More than 700 high school and college students at the thirteenth annual Leesburg, Virginia, aviation career day were inspired by a National Transportation Safety Board investigator and third-generation pilot who never gave up on her dream.
Heidi Kemner, a regional air safety investigator with the NTSB, learned to fly at Leesburg Executive Airport and encouraged students attending the ProJet Aviation event, saying that if they “worked hard for it,” their dreams could come true, too.
Julie O’Brien, ProJet’s general manager, said the event was created “to expose high school and college level students to all of the career opportunities within the aviation industry.” The general aviation jobs expo has grown from “about 70 or 80 kids” and “a couple of aircraft on display” to scholarships and professional career presentations. She said the idea for an aviation career day event came from numerous field trip requests from local school districts and thought there “had to be a better way” than bringing schools out to the airport one at a time. Instead, she “convinced them into bringing all the school groups out on one day. Now, 13 years later, we’re giving away over $388,000. There are over 720 kids here from Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. We have 72 vendors” and “volunteers from all walks of aviation. It’s a pretty amazing event.”
The financial awards included educational scholarships, specific scholarships donated by six local flight schools, and a handful of big-money awards from traditional aviation universities including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Liberty University, Marywood University, Averett University, Southern Utah University, and Western Michigan University.
Laura Palmer, a 19-year-old Virginia Tech aerospace engineering student, was one of many future aviators who were awarded funds to help with flight training. “I actually haven’t done any flight training before, so this is really exciting time for me.” Palmer said her future career would benefit from “hands-on experience” in a GA aircraft and she was hoping to continue giving back to others by “becoming a CFI because I really like to help people.”
Arnaud Dahourou, a Vienna, Virginia, high school senior with a fondness for Boeing’s 777 airliner, was awarded $2,500 from Av-Ed Flight School in Virginia. His long-term goal is to become an career pilot and “fly the triple-7” because the aircraft was his favorite flight simulator jet. “I’ve had a passion for aviation as long as I can remember.”
Elena-Marie Weissenboeck, 16, also of Vienna, Virginia, plans to use her $500 award to study physics and aeronautics in college and to pursue an engineering degree. “I’m very passionate about physics, chemistry, and now, aeronautics.” The physics club member credited her high school teacher with opening her eyes to an aviation-related career and “learned all about the importance of aeronautics” during research for an essay contest. “There are so many aspects of engineering in aviation. It’s not just [being] a pilot,” she continued. “There are also people who are manufacturing the parts” and many other related job opportunities. Her trip to the Leesburg airport was her first experience on a GA airfield ramp, “and everyone is so friendly. There are so many different opportunities to offer so many different students. I just really love it.”
Madisen Garnes, 16, a $1,350 scholarship winner from Oakdale High School in Frederick, Maryland, said she was “really interested” in flight lessons and becoming an astronaut until she realized how much flight training cost. “I was so surprised and so thankful to win.” She was excited about the learning experience and the adventure of entering the world of aviation, as well as leadership, and new responsibilities. Garnes added that she was grateful for the financial boost that would help her “experience the world from a different point of view” and “lead into my career as an astronaut.”
O’Brien hoped the career expo and the scholarships would lead to continued aviation industry growth. “The opportunities for good pay are just around the corner for pilots, and airlines are already giving sign-on bonuses. We need to get ahead of that game,” she added. “There’s a little something for everybody and it’s important that they’re exposed to that, so that those doors can be open to them.” She said the enthusiasm from students, aviation colleges, and flight schools was enlightening, and she predicted that aviation career day events could take off elsewhere. “I think every state in the country should do this. It’s good for our industry and it’s huge opportunities for these kids. It changes lives.”