According to the FAA, there were an estimated 757,000 commercial and private pilot certificates in the U.S. held in 2022, and almost 500,000 people supporting aviation as navigators, mechanics, engineers, etc.. These numbers have grown over the last decade, but as these people retire, where will future generations of pilots and other aviation professionals come from? Who will help transport passengers and cargo, fly rescue and relief missions, donate flights for good causes, or just share the joy of flying? Well, inspiring and launching that next generation is the mission of STEM Flights, a national non-profit that aims to inspire America’s youth to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and aviation careers through unique flight experiences.
Carley Walker is the Director of Development at STEM Flights. The organization was founded in 2018 by her dad, Brigadier General Dave Brubaker, a retired F-16 fighter pilot. After his retirement, he shared his love of flying by giving rides to family, friends, and anyone who expressed an interest. At the same time, he visited school classrooms, attended events, and participated in aviation associations to promote flying. It was then that he was also hearing from contacts in the Air Force about how difficult it was becoming to recruit new people as pilots and for other aviation-related jobs. When he heard that a friend’s daughter was taking flying lessons after having flown with him, he decided it was time to set up a formal organization to inspire young people through flight.
Walker explains, “I think that youth aviation education is an important element of public benefit flying because we are really focused on getting that next generation into aviation. And not only will these young people be entering industry, they will also be our next generation of Angel Flight pilots, our next disaster relief pilots, our next Pilots N Paws pilots. It’s important for us to look down the line and see the next generation coming up. My dad’s vision is that, if we can get a young student and give them their first aviation experience, we can really inspire them to pursue this as a career.”
Walker, a student pilot herself, says that pilots all over the country volunteer their time, planes, and resources to provide flight experiences for middle and high school students. “Some of them are career pilots, some are general aviation, but all are passionate about this mission.” To prepare them for flying with young people, STEM Flights pilots go through vetting, training, and background checks. Training includes how to take a student through the pre-flight check and how to discuss STEM topics with the kids. They receive a list of specific maneuvers they can do in the air with their passengers, and they are are encouraged to share their own journey and how flying has changed and improved their lives.
Meanwhile, the STEM Flights internal team works with schools and specific educators to identify kids who have an interest and would benefit from a STEM flight. Typically, the educational contact will identify a handful of students, then the students can apply online for a flight, choosing from a variety of types of mission types such as general aviation, engineering, climate and weather, or recon. Once a student is selected for a mission, the pilot coordinates with the student’s guardian. The students study the STEM subjects on the website before they go on the flight. Walker says, “The pilots are giving their time, so we want to pair them with a student who is there to learn.”
On the day of the flight, the pilot, parent or guardian, and the student meet at the airport. The student comes with checklist ready, and the pilot takes them through the pre-flight check. During the flight, they do some aerial maneuvers, and Walker says that most pilots give the student a little stick time. After they land back at the airport, they do a flight debrief and the student gets some pictures from the day and a certificate of completion.
After the initial flight, students can participate in STEM Flight Following™, a program to guide them to STEM careers, with enrichment opportunities such as study, career resources, and scholarship information. Many of the STEM Flight Following information and opportunities are provided through partnership with other organizations, including AOPA and NASA.
STEM Flights is already seeing results. One student who flew with General Brubaker early on is now flying C-130s in the Air National Guard, and some other past STEM Flights students are now commercial pilots. One pilot assisted a STEM Flights student to get an internship at a local airport. Walker says the volunteer pilots also hear feedback from student’s families. One Michigan pilot heard back from a parent of a student who flew with him last summer. “Before he went to the flight experience, my son was struggling in school. He was a typical grumpy teenager. Then, overnight, his attitude changed. He started studying, he was motivated. He said, ‘I’m going to be a pilot!’ He’s like a different kid.” Walker says, “We impacted this kid in a really positive way. And I know that in the next 5 years, we will have some pretty amazing stories. Aviation isn’t taught in schools as a career opportunity, so we need to highlight all the roles that are in this industry, for both boys and girls. As Laura Sabino, the author of Jet Boss, said, ‘If I can take up that 6th-grade girl, I can change her mind [about an aviation career].”
“If we can get a young student and give them their first aviation experience, we can really inspire them to pursue this as a career. When you get a kid who’s never flown before and get them up above their town, up above their problems, they see the world is bigger than they ever thought it could be. If they go into any STEM career as a result of that experience, then we’ve succeeded.”CARLEY WALKER
STEM Flights is always looking for volunteer pilots, and most any pilot with a VFR license and a plane can do it. Pilots are asked to donate 4 flights a year, and many pilots fly more. Flights are all in the daytime, and pilots only take students up if weather is sunny and beautiful. Walker says, “If you’re flying on a Saturday and you need a mission, there’s no greater mission than inspiring a student in your own community.”