It used to be that a high percentage of tomorrow’s airline pilots came from the Air Force. That’s not happening any more. Today we have to look to teenagers whose dream is to become airline pilots. That’s an ambitious dream. Earning the qualifications for that job requires a lot of education and training and that takes big bucks. It’s not the easiest goal in the world to achieve.
The North Jersey Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots, is doing its part to make it just a little easier. At their holiday dinner on December 8, they awarded their annual Dodie Riach scholarship awards.
“This is the ninth year the North Jersey Ninety-Nines has offered scholarships to New Jerseyans, male or female, who wish to learn to fly or get an advanced rating,” said Barbara Feldman, chairwoman of the scholarship committee. “We have granted 25 scholarships worth $38,000. The scholarships are awarded in memory of chapter member Dodie Riach, who perished with her son, who was also a pilot, as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning aboard their aircraft.”
The program’s objective is to promote general aviation in the North Jersey area. All three of this year’s winners are teenagers who are student pilots and hope one day to be airline pilots. All are honor students and AOPA members. Each of them will receive $1,800 toward their flight lessons.
Michael Westervelt, 17, of Nutley, is a senior and honor student at Paramus Catholic High School. He was a natural for a flying career. His grandfather, a pipe fitter, is a CFII. His mother, who is working on her CFI and CFII ground instructor’s ratings, has passed both written exams.
Westervelt’s grandfather taught his mother to fly when she was 14 or 15, and she got her license at 18. Oddly enough, the bug never spread to Westervelt’s father, although he’s supportive of his son’s goal to be an airline pilot. He flew with his wife only once, and wasn’t thrilled by the experience.
Westervelt’s grandfather lives in Florida during the winter, and the aspiring airline pilot and his mother have flown there in his grandfather’s Mooney several times to visit him. Westervelt’s father and younger brother, Bryan, 12, stay home.
His mother went for her first airplane ride out of Teterboro Airport when she was four years old. The first efforts to get her aloft weren’t an instant success. Her father owned a Luscombe then, which he based at Teterboro.
One day he took her out to the airport and strapped her in the airplane. She was too small to see out the window. All she could see were those big instruments, and they looked frightening.
When her father started the engine, the roar scared her and she yelled that she didn’t want to go anywhere in that monstrous machine. But her father didn’t give up. He repeated the process on several other occasions. Finally, one time she didn’t yell, and they flew. That was the beginning.
Michael Westervelt’s first experience in an airplane, when he was 6 or 7, bore some parallels. He didn’t fly either the first time he was strapped into the Mooney his grandfather had then.
“It wasn’t because I didn’t want to fly,” he said. “We taxied around the airport, supposedly to get me acclimated. Then they dropped me off and went flying together. I suspect they wanted to have fun flying and didn’t want me in the back seat carrying on.”
After several taxi experiences, however, he did get his first ride. When he began flying himself, at age 15, Westervelt’s grandfather gave him his first lessons at Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., in a rented 152. Then he transferred to the Aero Safety Training Ltd. Flight School at Lincoln Park Airport, in Lincoln Park, N.J. He soloed there on Feb. 20, 2004.
Unlike many other teenage students who do most of their flying in the summer, Westervelt works at a summer camp in Maryland to earn money for his flight lessons. That means he can only fly during the school year. He has one day off a week during the summer, and his mother flies down and picks him up so he can spend the day at home.
He plans to study aeronautical engineering, which he feels is a good background for an airline pilot career, and he’s applied to a number of colleges.
“I’m so happy for him,” says his mother, Sue, who is a member of the North Jersey Ninety Nines and served as vice chair from 2000 to 2002.
Michael Westervelt helps the chapter out every year when it runs its annual pennies-a-pound rides.
Amy Byrne, 17, is a junior at New Providence High School, where she’s an honor student, secretary of the Student Council and is on the varsity cross country team.
Knowing of her interest in flying, her parents gave her a Discovery Flight as a birthday present in October 2003. She took that flight with Sky Blue Aviation Academy at Morristown Airport. The ride convinced her she wanted to learn to fly.
That was more than her parents anticipated. Going for a ride was one thing, but learning to fly was something else again. But Byrne had a goal. Baby sitting every Saturday earned her money she saved for flying lessons. By April 2004, she had saved up $5,000 to start flight training. But her parents were hesitant about letting her learn to fly.
“They didn’t know anybody who flew,” said Amy.
She eventually convinced them to let her learn, and today, they’re very supportive and have even contributed a couple thousand dollars toward her flight lessons. She still baby sits to earn flying money and works Sundays as an intern at Sky Blue Aviation to earn flying time.
“I work in the office ten hours a week learning dispatching, general office work and other things I’d never learn as a regular student,” she said.
The $1,800 scholarship will help bring her ultimate goal of becoming an airline pilot just a bit closer. She has logged 45 hours and hopes to get her private license by early spring of 2005.
Thor Smith, 16, of Hampton, is a junior at Voorhees High School in Lebanon Township. He is an outstanding example of what flying can do to give a floundering teenager a new outlook and turn his life around.
“Before I went for my first flight, I was wandering in the wrong direction; I felt that life had nothing to offer me,” he wrote in his scholarship application essay. “I slipped into the wrong things at a key time in my life.”
His parents and both grandfathers recognized his struggle. One grandfather was a flight engineer in World War II and in Korea. The other had no connection to aviation but took him to the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Cape May, of which Smith had read.
He still remembers how impressed he was to see an Avenger, and to learn it was the type of torpedo bomber President George Herbert Walker Bush was flying when he was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. That provided the spark that triggered his interest in aviation.
“My dad asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I said I want to be a pilot,” he said. “He said that pilots are respected people and some of the most intelligent as well. My father said, ‘If you can straighten up, increase your knowledge inside and outside of school, and become as respectable as a young man should be, then we will help pay for your flight training.'”
He spent months earning his father’s respect, and worked with him in construction to help earn money to pay for flight training. He went from a D minus student to an honor student.
On Dec. 20, 2003, he took his first lesson at Alexandria Field in Pittstown. He now has 47 hours, has completed most of his cross-country flights and is close to getting his license. His ultimate goal, like that of his co-winners, is to one day sit in the front seat of an airliner.
Funds for the grants are raised through donations to the group. Donations may be sent to Barbara Feldman, Scholarship Chairperson, at 703 South Branch Drive, Whitehouse Station, N.J. 08889. Other chapter activities help raise scholarship funds as well.