s high schoolers can earn flight hours through the LIFT Camps: they get a half-hour credit for ground school, another half-hour through simulator time (the camp uses a Redbird simulator, which is FAA-certified and cadets earn flight time when using the simulator with a certified instructor), and another half-hour credit from actually going up in the air to fly with an instructor.
Ott listed four main goals he wants to achieve in Philip Simmons High’s AFJROTC program.
The first is that all his cadets have the opportunity to pilot an aircraft at least once. The second, for those interested in flight, is that they have the opportunity to apply for an LCAA scholarship to continue their training beyond the one Saturday LIFT Camp.
Ott also aims to help cadets graduate with their private pilot ground school completed – he teaches the class at the school during the JROTC Aviation Honor Ground School course, which cadets take in their senior year.
Lastly, the goal is to have cadets earn their Unmanned Aerial System (drone) license prior to graduation.
Figueroa earned high remarks for her work in February’s LIFT Camp – and Ott has seen success in his other students as well.
“Other cadets have done amazing things and really enjoyed the experience,” he said. “It is a fantastic way for cadets to use classroom concepts in the dynamic and exciting flight environment.”
Philip Simmons High
Cane Bay High and Philip Simmons High are the only two schools in Berkeley County School District using flight simulators to help students get the feel of piloting an aircraft – and get them interested in flying.
Philip Simmons High’s simulator is new to the school this past year; the class has the Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 running on a gaming PC with an integrated yoke, throttles and rudder pedals mounted on a Volair Simulator chassis.
Tenth-grader Andersen Spina recently demonstrated using the flight simulator; he did a virtual flight through some mountains, and explained that the user can do flights over different terrain and in different types of weather.
Obviously, landing the plane is a crucial part of every flight. When Spina landed the plane, the computer screen presented a score on his landing; Spina said points can be deducted based on how “off” the initial touch-down was, or if the landing was not smooth enough, among other factors.
Spina was optimistic about his landing score.
“Any landing you walk away from is a good one – any landing in which you can use the plane the next day is a great one,” he said.
Ninth-grader Lena Padgett is one of Ott’s students who went flying with him at a previous LIFT Camp, and she is interested in going to the Air Force Academy after high school.
Padgett said she had never really considered flying in high school, but when she joined AFROTC she began to think differently, and she was surprised by how much she enjoyed flying.
“When I first went to the flight camp, it was my first time ever flying – and I was flying the plane,” she said. “I thought it was going to be really scary but it was really calming.”
Eleventh-grader Dudley Dickson is considering joining the military after high school, and he has also gone flying with Ott.
“You always see people flying planes and…that could be me one day, actually controlling the plane,” he said. “When you’re actually up there doing it, it’s pretty nerve-racking, but then once you do it for a little bit, it’s actually really fun.”
Cane Bay High
Cane Bay High’s AFJROTC program is led by Heather Megee, Maj, USAF (ret) and Master Sgt. Paul Brown.
The class received the Edustation Pro 3 simulator this school year, but the class also has about six smaller Microsoft Flight Simulators (older and new versions) that students practice on – the students have to be proficient on the smaller simulator before they can try out the big one.
Megee and Brown’s ultimate goal is to get students interested in flight and eligible to compete for the Air Force JROTC Flight Academy, Chief of State Private Pilot Scholarship program, which is an approximately eight-week summer aviation training program conducted at partnering universities nationwide. Upon completion of the program, students are awarded a Private Pilot’s certificate.
To participate in the Flight Academy, students have to take what is called an AQT – Air and Qualification Test. In order to pass the AQT, students need to know how to read all the instruments on the control panel, which is where the flight simulators come into play.
The Edustation simulator truly mimics the cockpit of a plane, from the rudder pedals down below to the control panel to the array of instruments on the screen. The simulator offers a panoramic view across three screens, and students can plan flights using basic algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, geography and topography.
Megee and Brown would like to get at least five cadets eligible to meet the Flight Academy selection board by this fall, with another goal of eventually having double digit cadets selected to attend the Flight Academy.
“While our main goal is to get students interested in flying, if they show interest in aviation as a career, we would help them pursue different avenues depending on their interest,” Megee said. “There are aviation career opportunities in both the commercial and military sectors. One purpose of the AF Flight Academy is to build a pool of potential aviators who may have an interest as a military pilot.”
As they pass lessons on the Microsoft Flight Simulators, the students earn certificates for completion, thus landing them opportunities to use the bigger simulator. Brown could then get a certified pilot (like Ott) to look over the students’ shoulders while they fly on the Edustation Pro 3, which can subsequently earn them flying credit hours.
Most students said the hardest part about flying the simulator is understanding the instruments on the panel. Cane Bay High Ninth-grader Ian Gray has become proficient on the Microsoft simulators and has flown on the Edustation Pro 3.
Gray said he is interested in becoming a pilot or joining the Air Force.
“If I can’t be a pilot I’ll do…welding for the Air Force,” he said.
Ninth-grader Paula Young said she is new to the Microsoft simulators but said she is enjoying it so far. She wants to be a pilot in the Air Force.
“I’ve always wanted to learn to fly – it just seems like something fun to do,” she said.
Eleventh-grader Dylan Butler also wants to fly after high school and is hoping to get his pilot license within the next year or so.
Butler was recently working on a lesson about take-offs on the Microsoft simulators (with some difficulty because the computer speakers were not working properly on that particular day).
Butler said there is an instructor in the program that tells him what to do while he is flying.
“Right now we’re just learning how to read these instruments, and how you can adjust your altitude, adjust your speed, make sure when to pull the flaps…just getting used to the controls,” he said.
Brown has a couple of students who have flown at LIFT Camp as well, and he has a small group of students who could potentially have their pilot license by 12th grade – they have one graduate that has gotten her license and is now in college.
Cane Bay High 10th-grader Ryan Bowman is one of the students who has gone flying at the Lift Camp.
He said he is very afraid of heights, but recalled his first time flying: once he was in the air, he was no longer scared.
“It was fun,” he said, adding that once one learns how to use the instruments it is not that hard. “I’ve learned to memorize them.”
Brown said Ott is helping him and Megee with becoming ground-certified instructors to further help their own students receive flying credits.
“Col Ott has been a very good source…He’s helped us out a lot with getting flight time,” Brown said.
Brown said while he has students who are eager to keep flying, he and Megee are just as eager to see them excel in the aviation field.
“I think we are more excited than they are,” he said.