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A Unique Opportunity Flies Into Halifax

Students from California, New Mexico, New Jersey, North Carolina and Halifax County piled into the Stem Center this week for an intense five-day aviation ground school taught by retired military volunteers.

Physics, meteorology, aerodynamics and performance, communication, navigation, fuel management, air space, federal regulations and decision making are part of the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. class curriculum offered here through the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, Association of Naval Aviation, and the Halifax Public School System.

Judge Robert T.S. Colby, director of Aviation Training for the U.S. Sea Cadet Corps, is the heart of the program, drawing volunteer instructors to join him in teaching what is obviously a lifelong Colby passion, aviation. And since 1971, 1,400 students have taken the program, which boasts a 92 percent pass rate, according to the retired Alexandria judge.

“Very few have flight experience,” observed Colby, who took his first airplane ride in 1937 as a boy and began flying himself in 1946.

Students completing the Halifax program are prepared to take the FAA written exam. While the curriculum is expansive, Colby describes the program as more than just academic classes. “Focus” is critical as pilots take command, he emphasized. 

In Halifax this week the youngest student is 13, but the recommended age is 15 and above because the exams have a two-year life, explained Colby. Young aviators may solo at 16.

Fifteen-year-old Irene Castillo of San Francisco is a Sea Cadet who has taken a class like this before and “wanted to do more with it,” she said. Of the rigorous academic program, she describes it as “a challenge only if you don’t like it.” The teenager, who hopes to get her pilot’s license, enthusiastically embraces the challenge.

HCHS student Terence Crawley, 17, is taking the five-day program with future plans of joining the Air Force.

The ground school is part of HCHS student Kenny Garrett’s pursuit of a Boy Scout Aviation merit badge. He, too, describes the program as challenging.  “But I like the challenge,” he added.

“Pay attention, take in a lot of information, comprehend, and tuck it away,” advised HCHS senior Graham K. Bryant.

“If someone is interested in aviation, they need to do something like this to see if it is for them,” he emphasized. “It’s an amazing opportunity, one you can’t pass up.”

Charlie Coursey, a 2006 HCHS graduate, and Jeremy Vaughan, a college sophomore, share the front row with Bryant. Approximately a dozen HCHS students are taking the course.

Turner Adair of New Mexico, 16, plans to get a private pilot’s license, earn an engineering degree, join the U.S. military and pursue a career in avionics.
Volunteer instructors here came from a variety of states.

For instructor Burke, who lives in Gainesville, Georgia, volunteering a week to help with the program is simply “giving back” to others. “This country has been good to me,” he said.

Instructor Swanson agrees, describing teaching as very rewarding. Also on the team, retired military and civil servant Dave Clemmer of Maryland who has been working with Judge Colby for 38 years.

The instructors note several adults, whose children were taking the program, have taken classes as well. One former aviation ground school student pursued her career through the Air Force Academy, quickly becoming a glider instructor. One of the parents who attended the program later taught aviation classes.

Stem Center physics/engineering teacher Joe Boutwell is the only adult student in the Halifax class this week.

“We look forward to having a program next summer,” South Boston Mayor Carroll Thackston said yesterday. “This is a wonderful program as it will lead to more of our youngsters becoming interested in the field of aviation, not only great paying civilian jobs, but it will open their eyes to a career in our great Air Force and will be a real plus for our country.”

South Boston Town Manager Ted Daniel, a former B-52 pilot, urged students to develop basic aviation skills and shared with them the love of flying he discovered during his ROTC college program. “It’s a fantastic career,” said the retired Air Force officer.

Why should students take the course?

“Learning about aviation does more than teach flying,” replied Colby. “It teaches arithmetic, mathematics, physics, decision making, and all those things are absolutely necessary for a fruitful life.”

Will there be a summer 2010 aviation ground school in Halifax County?

“I hope so,” Superintendent of Schools Paul Stapleton replied. “I hope we are going to be able to get it organized. Actually, I think we have enough students here in Halifax County to generate a class, plus we love the idea of having people come from the outside into the county to participate with our students, to see our county and our people. That’s always very positive.

“We believe we’ll be able to generate a class in the summer, and we’re going to work out the details with Judge Colby and with his team,” added the superintendent.

“We feel very good about it.” However, the superintendent included a warning regarding budget issues. “As with most other things, part of it will depend on budget issues, but for the most part we feel we are going to be able to do this next summer.”