August 9, 2012
By Dan Namowitz
Have you ever dreamed of flying?
That’s the question Orlando, Fla., businessman Michael McKenzie is asking youngsters ages 14 to 17 in his metro area.
McKenzie asks the question in a big way, calling on history, the future, and the power of awakened aspirations to give his young target audience a new sense of direction and belonging.
Perhaps he will even help secure aviation’s future in the bargain—but there’s no time to waste.
“We need to step it up a bit,” McKenzie said in a phone interview.
McKenzie not only asks the question, but he offers his audience a surprisingly accessible answer as emerged last February at the South Orlando YMCA Family Center, where he launched the Vision of Flight program. Participants in the ceremony included local education officials, private-sector supporters, and appearances by Lt. Cols. Leo Gray, Hiram Mann, and George Hardy of the Tuskegee Airmen—the fabled Red Tail pilots of World War II.
The nonprofit Vision of Flight was designed to operate a two-day-a-week after-school and Saturday program providing 160 hours of classroom instruction in flight and aviation mechanical subjects—all aimed at nurturing youngsters’ passion for aviation and raising their awareness of aviation as a career path.
McKenzie points to projections of the need to hire 25,000 pilots—and 50,000 aviation professionals overall—by 2020. The program seeks to address that demand “by exposing and educating youth about the many facets of the industry and providing students, particularly minorities and women, real-time industry-standard training to prepare them for entry into the aviation industry,” says a profile of the program.
In three phases, the program aims to bring an estimated 300 participants yearly from acquiring a basic knowledge of aviation through enhanced skill development to job training and career planning. Flight training is introduced via computer simulation. Students that demonstrate high interest, aptitude, and continued educational achievement will have the opportunity to move to aircraft. The program also has a community service component.
Equally important, McKenzie says, is to “make sure we’re getting the history part right.” Vision of Flight does that by presenting the facts about the under-representation of minorities in the aviation industry, and providing background on how segregation prevented many black aviators from becoming certificated as pilots, said the Vision of Flight program guide.
In announcing its participation, the YMCA of Central Florida hailed the program in February as an enhancement of its joint effort with private sector partners, including Lockheed Martin, “to provide innovative opportunities that encourage math and science interests among students.”
Vision of Flight was the right fit for the effort at the Y’s Oak Ridge facility “by supplementing the rigorous college preparatory curriculum and hands-on activities being proposed as part of Oak Ridge High School’s Aviation and Aerospace Engineering Magnet program,” it said.
With a big hiring curve coming and the importance of technical and science education increasing, it’s time for a “new kind of intervention” to motivate youngster who may lack a vision for a challenging future, McKenzie said.
“It’s time to teach a new way. Come in with things that knock their socks off and grabs their imagination,” he said. “I feel strongly that aviation does just that.”
For McKenzie, a 350-hour private pilot who flies often in connection with his ground transportation business and for pleasure, that feeling is more than just a hunch. He has a strong urge to share the love of flight that was nurtured in him from age 12, when he was sent to an after-school program that gave him 10 hours of simulator training. McKenzie had never been in an airplane—but the 10-hour simulation course was life-changing for the youngster from Brooklyn, N.Y.
He took lessons at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y. McKenzie joined the Navy, serving on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower as a landing and signal operator, a period during which he managed to fly “an hour here and an hour there.” Years later, his aviation horizons are still expanding; he plans to earn his instrument and multiengine ratings and a commercial pilot certificate as time permits.
McKenzie has seen for himself the effect an airplane ride can have on a youngster—the grin that seems impossible to wipe away, the “feeling of empowerment” that the flight experience conveys.
“Once they experience it, it changes them in some way,” he said. “It gives them that sense of hope that ‘I can do this.’
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