By JOE CALLAHAN
The Daytona Beach News-Journal
OCALA, Fla. (AP) – Alexandra Sexton had always dreamed of becoming a pediatric oncologist. But all that changed about a year ago when she was introduced to Ocala Trinity Catholic High School’s Aerospace Career Academy.
Alexandra, an Irish-born 17-year-old who has lived in Marion County for most of her life, fell in love with aviation, thanks to academy instructor John Edsall, who also is an adjunct professor with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
“He lit the fire of aviation in me,” said Alexandra, who now wants to be an airline pilot. “And I also thought about flying in the medical field (delivering supplies). I love helping people.”
Alexandra is one step closer to realizing her dream. In November, she became the first student in the academy to get her pilot’s license, an arduous process that took hours of classes, testing and, of course, flying.
It’s been a year since the academy took flight at Trinity Catholic. Now there are 20 students taking aerospace courses and about 33 percent are currently taking flying lessons.
This month, the academy will add more unmanned flying instruction for students who want to make a career of flying in the ever-expanding drone markets, like in real estate or the military. One day soon, officials said, drones will require a traditional pilot’s license once the drones are allowed to fly frequently in Federal Aviation Administration-regulated airspace.
Edsall said these joint educational ventures between high schools and Embry-Riddle are vital for the future of the commercial airline industry. With new guidelines that force pilots into retirement at age 65, coupled with a law that requires pilots to be U.S. citizens, there is a pilot crisis brewing around the country.
According to numerous studies that have been conducted during the past five years, the industry will need about 12,000 new pilots between 2017 and 2022 because of the forced retirement.
Edsal said that is why Embry-Riddle is expanding programs into high schools throughout the state. In 2004, there were only a handful of schools that offered aviation; today, Embry-Riddle has teamed with 77 schools and counting.
Trinity Catholic’s president, David McKenzie, said Embry-Riddle pays about $100,000 annually to Trinity to run the program. That covers the instructor and other program costs.
The parents of each student who enrolls must pay $2,500, which is cheap considering it costs about $10,000 for student flying lessons. The remainder of the money is collected from donors through fundraisers by McKenzie and staff to keep the students airborne.
The academy started last January with two courses: pilot ground school and principles of aeronautical science. In August, the school beefed up the instruction to include unmanned flight.
Trinity Catholic students enrolled in the Aerospace Career Academy may receive up to 21 college credits, McKenzie said. All college credits earned through Embry-Riddle while at Trinity Catholic will be transferable to any college or university.
The new program has evolved quickly, considering the aerospace concept first lifted off the ground in June 2015.
Edsall, who taught at Francis Marion Military Academy until June 2014, had planned to launch the program at the military charter school. When that didn’t work out, he spoke with the officials with the public school district and Trinity Catholic High about the need for such an academy locally.
“Trinity Catholic jumped on the idea,” said Edsall in a previous interview, adding that students also can get industry certification in addition to college credits.
Edsall said any student who completes the Aerospace Career Academy program is guaranteed admission to Embry-Riddle following high school graduation, with an $8,000 scholarship.
Embry-Riddle’s Aerospace and Engineering Program is the largest in the nation and is consistently ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
Very soon, Trinity Catholic High senior Clayton Wilson will take his final flying exam. Trinity uses Ocala Aviation Services, and owner Ron Towater agreed to charge cheaper rates.
Wilson, 17, said he plans to attend Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, to become a mechanical engineer. “I want to design drones,” he said.