Fly like a wolverine, not an eagle.
That’s the idea behind the aviation class taught at Friday Harbor High School, before school, where kids can learn the ropes before they earn their wings.
“I feel strongly about providing these kids with the tools they need to pursue aviation careers if that’s what they want to do,” said Mari Peterson, who gives lectures to the hour-long course, offered twice a week.
The class covers topics like aircraft systems and airspace, preparing the seven enrolled students to take a written exam that can take up to five hours to complete. Taking the written exam is the first step needed to earn a pilot’s license. Logging flight hours with a certified flight instructor and taking the flight exam is the next step.
“I hadn’t thought about flying before, but I thought it was a good skill to have,” said senior Megan O’Brian.
She plans to study nursing at Bellingham Technical College next winter and her aviation skills might propel her toward a career as a flight nurse.
That’s Peterson’s goal – to show students the sky’s the limit. Peterson took a similar class before she graduated from Friday Harbor High School in 2010, though she felt discouraged from an instructor who didn’t think the cheerleader was serious about aviation.
“I want to use the class to encourage excitement about flying, not pressure students,” she said.
Today, Peterson is the assistant chief pilot at Westwind Aviation and a San Juan Pilots Association board member. The association sponsors the program, open to any grade, as well as adults not in school. Conflicting students’ schedules prevented the class from being held during school or after, but they can earn credits.
The class, which started in February, has visited Friday Harbor Airport and even King County International Airport with a donated flight by Kenmore Air. In Seattle, students examined jets with an airport maintenance crew, as well as toured the runway, air traffic control and the Museum of Flight.
“Going up in the tower was pretty cool,” said freshman Gavin Flaum. “It’s something you knew existed but never got to see.”
The class, which hasn’t been offered on island in about four years, is co-taught by Derek Smith, who oversees the San Juan Island School District STEM program. At a recent conference Smith attended, a Boeing human resources representative said the airplane manufacturer would lose 60 percent of its workforce in five years.
“Pilots are a dying breed on the island,” he added. “Aviation jobs make great money, have great benefits. And it’s one of two ways to get on island.”
Since 2008, the Community Foundation of San Juan Island has offered an aviation scholarship in honor of the late local pilot John Volk, who was a founding member of the San Juan Eagles, a volunteer group who flies cancer patients to the mainland for treatment. Graduating island high school seniors are awarded annually, totaling $28,200 since the fund’s inception.
Opportunities to help others and the freedom of mobility are reasons Smith encourages the program.
“Even though you might grow up on a small island, you still have the opportunity to see the world,” he said.