Chris Carra says flying on vacation trips “opened something in my heart.”

What opened, says the 18-year-old senior at Evanston Township High School, was the desire to become an airline pilot.

So, on Wednesday, Carra was among more than 850 ETHS students who attended the school’s second annual Aviation Day, where kids could walk from table to table, learning about becoming a pilot, a ground support staffer, or an aviation business manager from among 20 different exhibitors.

Kevin Mack knows what Chris Carra is thinking.

Mack, a 1995 ETHS graduate and current airline pilot, was at Aviation Day as well, representing Envoy Air, a regional carrier owned by American Airlines.

He is based at O’Hare Airport.

Mack recalls his first time in the sky, at age 7, in a single-engine plane flown by his uncle.

Mack was hooked, and it was no surprise.

“My dad was a Delta pilot,” Mack says.

“I grew up in aviation.”

After completing college, Mack went to flight school, and was hired by Comair, then a connecting carrier for Delta.

Mack left after five years to sell real estate, but the bug was always there. And, after a serious motorcycle accident in 2021 caused him to reflect on what was really important in his life, “I decided I wanted to go back” into the skies.

He was hired by Envoy.

Envoy Air recruiter Requel Henry and pilot Kevin Mack at ETHS Aviation Day.

Mack was joined at Aviation Day by Requel Henry, an Envoy recruiter.

Once, decades ago, starting pay at regional/commuter airlines was so low that some first officers (co-pilots) were eligible for food stamps.

But things have certainly changed.

Henry said the starting pay at Envoy is now $93 an hour, with a guaranteed minimum of 75 hours’ pay per month.

There is high demand for pilots these days, and Henry says her favorite part of the job is “meeting kids who always wanted to become pilots” and “literally helping make their dreams come true.”

Shaesta Waiz knows a lot about dreams.

Shaesta Waiz.

In 2017, she flew around the world solo in a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. At age 30, she was the youngest woman ever to accomplish the challenging feat, and only the 8th woman overall to do so. Twenty-two countries, five continents, 145 days.

So, Waiz’s organization is appropriately called Dreams Soar, an online platform with information about aviation careers.

Born in Afghanistan in 1987, Waiz came to the U.S. as a refugee with her five sisters.

“I discovered aviation right after high school,” she says.

Waiz was the keynote speaker for Aviation Day, living proof of how dreams can indeed soar.

“I wanted to fly around the world to inspire young people” into thinking that what might at first seem impossible can indeed take place.

Nala Bishop, of the ETHS staff, explained that the exhibitors included airlines, flight schools, universities with aviation programs (such as the College of Aviation at Western Michigan University), the military, the Evanston Police department, and Com Ed, whose drone flew inside the ETHS gym where Aviation Day was held.

ETHS was supposed to have its first Aviation Day in March 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic and related remote learning pushed the event to 2022.

Michelle Vazquez, post-secondary career counselor at ETHS, says a career fair like this can be for kids who’ve always wanted to fly, or for those who perhaps had no idea until seeing something at Aviation Day which grabbed their attention.

“You show them,” Vazquez said, “you don’t just tell them.”

“There are all sorts of career pathways in aviation. This brings the experts into one space.”

Chris Carra is taking advantage of that expertise.

“The beauty of my being here today is the opportunity to learn about what I want to be able to turn into my career.”

Which means some day, he might be like Kevin Mack, who says one of the best part of being a pilot is “chasing the sunset at 30,000 feet.”

“I like it more now,” Mack says, than he did as that seven-year-old who was enchanted by flying.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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