When 16-year old Jahzara Middleton strapped on the virtual reality helmet, she was instantly transported from a classroom at Evanston Township High School to the cockpit of a US Marine Corps fighter jet.
“Oh my gosh,” said the ETHS senior. “This is so cool.”
With the guidance of USMC pilot, Capt. Darrin McElroy, Jahzara “flew” the computerized flight simulator, reaffirming a career goal she’s had “since I was little.”
Jahzara was among several hundred ETHS students attending Aviation Career Day at the high school on Tuesday, an event that let the young people meet professionals from more than a dozen airlines, trade groups, maintenance companies, and organizations of female and Black pilots.
Josh Hernandez is what Jahzara Middleton hopes to become. Hernandez, a pilot who was at Career Day meeting students, says he “grew passionate about aviation through the Chicago Air and Water Show,” when he was a child.
Hernandez, who now flies corporate jets, took an aviation program in college and also received scholarships from the Chicago Area Business Aviation Association (CABAA). He’s now secretary of that group.
With the help of mentors, the Rogers Park native kept learning about flying. His entry level job was as an aircraft refueler.
“You learn the language, what the pilots need, and what each aircraft is like,” Hernandez says. After awhile, others were refueling the planes for him.
Hernandez says his message to students is that it is possible to come from a single parent household and still achieve your dreams.
Aviation Day was actually supposed to happen in March 2020, but we all know what happened then.
“We had been working for 18 months planning the event,” says ETHS Superintendent Marcus Campbell. But due to COVID-19, school was closed the day before Aviation Day was scheduled.
But a good idea always finds a way to come back.
Aviation Day participants also found out that it’s possible to have a career in the flight business without ever setting foot on the flight deck.
Norah Lenardic, president of CABAA, says there are opportunities in marketing, accounting, interior design and even cybersecurity.
But the biggest demand is for those who can fly the planes or fix them.
“We’re looking for flight crews right now. There’s a shortage of pilots and mechanics,” Lenardic says.
Of course, no one is going to go straight from high school into a flying a 737. You work your way up through smaller planes, accumulating the necessary hours.
There are summer flight instruction programs for teens, such as Tuskegee Next, named in honor of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black fighter pilot unit in World War II, when the military was segregated.
Some airlines, such as American, now have Cadet Academies, flight training schools that can take from 18-24 months to complete. Pilot training is not inexpensive, although long-term, the pay can be excellent.
But Jahzara Middleton is not going into aviation for the money.
She just wants to fly.
Her plan is to obtain an associate’s degree from a community college, and then, with apologies to the Marine who helped with the simulator, Jahzara says she’ll join the Air Force to become a pilot, perhaps career military, perhaps commercial down the road.
“It’s going to be awesome.”