Some students at Vista High School are literally reaching new heights through a unique program that gives them a chance to fly.
The school’s new Aviation Honors Ground School program, offered through the Air Force Junior ROTC, is the first of its kind in San Diego County and helps students prepare for getting a private pilot’s license.
The first graduates are due to complete their one-year training in June. As a step toward that end, a few cadets took to the skies Saturday in a Cessna 182 general aviation aircraft.
“The view was absolutely incredible,” said 16-year-old Jared Treadwell, one of two students who piloted the Cessna on a training run supervised by Maj. Roy Knight, commander of the Civil Air Patrol’s Squadron 87 U.S. Air Force Auxiliary in Fallbrook.
Knight handled the takeoff and landing from Fallbrook Community Airpark, but gave students the controls for the rest of the flight. At 138 miles per hour, Jared guided the plane toward Vista High School, then banked left and right over his house and church, before heading a few miles off the coastline of Camp Pendleton. Heavy cloud cover kept the training flight from reaching Dana Point.
“What surprised me the most was the fact that it was far easier to fly (a real airplane) than the simulator that we practiced on,” said Jared, whose ambition is to one day fly a military jet fighter. “You think it will go out of control, but it was very smooth. It’s like riding a car, or bicycle.”
Fellow cadet and junior Raquel Coniglio also had a chance to pilot the plane. The so-called “orientation flights” are considered a first step toward earning a pilot’s license with a minimum number of 40 hours of flight time, said Vinny Lotstetter, the Air Force Junior ROTC flight instructor at Vista and a former B-1B bomber pilot who flew missions over Afghanistan.
Jared and Raquel are to become the first graduates of the one-year Aviation Honors Ground School, according to Lotstetter. There are 143 junior and senior cadets enrolled in the program, which is designed to help students meet the academic requirements to take and pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s ground test.
Upon successful completion, students can fly with an instructor and begin to log flight hours to receive their pilot’s license.
On Saturday, the cadets did their own preflight planning for the nearly 100-mile flight that essentially took them on a loop from Fallbrook, south to Vista, then west to the coast and north around Camp Pendleton.
Knight, of the Civil Air Patrol, said the young pilots “were outstanding — they’ve got a future.”
Raquel said she was a little nervous about her first time at the controls, but was inspired by the view that surrounded her.
“The mountains are big when you’re on the ground but tiny when you’re up in the air,” she said of the flight that stayed between 2,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation.
Her biggest anxiety during the flight came when they were flying past the Oceanside Municipal Airport at the same time as parachutists dropping from the sky. “It was kind of scary because we didn’t want to hit them,” she said. “We were in communication with the tower all the time.”