On Feb. 25, as George Smith returned to the ramp, the designated pilot examiner pronounced his performance “not bad, for a rookie.”
Smith, 17, thus became the first private pilot his Texas high school produced—this year. He continues a family tradition—his uncle earned his own wings at the same school in the early 1970s—and leads his class of students in the Sterling High School Aviation Sciences Magnet Program, according to Magnet Coordinator Lisa Stillwell. Four other student pilots have soloed this year, the largest crop of budding aviators the Houston Independent School District has produced this early in the year in recent memory.
Smith, in a telephone interview with AOPA Online Feb. 27, said he was first bit by the flying bug about a decade ago, on a stormy airline flight to Orlando, Fla.
“I just loved it,” Smith said.
Students in the program—one of very few in the country to offer flight instruction at the high school level—are given a combination of traditional coursework and aviation classes, including a private pilot ground school. After school, they fly Grumman Cheetahs and Cessna 172s with instructors from the Flying Tigers Flight School at Houston’s Ellington Field. Smith said the program prepared him well for the checkride—and beyond.
“I wasn’t that nervous,” Smith said. “I’ve been doing it for so long and I was confident in my skills.”
An internship in the aviation department at ConocoPhillips has adjusted Smith’s aspirations: Though he has not ruled out an airline career, he now has his sights set on becoming a corporate pilot and eventually a chief pilot. Meanwhile, he has been invited to introduce Superintendent Terry B. Grier at an annual luncheon address on the state of Houston schools, an honor that will celebrate Smith’s achievement.
“It’s been a long road,” Smith said, adding that earning his wings is “outstanding, and astonishing to me.”
For Smith and fellow students, the flight lessons, transportation, and course materials are all free, financed with federal dollars in the school district budget earmarked for career development. Stillwell said the district, the largest in Texas, has long been committed to increasing the pilot population, and is eyeing an expansion of the aviation program. There are shortages expected in other disciplines, including air traffic control and aviation maintenance, and the district hopes to expand the aviation magnet program in future years to prepare students more specifically for those careers.
AOPA Central Southwest Regional Manager Yasmina Platt joined district and city officials—and National Business Aviation Association Regional Representative Steve Hadley—to celebrate the achievement of the newest class of soloists on Feb. 23. Platt is also an alumna, having launched her own aviation career at Sterling High School, and told the students that it prepared her not only as a pilot, but for other missions that include working for the planning department of the world’s largest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.
Platt offered congratulations on behalf of AOPA, called on students to help secure the future of aviation, and left them with mementos recognizing their accomplishments. Smith plans to continue his aviation education at the University of North Texas.