A Michigan high school senior whose dream of a piloting career overmatched the reach of his family’s finances got the game-changing news that he is the first recipient of a scholarship created to eliminate that barrier to an aviation future.
Tyler Herndon, 19, a senior at the West Michigan Aviation Academy, had been summoned to an FBO at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids from his charter school, adjacent to the airport, under "false pretenses" on April 30.
An airplane taxied in, and Stephen Jones, executive director of flight operations at Western Michigan University, and the chairman of the university scholarship committee, got out. The two shook hands.
"I looked at him and said, 'You got it.' His jaw kind of dropped a bit," recalled Jones.
At that moment—captured on video—Herndon, 19, who says he was "born with a passion to fly," learned that he had been selected to receive the Burris Family Flight Science Scholarship. It will pay $25,000 a year toward his college education, provided he maintains academic eligibility.
Herndon has been working on his private pilot certificate during his senior year, and hopes to complete it soon, flying his school’s Cessna 172. Now that he has had a couple of days to “settle down” from the news of the scholarship and think about the future, he said he wants to become a flight instructor as soon as possible, and perhaps fly for a regional airline or a corporate flight department.
"It was a real game-changer," said Jones. "That was the thrilling part of it."
The scholarship award was established by Kelly K. Burris, an attorney and Western Michigan University alumna, who spent 11 years as an aerospace engineer for McDonnell Douglas and Boeing before beginning her legal career.
Burris, now managing shareholder of the Detroit office of Brinks Gilson and Lione, is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea, and multiengine land and instrument ratings. She owns a Beechcraft Debonair that she flies about 250 hours a year for business, pleasure, and on humanitarian missions.
"I am happy to be helping somebody out that needs help, that has that passion, and who will hopefully pass it forward," she said.
Burris, who loves giving airplane rides, especially to youngsters, took flying lessons while a student at Western Michigan University. She said her WMU education "served me well, and taught me some real skills that obviously worked."
"Well, I should send at least one kid to school," she said.
Jones added that the university scholarship panel "saw a huge connection" between what West Michigan Aviation Academy is doing and Western Michigan University’s aviation program, prompting the decision to "do something significant" to support the high school’s work. The charter school was founded in 2010 by entrepreneur and pilot Dick DeVos, a Michigan native.
"WMAA impressed me personally, what they do with those young people," Jones said.
“It’s unique,” WMAA Dean of Aviation George Pavey said about the program.
Asked about the scholarship’s impact on its recipient, Pavey responded, “Talk about something changing someone’s life. It’s pretty cool, pretty special.”
For the winner, agrees Jones, the scholarship is "a wonderful opportunity and a tremendous responsibility all at the same time."
Awarding it was "a difficult decision" for the scholarship committee, which reviewed applicants’ credentials, financial circumstances, and conducted interviews. The panel believed that the four finalists were "very talented young people and very deserving," he said.