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Taking flight in AFJROTC

Published on Tuesday, April 19, 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.


Taking flight

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.elika figueroa and jay aldea

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 is one of 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 (Cane Bay High also has simulators).

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.

will hamlin on simulator

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.”

This is part of a larger story on students learning to fly in Berkeley County School District – read more on the district site.



Monica Kreber