BOSTON -- Jamail Larkins has the ability to turn middle school math into something pretty cool.
A guest speaker, he talks to students about having a split-second to calculate his airspeed, altitude and wind so he can safely pull an aerobatics plane out of a dive and avoid slamming into the ground.
To the 50 seventh- and eight-graders in the room captivated by the young pilot's stories, geometry and algebra take on new importance.
Larkins was just 12 - the age of many of the kids at the John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science in Boston - when he first flew a plane. He got his solo pilot's license at 14 in Canada because he was too young to fly in the United States, and bought his first plane at age 18.
Now Larkins, 23, travels the country as an education ambassador for the Federal Aviation Administration, inspiring students to begin their own careers in aviation on the foundation of a strong math and science education.
The FAA says his mission is critically important - with one out of four workers in the aviation field eligible to retire in the next two to five years.
"Jamail's function is to shake things up and say to kids that there are opportunities out there," says Shelia Bauer, the FAA's aviation and space education program manager. "If we don't tell kids about these careers now, they won't pursue them. They need to know what prerequisites to take in middle school and high school now, so they will ready by college."
The nation is going to need between 12,000 and 15,000 new air traffic controllers in the next few years. Smaller regional commercial carriers already have more job openings for pilots than there are qualified pilots.
The industry needs designers, engineers, technicians, airport managers and people to do just about every job there is, says Bauer. They are mostly highly skilled, high-paying jobs that require extensive education - education that needs to start in middle school with a strong background in math and science.
That's where Larkins comes in.
His tour, dubbed Dream Launch, has already made a half dozen stops, and will take him to Huntsville, AL; Minneapolis, Phoenix, Dallas and other cities over the next few months.
His message appears to be getting through.
At O'Bryant last week, the kids had plenty of questions: Can you die from blacking out in a plane? (Theoretically yes, but he's never heard of it happening) How much money can you make? (Commercial airline pilots make about $150,000, he said.) Have you ever had to bail out in flight? (No, fortunately.)
Students eagerly scribbled down Web site addresses Larkins gave them to find out more about flying and the aviation industry. When his 30-minute presentation was over, they crowded around him with more questions about air show maneuvers and G-force.
"At first I didn't know much about aviation, but when he started to explain I got interested in doing it," said Justin Crespo, 14, a ninth-grader.
No one in Larkins' family was involved in the aviation industry, and his first exposure to flight came during space camp in fifth-grade and a flight simulator video game he used to play.
At age 12, he participated in the Young Eagles, which takes youngsters between the ages of 8 and 17 for a free flight in a small plane. That was when he touched flight controls for the first time.
"It literally changed my life," he said.
He wanted to fly, but lessons were expensive. So he did whatever he could to be around planes, volunteering at the local airport in his hometown of Augusta, GA.
At 15, he started selling flight training manuals and videos to local pilots. Larkins Enterprises Inc. has since grown to a company that buys, sells and leases planes. Larkins got his U.S. license the day after his 16th birthday.
He bought an aerobatics plane at age 18, which he still uses to perform at shows. He even flies his own plane to most of his speaking engagements.
"When you're up there, there are some literally magical moments," he said. "It's a substantially different experience than flying commercially."
His half-hour presentation includes videos of himself flying his aerobatics plane and passing out briefly in the back of a Blue Angels jet.
Larkins' engaging personality gets kids interested in aviation, says Dan Petree, dean at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL, where Larkins earned a degree in business.
"He's very passionate about the things he loves," Petree says. "I can see how kids can relate to him."
For more information visit http://www.erau.edu/dreamlaunch.