New program gives every Aspen-Snowmass high school student a chance to fly
On a recent October morning in Aspen High School, five boys listened to their first-period teacher as she clicked through a PowerPoint of diagrams, bullet points and videos.
As the teens asked and answered questions, it seemed like a normal 8 a.m. high school class. But instead of discussing literature or solving math equations, these five students were learning about how engines in airplanes functioned as part of the Aspen Flight Academy curriculum.
“It’s a way to get ahead in our aviation careers,” said Asher Fite, 16, one of the boys in this early morning class working toward obtaining his private pilot’s license. “It’s super important to get ahead and rare that a high school allows this kind of opportunity and support.”
Over the past five years, the Aspen Flight Academy has aimed to prepare students for potential careers in aviation through classes at the high school and discounted flight time with instructors.
This year, the flight academy nonprofit collaborated with the Aspen Education Foundation, Aspen School District and local aviation pioneer Betty Pfister’s commemorative The BettyFlies Foundation to help add to that curriculum and give every single student a free flight lesson through its new Every Student Flies program.
“It was such a freeing experience. I flew over my house which was kind of cool,” said Fite, who logged his first hour toward his private pilot’s license through the Every Student Flies program. “But I wasn’t as nervous as much as I was excited.”
So far, more than 25 school staff and 10 students have co-piloted as part of the new flight program.
“We hope to expose more students to aviation who never considered or even thought about it as a career option,” said Kate Short, aviation director for the Aspen School District and Aspen Flight Academy board member.
That’s what it was like for Short, who said she was interested in flying and knew people who got their pilot’s licenses in college, but never thought it was something she could do herself.
Now, in her first year at Aspen High School, Short teaches three aviation classes a day, takes students and school staff up in one of the academy’s two aircraft for a free lesson most afternoons when weather permits, and spends her weekends helping students clock hours toward earning their private pilot’s license at a discounted price of $145 per instruction hour.
“This is a dream job for me,” Short said.
But the flight academy expansion doesn’t aim to just benefit students. According to Mike Pearce — an international commercial pilot for American Airlines, creator of the Every Student Flies program, and president of Aspen Flight Academy’s Board of Directors — it also aims to serve as a model for communities nationwide.
“We are excited to launch this one-of-a-kind program to offer every Aspen High School student the chance to experience flight and learn about careers in aviation,” Pearce said in a news release. “Our hope is that other public high schools across the country will be excited about our program and look into doing the same in their communities.”
After the small, first-period private pilot class Oct. 3, Short moved classrooms to teach a larger aviation exploration class of over a dozen students about hot air ballooning.
Then, Short brought four of her students from the high school to the flight academy at the Aspen airport to fly.
“I’ve always wanted to fly, it’s a dream come true to be a part of this,” said Bennett Jones, 14, one of the four students who flew Oct. 3. “I’ve always been fascinated with birds and have always wanted to know the weightless feeling of flying.”
Jones got her chance. After eating a quick lunch in the Aspen Flight Academy space at the Aspen airport, Jones and three other teens sat as co-pilots to Short and Luke Murphy, an academy flight instructor, in a flight to Rifle and back.
“When kids latch onto aviation, it can open up a whole new world,” said Murphy, an Aspen native who said he’s had his private pilot’s license since he was 17.
“It’s really rewarding to see kids who may struggle in other academic areas excel in aviation.”
Moving forward, Murphy and Short hope to see the academy grow and offer more opportunities for students by offering aviation classes at the middle school and by swapping its two Diamond DA40 aircraft for two newer models this spring.
The academy instructors also hope to introduce more students and staff to aviation through the Every Student Flies program, even if they don’t pursue it as a career.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not they become pilots,” Murphy said. “It benefits every student in some way to fly.”
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