Sharing Passion for Flight

By Jodi Prill

Sharing Passion for Flight

Wisconsin non-profit organization offers young aviators a chance to soar — for free

Janesville , WI — Tom Morgan is bringing kids into aviation at Rock County Airport here. He has employed his love of aviation, experience as an educator, and even his financial resources, to establish a non-profit organization. Wisconsin Aviation Academy offers students, grades eight and higher, the opportunity to learn to fly for free. After three years of flight training, WAA is also tackling the responsibility of fixed base operator, running the Janesville Jet Center to ensure the future of the youth aviation program.

WAA founder Tom Morgan

Morgan, WAA founder and executive director, began flying in the late ’80s, and quickly earned his commercial license and certified flight instructor rating. He began flight instructing in 1992 and soon after took a position with an aerial survey company in Chicago .

He explains, "I realized that I really like flying and teaching, but it was really the teaching that I liked as much — probably more — than the flying. Watching that student develop from nothing, where they couldn't even fly straight and level to where they had their first solo — that was pretty exciting. I knew I couldn't make any money flight instructing, or at least it's hard. So I went and got a masters in teaching thinking I could teach at a public school or private school and be a part-time instructor somewhere. I worked in high school and 8th grade programs and I worked with a lot of at-risk students. I ran a program for expelled kids for a year and I always tried to integrate aviation as a motivator with my curriculum or as a bonus. One semester when I worked with the expelled kids, when I started seeing their attendance dropping toward the summer, I set a goal for them; if they met that goal, I'd take them for an airplane ride, and they all met their goals."

For Morgan's students, aviation continued to be the "carrot on the stick." And after working with a career-building program for low-income kids, he developed the idea for an aviation program that would start with 8th grade students and carry them through high school.

In December 2000, Morgan formed Wisconsin Aviation Academy , which is overseen by a board of eleven. By March 2001, it had a hangar and its first airplane. Today WAA has three aircraft, a Cessna 150, Piper Archer, and a Cessna 172, which is a leaseback with a local pilot.

CLASS IS IN SESSION

The first ground school for Wisconsin Aviation Academy started May 12, 2001 . Morgan says there were about ten students in the group, and of the six that stuck with the program, three now have their private pilot's license, and one is even in a college commercial aviation program. Many of the students in the first group were seniors in high school, so they were finished after one year. Since then, students join in the fall of each year, most as young as 8th grade, but Morgan says they still accept high schoolers.

Interested children must fill out an application and meet the 2.5 minimum grade point average requirement. Morgan says WAA will accept students with a GPA as low as 2.0 on a probationary basis, as long as improvement is shown. Also, within the group, WAA strives to draw 50 percent of the kids from low-income families and 75 percent from "underrepresented groups" (minority, women, and low-income). "Ideally it would be wonderful to have 50 percent girls," Morgan says, "because that's what they are in the school district."

This fall, Morgan says WAA is trying something different. It is holding a mini-ground school for the first few weeks to attract as many kids as possible. From that group, they will determine who has the necessary drive and aptitude for following through with the program.

"We'll make sure they can behave, give them a couple of quizzes, and make sure they'll study, because this is essentially college-level work," relates Morgan.

PROGRAM DETAILS

WAA provides everything for the students, including books, flight training, tutoring time, and even trips to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh . "But we don't pay for any of their testing fees," explains Morgan. "When they go to get their flight physical, they pay for that. And they pay for their practical tests. We don't flinch on that because we figure if they can't cut enough grass or throw enough newspapers or do something to take some ownership, then we haven't been successful and we have to question how serious they are about the program. And it's tough."

Morgan estimates that it would cost between $8,000 and $10,000 for each student to go through a similar program.

The program is set up as follows:

Ground school. "We do three phases," Morgan says. "When they're in the 8th grade, we use the Wild Blue Wonders program, something the EAA and NASA put together. It's an aerospace exploration program. It's age-appropriate, so they get all the concepts, but it's not like reading a college textbook.

Pre-solo. Morgan explains this portion is designed for freshmen and sophomores who are not old enough to solo the airplane. These students use the PHAK (Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge). "We take it at a slow pace and use it through the whole year," he adds.

Private pilot course. "When they're junior/senior status, that's our actual private pilot course," Morgan says. "That's what our goal is for those that are juniors: to solo them. For that course we use the Jeppeson guide and the PHAK.

WAA tries to keep about 45 to 50 students in the group at one time. "The only qualifier is we have a 15-passenger van," Morgan says. "So we can't have more than 13 or 14 from one school." The group draws students from the greater Beloit , WI area, just south of the airport.

The program hasn't extended north into Janesville yet because "all of our major contributions came from the Beloit area," Morgan explains. "We'd like to expand into the Janesville school district."

FUNDING THE PROGRAM

Morgan was able to get WAA up and running through three major contributions. He and his wife donated $100,000; an anonymous Beloit donor committed $200,000; and, the Beloit Foundation donated $300,000, all over a three-year period. "The unfortunate thing," says Morgan, "is we're now coming to the end of that three-year period. There's no way we can make this program happen with candy bars and those kinds of fundraisers."

As of July 31, 2003 , Wisconsin Aviation Academy took on the duties and the name of the Janesville Jet Center FBO. Morgan was able to establish a group of investors to purchase the building and WAA is leasing it from the group.

With the addition of the FBO, WAA now provides flight instruction, fuel handling, hangar rental, and cargo loading and unloading, among other services. The non-profit employs five full-time and three part-time employees, along with volunteers.

Most recently, WAA was able to start hiring high school students through grant monies received from area charitable foundations. Morgan hopes to employ up to ten students by the end of the year under what he is calling the Youth Aviation Employment Program. "We've received some nice grants to start employing these kids and work them up the ladder through some different competencies so by the time they're 18 they'll be driving a forklift and fueling airplanes."

According to Morgan, the addition of the FBO was a progression that needed to happen in order to continue to support the youth flight program, in spite of the additional staff needed to operate it and the added insurance costs. As that aspect of the business continues to grow, he expects WAA will be in a position to offer more opportunities to area children.

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