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AOPA Foundation announces 2016 scholarship recipients

Fifteen individuals have been selected as winners of the 2016 AOPA Flight Training Scholarships, a program designed to help aviation trainees of all ages earn a pilot certificate. The scholarships are funded by donations to the AOPA Foundation.

The AOPA Flight Training Scholarship program launched in 2011, focused on facilitating a positive flight training experience that would encourage student pilots to achieve their goals. By helping to produce new pilots, the scholarship program also strives to ensure general aviation’s future, with scholarship recipients serving as ambassadors for GA and flight training on a grass-roots level.

The 2016 winners, who include seven female aviators, an active-duty Marine, four high-school and college-aged student pilots, and one recipient in his fifties, will receive grants ranging from $2,500 to $12,000.

Gavin Wanless

Gavin Wanless, 18, of Fort Worth, Texas, is the recipient of the Noe-Singer Flight Training Scholarship. The certificates and ratings he wishes to earn were selected to prepare him for opening a nonprofit mission flight organization that can deliver missionaries and humanitarian workers “wherever they need to go” at the lowest cost possible—making it possible to reach more people in need. Wanless flew for the first time at age 12 through the Civil Air Patrol Aerospace Education Program. Later he attended the CAP’s Powered Flight Encampment, leading to his first solo at a total time of 8.2 hours. Working a full time job, a part-time job, and securing scholarship funding will “put me that much closer to the bigger dream of becoming a mission pilot,” he said. (Watch a video of Wanless being surprised with the news of winning the scholarship.)


Rebecca Cheek

Rebecca Cheek, 33, of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, has been awarded the Fred and Diane Fitts Memorial Flight Training Scholarship sponsored by an endowment from the Corporate Aircraft Association that will help her resume flight training after an absence of several years. She is also on a path to achieve a long-term goal of becoming an aircraft owner, flight instructor, and flight school operator. Already, she is working to educate young people about aviation in her occupation as a high school teacher of business and history in Scottsbluff. Her ability to educate and inspire her students about flight is complemented by personal experience: When she was 20 years old, Cheek worked as a baggage handler and deicer for a commuter airline in her hometown. Then for two years she flew as a flight attendant with a regional airline. “I still look back on those years as one of the best experiences and most positive character building times of my life,” she said. (Watch a video of Cheek being surprised with the news of winning the scholarship.)


William Schoeffler

William Schoeffler, 17, of Santa Rosa, California, is a recipient of a Sarah Wilson Flight Training Scholarship. A high school senior and an Eagle Scout who soloed in a Cessna 172, Schoeffler took his first Young Eagles flight at age 10, when he could “barely reach the pedals with the tops of my toes.” Schoeffler has begun the process of applying to the Air Force Academy, hoping for the chance to be able to serve his country while pursuing his dream of flight. He also has not ruled out a commercial or corporate pilot’s post. “I know that there is going to be a lot of work ahead of me, but I am determined and I know that I will get there,” he said.


Yitzchok Finkelstein

Yitzchok Finkelstein, 17, of West Hempstead, New York, has been awarded a Sarah Wilson Flight Training Scholarship. The pre-solo student pilot recently graduated from high school. He recalls that the first picture he ever drew—at age two—was of a helicopter. When he was five, his grandmother painted a collage of airplanes and helicopters for him, and the artwork remains on his wall today. An introductory flight came along “after years of begging” his parents. Seven months later Finkelstein, who has four siblings, began flight lessons. “After 13.2 hours and 10 lessons later, I am on my way to accomplishing my dream,” he said, looking at a future in which he envisions taking people for airplane rides in the short term and later becoming a flight instructor and airline pilot.


Angela Rivera

Angela Rivera, 26, of Miami, is a recipient of a Richard R. and Gretchen E. Harper Scholarship in Memory of Richard R. Harper. She was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in Miami, Florida. Although she often heard it said that “girls could not fly," and aviation offered no career path for a woman, she persisted—and after a long search, enrolled in a college program in aviation administration, “a decision I will never regret.” Flight training, perhaps leading to a professional pilot’s life, has been a challenge and a learning experience; from radio work to air work, Rivera has found that she could practice maneuvers “until they became fun.” Rivera is an AOPA member who says that flying makes her feel unstoppable and gives her a way “to inspire women and girls and those who dare to dream.”


Brian Gustin

Brian Gustin, 53, of Prosser, Washington, is a recipient of a Richard R. and Gretchen E. Harper Scholarship in Memory of Richard R. Harper. A semi-retired electrical engineer with experience in simulators and avionics, he also has worked as a volunteer firefighter, and been a partner in a microbrewery. Last winter, when seeking a way out of “the doldrums,” he dusted off an old flight training manual, “and the hook was set,” he said. “No matter how stressful my day was, when I opened that book, my troubles melted away.” Gustin soloed at 20 hours, and he has an aviation wish list that includes being able to fly cross-country to visit family and friends, and to use his technical knowledge to make simulator training more available in his area—including giving high school students a chance to experience aviation.


Charles “Dozer” Reed

Charles “Dozer” Reed, 43, of Keithville, Louisiana, is the recipient of a Sarah Wilson Flight Training Scholarship. He loves aviation history, and excelled at aerospace science in high school. A disabled veteran who was injured in an accident in a convoy heading to Iraq in 2005, Reed underwent six operations for damage to the spinal cord, and worked long and hard to regain medical certification, resulting in his resuming his flight training this year. Reed volunteers as a mentor with the Wounded Warrior Project, has been an advocate for veterans on state legislative issues, and would like to put a pilot’s certificate to use some day to help wounded veterans see their families. “There is no greater feeling than that of soaring above the clouds. It is where I belong,” he said. (Watch a video of Reed being surprised with the news of winning the scholarship.)


Kristen Dwiggins

Kristen Dwiggins, 36, of Cary, North Carolina, has been awarded an Erral Lea Plymate Memorial Scholarship. She is an airport project manager and a pre-solo student pilot from a family with an aviation tradition. Her father served on the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress in the Air Force, and both her grandfathers flew in bombers in World War II. The influence of aviation altered her career direction so that instead of managing projects to build roads, parks, and buildings, she now manages airport projects. Dwiggins flies from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and has set her sights on acquiring a commercial pilot’s credentials. In the meantime, she plans to become active in aviation organizations and use a private pilot certificate to fly to aviation events. “The new skills will also be an excellent opportunity to help encourage other women to take to the skies and become pilots,” she said.


Accrina Grandin

Accrina Grandin, 27, of Wilmington, North Carolina, has been awarded an Erral Lea Plymate Memorial Scholarship. The pre-solo student and her husband have been “chasing the dream” to fly together as professional pilots since they met. Not a pair to leave flying at the airport after their lessons, their home contains a “fake cockpit” put together with a Cessna 152 cockpit poster; a yoke; rudder pedals; and adjustable levers for a throttle, the flaps, carb heat, and mixture control. Flying once a week with her instructor, Grandin knows that there is a long road ahead. But, “I think my dream job would be to fly supplies to remote places or places in need after natural disasters,” she said.


Damarni Tyrell

Damarni Tyrell, 19, of The Bronx, New York, is a recipient of an Erral Lea Plymate Memorial Scholarship. Soccer and food are two of his passions, but neither comes close to how he feels about flight. Tyrell flew three hours in a Diamond DA20 on the island of St. Croix; later he moved to New York City and continued flight training (in a Piper) and studied aviation maintenance. Tyrell soloed at 20 hours and at last report, he had accumulated 58 hours and was getting ready for a checkride. He looks forward to exploring the countryside, with his parents, and traveling to their birthplace of St. Kitts, where he always found support and encouragement to pursue his dream.


Nathan Kublank (right) with Matt in a Piper Cherokee.

Nathan Kublank, 35, of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, is a recipient of an Erral Lea Plymate Memorial Scholarship. Living where he does provides one clear bonus for an aviation aficionado: He has attended every EAA AirVenture since he was four years old. Now the father of three daughters with whom he would love to share the world of flight, he has resumed a flight training project he began many years ago, and hopes to “re-solo” soon. Another motivation for resuming his training is to be able to take his brother, who was injured in an aircraft accident but never lost his passion for flight despite being unable to pursue a dream of becoming a pilot, flying “as often as possible.” “He is my inspiration and my hero,” Kublank said.


Fanghuang Tu

Fanghuang Tu, 44, of Amherst, New York, is a recipient of an Erral Lea Plymate Memorial Scholarship. The pre-solo student pilot and Taiwan native who moved to the United States as a student in the 1990s says he found his American dream through his education, his job, and his family. He became a citizen, and decided that it is time, after much delay, to make a second American dream come true by becoming a pilot.  (In his many years of living in the United States, he had only managed to take two instructional flights before signing up for flight training last April, he said.) Earning a private pilot certificate and an instrument rating is his goal as he divides his busy time between work, family, school events, and aviation.


Jessica Andry

Jessica Andry, 28, of Seattle, is the recipient of the Gina Santori Flight Training Scholarship. An aviation spark was lit for outdoors-loving Andry as she watched floatplanes take off and land from Lake Washington, “which I found astonishing and fascinating.” Following up by reading about the Wright Brothers motivated her to learn to fly. She began training in Renton (in a glass-cockpit Cessna 172) and has soloed.  “I spend my free time studying because I want to know everything I can about the physics of flight, types of planes, FAA rules and potentials for me to work in the industry,” she said. Becoming a professional pilot is now her goal—but before that, she looks forward to flying her family around the beautiful San Juan Islands as a private pilot.


Kaitlin Fugate photo by Cpl. Mark Watola.

Kaitlin Fugate, 22, of Jacksonville, North Carolina, is the recipient of the Richard Santori Memorial Scholarship. The pre-solo student took her first flight lesson in June, has her sights set on becoming a “career aviator,” comes from a family of pilots, and is on active duty as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps who has served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was during her time overseas—when she flew more than 800 hours as a combat flight crewmember—when Fugate resolved to start training on her return. Since then the young sergeant has “seriously enjoyed” her time in the left seat of a Cessna 172 , despite a time-consuming and costly commute to the airport several times a week from her base at Camp Lejeune.


Jacqulyn San Miguel

Jacqulyn San Miguel, 26, of Camano Island, Washington, is a recipient of a Sarah Wilson Flight Training Scholarship. After spending seven years racing cars and testing new design modifications, she realized that it was “time for me to head for the sky.” Her goal: helicopter aerobatics. She is enrolled as a full-time student in a university aviation science program. Her inspiration comes from the career of Chuck Aaron, famous as the recently retired pilot of an aerobatic helicopter for Red Bull. The pre-solo student helicopter pilot says she wants to walk in those shoes some day. “I can truly say that when you find your purpose, you know, and I know my purpose is to become the next certified aerobatic helicopter pilot inside the United States,” she said.

Each scholarship recipient also will receive a gift certificate for MyGoFlight products, made possible by the company's Pilot ONE scholarship assist program to help create more pilots. The program was created by Alyssa M. Schneider, the daughter of MyGoFlight CEO and AOPA member Charles P. Schneider.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Training and Safety, Scholarship, AOPA Foundation

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