By Wilma Allen
By the time they graduate from high school, many local teens will have launched careers in the growing air and space industry. They’ll have flown planes as student pilots, passed the FAA’s pilot license written exam, and even flown solo from Fernandina Beach Airport. They’ll have learned skills in aircraft mechanics, drone operation and rocketry, and maybe even won scholarships for flight school or college.
This is thanks to the Aerospace Technologies (AeroTech) classes taught at Fernandina Beach High School by Keoki Gray, and support from two generous organizations based at Fernandina Beach Airport. They are Friends of Fernandina Aviation (FOFA), and Experimental Aircraft Association 943 (EAA). Members of these groups take interested teenagers on flights, offer hands-on learning opportunities, and raise funds for scholarships. In the past few years, FOFA scholarships have totaled more than $120,000.
This year, they introduced something new: an Aerospace Club at FBHS. This gives students another way to learn and share their aspirations. It was organized by FOFA President, Karen Atkins, a retired business executive and avid flier. Atkins’ business card reads, “High Performance Team Leader/Aviatrix/Difference Maker,” and it’s easy to see why. At the start of this school year, she visited every aerospace tech class from freshman to senior to generate interest in such a club, and roughly one out of three students signed up for the first meeting. Forty attended and 11 became officers. Three weeks later, they held a lively spaghetti dinner downtown that raised $2,600 to support club activities. The club now boasts 57 members.
Addie Gerke, a high school junior, is club president. She says many members are attracted to careers in flying or air traffic control, but one of the club’s goals is to show students the wide variety of opportunities in the aerospace world. To that end, each monthly meeting features a guest speaker with a different career path and experiences. In October, it was Captain Patrick Gordon. For 38 years, Gordon flew around the world as an airline transport pilot based primarily in the Middle East. For the last 16, he served as an aviation advisor to the royal family in Abu Dhabi. He now lives on Amelia Island and recently published “Fly the Friggin’ Airplane” about his experiences.
In November, Air Traffic Controller, Bob Kamm, gave an enjoyable, inspiring talk about his work. “Until Mr. Kamm’s talk, I had been laser-focused on becoming a pilot,” said club member Jack McGohan, a junior, who hopes to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. “But I now realize there are a lot of different ways to approach a career in aerospace. That’s a good part about the club, it raises your awareness.”
Jack’s interest in flying began just last spring when his neighbor, a former F-16 flier for the Air Force, took him up for a spin. “As soon as the wheels came off the ground, I knew the sky was where I wanted to be,” he said. Jack began immediately studying for his pilot’s license. By the end of summer, he had passed the FAA written exam, quite a feat at any age. Jack is now on track to earn his pilot’s license before graduation.
At December’s meeting, Commander David Bishop and Fernandina Beach Police Department Drone Unit members explained their training and how they work for the community. They also took the club outside for a drone demonstration.
Air Force Maj. Blake Jones will fly from his base in Hungary to Fernandina Beach in January to discuss missions he’s flown all over the world, including evacuating Americans and refugees from Kabul, Afghanistan. Jones grew up nearby and returns to the States several times a year. He looks forward to meeting the students and telling them there’s a whole wide world out there, he said.
For Bo Gatti, another junior, meeting Jones will be especially exciting. Bo is working on her private pilot’s license now and hopes to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. Eventually, she’d like to serve in the military as a fighter pilot.
Future guest speakers include flight attendants, Gerard Miller and Tori Gilmore; Fernandina Beach Airport Manager, Sam Carver, and Bent Wing Flight Services owner, Brian Echard; Nick Atkins, an avionics electrician who served on Navy aircraft carriers and super jets and now works for a defense contractor; and Tom Granholm, a seasoned pilot for UPS who has flown cargo all over the world.
“It is an amazing time to be interested in aerospace,” FBHS’s AeroTech course description states online. “Never has there been so much space-based activity on such a large scale, nor has the private sector figured so prominently. Today’s high school students will see humans set foot on and, perhaps, start colonizing and/or terraforming another planet. AeroTech can help spark their interest in, and wonder of, space travel.”
Meetings are held the first Wednesday of each month and as word gets out, attendance builds. Freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors are welcome, even interested people from outside the school. “The club helps us meet new people, share experiences and learn more about the world,” says Addie.
In less than six months, the club outgrew its meeting space twice, Atkins says. In short, the new FBHS Aerospace Club is off to a flying start.