Pursuing Passions — How I Launched My Flying Career in High School

By Joseph Mensah, EAA 1373351

This piece originally ran in the February 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

My first cross-country was exactly 50 miles from KFSO, Franklin County, Vermont, to Montpelier, our state’s capital, KMPV. Excited to finally reach this milestone in my private pilot certificate training, I flew a direct route, which meant that I had to fly straight over Mount Mansfield in Stowe. Soon after a smooth departure, I neared the sleeping green giant, and despite holding pitch, I found myself in a descent and 300 feet below my required 1,000-foot obstacle clearance.

The smooth air transitioned into erratic gusts that intensified as the mountain loomed. On nearly all of my prior flights across the Green Mountains, I experienced some sort of wind shear but never felt frightened by its power. I knew with my instructor by my side, I was in safe hands if the airplane ever got into a dangerous attitude. Without my instructor, however, I no longer had a safety net — I had to rely on myself.

The slick metal yoke became harder to grip as my hands started to sweat. While I got closer to the mountain, I knew that there would be less time for adjustments and errors. I realized I had to calm myself and become my own instructor. I talked myself through the problem and how to fix the predicament. Instead of trying to pitch to a steep climb back to a safe altitude, I decided to bank into an opening between the mountains and start a shallow climb. I did not want to battle the wind shear, and I knew if I pitched up and got too slow, I could enter a stall. After passing between the mountain peaks, the winds eased off and allowed for comfortable passage.

Thinking back to that experience I realized I was caught in a downward vortex of a rotor created by wind streaming over the opposite side of the mountain toward me. This experience showed me how panic made my situation worse. To get through it, I simply had to calm myself down and trust my training. Though it was a nerve-wracking situation, I am glad it happened because it was a wake-up call that flying is not just about fun maneuvers and sightseeing; it requires constant attention, respect, and good decision-making skills based on good training.

My folks instilled in me the practice of setting and working toward goals that make my heart sing. I learned to use my time efficiently and how to take steps toward reaching my dreams. A goal of my junior year of high school was to network and connect with someone who knew the world of aviation. Like many youths, I was fascinated by the idea of flight and wanted to see if I could make a career out of flying. After learning what it would take to become a pilot, I knew that this would not be an easy journey. From finances, to time commitment, to the actual challenge of learning how to maneuver a plane, the dream was daunting, but I knew if I made it a priority, I could find success.

Aviation is a challenging industry to break into, especially given the access to opportunity in a place like rural Vermont. Most everyone I spoke to about the path to becoming a commercial pilot expressed how hard the preliminary stages are because it is expensive. As a young Black man who immigrated to the United States from Ghana at the age of 3, and who recently became a citizen, I am all too familiar with how being part of an underrepresented group makes it even harder to achieve my goals. I recently learned that only 3 percent of U.S. pilots are Black, which only motivated me more to be part of the group that changes these statistics. I began imagining what it would be like for youths coming after me to see a man of color in this role.

I am this way because I know how hard my parents had to work and the sacrifices they had to make long before they were my age to get where they are today. They were not afforded the opportunity to pursue dream careers, only to walk on the path that would lead to success that would eventually better our future, to give us, their children, the greatest of opportunities. Through their work, my parents afforded me and my siblings the opportunity to have a dream, and they pushed us to go into a field that energized us with all our might.

Like most children, I was fascinated with flying because when I am in the air I can escape the normal confines of gravity and maneuver freely at various speeds and angles. My first experience getting to fly a small airplane came in my junior year of high school when I had a discovery flight that was funded by a school program called Community Based Learning (CBL). It was then that I came to the realization that flying was one of the only activities that truly excited me. Following my discovery flight, I worked alongside a community partner named Scott Fortney to fly drones, learn how to use a flight simulator, and explore what was needed to pursue flying as a career. After concluding my CBL with Scott, I was sure that I wanted to become a pilot.

I found joy in flying. Unlike with school, I was happy, excited, and eager to study because I was genuinely interested in all aspects of aviation from physics to the mechanics of the plane. As I approached my senior year of high school, I wanted to do another CBL experience to kick-start my journey in aviation. I met with EAA Chapter 613 scholarship chairwoman Beth White, EAA 1303626, who visited my school and chatted with me and my adviser about pursuing aviation for credit. I joined the flying club at Franklin County and took my first lesson with Kyle Bedard, EAA 1355775, on the first of March 2020. A week later, COVID hit, Vermont shut down, and my plans were derailed.

Despite physical interactions coming to a halt, I remained connected with the eight other high school aviators who were working on their private pilot certificates through Zoom calls that Beth organized. These calls introduced us to many people in the world of aviation, from former military airline pilots to air traffic controllers. It was not until early June that I began training again, but as one veil lifted, another took its place. With each flight, I realized that I needed more funding to complete my flight training, and quickly. I wondered how or if I would be able to complete my private pilot training before the summer’s end.

I took a job as a landscaper, and most of my days were filled with a combination of work, the 2.5-hour round-trip drive to and from the airport for flight training, and studying. Having such a packed schedule filled with constant physical and mental challenges was not easy, but I enjoyed what I was working for and knew it was a short-term challenge with a long-term benefit.

As much as I tried to earn and save to pay for my flight training, I just could not cover all the costs. Luckily, our local EAA Chapter 613 members were generous and fundraised to make up for what I could not cover. It was astonishing to know these strangers were willing to help me achieve my goal because they believe in supporting young people to achieve our aviation dreams. This act signifies the biggest act of kindness I have ever received. The chapter’s faith that I had what it took to be a pilot kept me going.

Earning my private pilot certificate as part of my high school program enabled me to begin my academic journey before going to college. I had to focus. I cut all the extraneous aspects of my life out that were not helping me progress through my training, and I grinded it out until I finally reached my goal. With a prepaid flight to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University just two days away, I crossed the finish line: I passed my checkride and earned my private pilot certificate.

I am thankful for my flight instructor who guided me throughout the summer; to EAA Chapter 613 treasurer and aviation champion, George Coy, EAA 278276, for all his support to fund my training through the flight club; to Beth for always offering help, encouragement in every way, and for introducing me to the aviation family; and to EAA Chapter 613 and all of its members who wanted nothing more than to see me succeed. I am especially grateful that I got to explore my interests early on in my high school through the CBL program.

As I look toward the future, I am filled with hope that my path to becoming a commercial pilot will be one of my best accomplishments — one that will be challenging and allow me to continue to grow. Although I imagine there will be setbacks and roadblocks to come, likely many mountains to climb and downdrafts to navigate, I know that these will strengthen my character. What I know for sure is that I have a new aviation family, and every day I meet incredible people. As I soar above the clouds and see beautiful sites, I am thankful that I am living a life I am passionate about — it is an epic journey, and it is mine.

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