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Class of 2020 Michigan high school seniors earn pilot certificates

West Michigan Aviation Academy celebrates 10 years

More than a dozen West Michigan Aviation Academy graduates celebrated the STEM-oriented high school’s tenth anniversary by earning a private pilot certificate despite flight training challenges surrounding the coronavirus pandemic—and school officials couldn’t be prouder.

Twelve of thirteen West Michigan Aviation Academy graduates who earned their private pilot certificates during the summer of 2020 gather at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport to celebrate their success. Photo courtesy of West Michigan Aviation Academy.

“These students took on the additional challenge of remote learning to complete their studies and prepare for the licensing test,” said George Pavey, the school’s dean of aviation and engineering. “Although we could not complete their oral exam and checkride before graduation, my team committed that we would find a way to get them in the air as soon as we could, even if it meant flying all summer.”

To that end, class of 2020 students and their flight instructors put family vacations, educational seminars, and other plans on hold to concentrate on preparing 13 students for their checkrides at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.

“The staff at WMAA is like family,” said student Triston Mayton, who was part of a cohort that earned pilot certificates after in-person classes at the school were put on hold in the spring. “They don’t just do their job to get paid. They made personal sacrifices of family time and of their summer to help us get through this program despite the ongoing pandemic,” he added.

Mayton complimented West Michigan instructors for giving students “all the tools to succeed. All we had to do was put them to good use.”


Students can complete the coursework required to earn a private pilot certificate as part of their regular classes, but the flight hours and the FAA exam are paid for out of pocket. Additional students who earned a private pilot certificate included Sierra Barna, Kiehl Dahnke, Drew Daugherty, Nick Gutowsky, Taylor Hall, Zach Herrera, Matias Martinez, Vixie Moore, Nathan O’Droski, David Rozelle, Joe Skrycki III, and Ford Yates.

In all, 95 West Michigan Aviation Academy high school students have earned private pilot certificates since the program began—with several students going on to log firsts.

Josh Nienhaus was in the school’s inaugural class of 2010 and was the first alumnus to become a commercial airline pilot. Five years later, Tori Gann was the first female student to earn her private pilot certificate, and in 2020 Taylor Hall became the first Black female to accomplish the same milestone.

Pavey pointed out that alumnus Matt Slobe—who is now a CFI—endorsed two class of 2020 students. It’s “pretty cool to have one of our alumni training our students,” a proud Pavey wrote via email. Slobe is also the primary flight instructor for aviation history and literature teacher Shannon VanZegeren, who completed her first solo and will soon begin cross-country training.

The Michigan academy is among a handful of high schools where students can earn a private pilot certificate as part of the normal high school curriculum. Pavey said the incoming private pilot ground school class will have approximately 50 students and the flight class “will be at 20, plus or minus a few, as we let the dust settle on COVID-19 school reopening” scheduled for August 31.

The tuition-free public charter school is one of the pioneers of the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Curriculum. The aviation-centric science, technology, engineering, and math program is designed to bolster the pilot population and currently covers ninth and tenth grades; the eleventh grade curriculum is available for the 2020-2021 school year, and twelfth grade the following year. About 8,300 students have been confirmed in the classes at 417 schools and in 450 classrooms throughout the United States.

David Tulis
David Tulis
Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft and photography.
Topics: Training and Safety, Student, Aviation Education Programs

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