Where Preparation and Opportunity Intersect: How My High School Experience Set in Motion My Aerospace Career

By Jasper Henderson, EAA 1325893

I dreamed of being an aerospace engineer since I first heard of the field around the age of 12. As I type the words “aerospace engineer,” my computer immediately recognizes the phrase and autofills the word before I can even get out the letters “ae.” I love aircraft, I love designing, and I am a committed environmental activist. These passions unite in my dream to make the aviation industry more sustainable. My interests and commitment to the planet guide many of the decisions I make and were particularly pivotal when it came to deciding to take a leap of faith and choosing a gap year. I was not going to college in fall of 2020 during COVID-19, and instead pursued an internship with the aerospace company, BETA Technologies.

To not attend my freshman year studying aerospace engineering at Clarkson University was one of the most difficult decisions I faced in my life. I felt a lot of pressure to go to college right out of high school, much of this self-imposed, but, nonetheless, it was there and it was real. I applied to and was accepted at Clarkson, an engineering school in upstate New York, in December of 2019, and I planned to go until COVID-19 swept across the globe and turned everyone’s lives upside down. I began to wonder if I really wanted to go to college with this pandemic. I considered my options and I knew some about BETA Technologies, an aerospace company in my home state of Vermont, and decided to see if I could get an internship. This was a big risk because I had to tell Clarkson whether or not I was coming, and though I had a plan, nothing had been solidified. 

Living EPIC’s Motto: Know Thyself, Grow Thyself, Make Your Mark, See it Through

I felt well prepared for going straight into an aerospace apprenticeship, despite having just only graduated from high school. For the past year, I participated in a unique, learner-centered education program where, every other day, I got to design and conduct projects centered on my interests. Through EPIC Academy, whose motto is “Know Thyself, Growth Thyself, Make Your Mark, and See it Through,” I co-designed my learning plan to include flight lessons, the in-depth study into sustainable aircraft design, and the world of education reform. EPIC is a program within my public high school, Lamoille Union, in Hyde Park, Vermont.

Every other day, in lieu of conventional classes, I researched the different ways in which scientists are improving the sustainability of the aviation industry. I read scientific research studies and particularly enjoyed learning all I could about the D8 aircraft designed by NASA and MIT. These scientists and engineers took a new approach to aircraft design and improved efficiency through the development of a double bubble fuselage configuration and higher aspect ratio wings. I was particularly interested in how the engines used boundary layer ingestion, which causes the slower air going over the fuselage to fill into the wake of the aircraft, resulting in less lost energy. They achieved these efficiencies by placing the engines on the top of the fuselage. It is an interesting design; however, it does put a lot of stress on the engines. Among the other things I studied were alternate methods of propulsion, primarily the use of electrically powered aircraft, which led me to learn about the work that BETA Technologies was conducting in Burlington, Vermont. 

After receiving a prestigious Ray Scholarship from EAA Chapter 613, a local flying club that operates out of Franklin County airport, in Swanton, Vermont, I began taking flying lessons and working towards my private pilot certificate and earning credit for high school. Around this time, I began interning with Beth White from Big Picture Learning, where I built on the work I did with Youth And Adults Transforming Schools Together (YATST), a program with Up For Learning. Beth introduced me to a group called Vermont Learning for the Future, and I started working with and learned more about schools across the state that were implementing or trying to design and launch learner-centered education opportunities for Vermont youth. I attended SparkHouse, a national conference on learner-centered education, in Washington, D.C. I met youth and adults from around the country from learner-centered environments and brought ideas back to Vermont to share with our systems leaders.

For most of the winter, I drove for an hour and a quarter to Franklin County airport one to two times a week to take flying lessons and ended up volunteering with George Coy, who began teaching me about working on airplanes. George is an A&P-IA, an airframe and powerplant technician with inspection authorization, and former engineer from the University of Vermont. We worked mainly on the flying club’s Cessna 150s and the Cherokee 140. I learned how to do everything, from oil changes to brakes to tires to struts to removing props. I even got to learn about overhauling an engine with George. This is where I really learned about the power of networks.

The Power of Who You Know

When the time came to let Clarkson know whether or not I was going to attend university, I reached out to Beth for advice on my options. She suggested that I try to land an internship locally. This is when I learned that George knew the founder of BETA, Kyle Clark. I brushed up my website, highlighting the portfolio of my work and put together a cover letter, which George sent on my behalf. In less than a week, Kyle invited me to visit BETA to tour their facility.

When I walked through the doors at BETA, a full-sized skeleton of ALIA, the e-VTOL aircraft they are developing, greeted me. As I entered the next room, I heard sounds of 3D printers stacked on shelves covering a full wall. One sat right in the center, nearly 3 feet square. We walked through the labs packed with all kinds of testing equipment and prototypes — more than I could ever imagine — an aerospace engineer’s dream come true. 

Kyle showed me BETA’s hangar, which was chock-full of aircraft — a huge helicopter caught my eye, an Airbus AS350, and beyond it, a Piper J-3 Cub rested next to a Cessna 172. As we walked out to see the recharge pad, we saw a Cessna 210 and a Cessna 182 out on the ramp. The recharge pad sits over an arrangement of shipping containers repurposed as pilots’ quarters, a meeting space, and battery containers. I learned these battery banks relieved the stress on the grid of recharging BETA’s electric aircraft, which happened in under an hour. The last stop on the tour put us in BETA’s conference room. My mind whirled from seeing many of the technologies I read about over the last few years actually being implemented. I could hardly believe my luck when Kyle offered me the opportunity to intern with BETA.

Preparing to Seize Opportunities 

Oprah Winfrey says she believes, “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity,” and adds, “If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been lucky.” Because I had the privilege of attending EPIC Academy, I was prepared to seize this opportunity with BETA. What if everyone had access to something like EPIC, where they could pursue their interests and build their networks while in high school, or earlier?

In my work with Big Picture and through my aviation pursuits with EAA Chapter 613, I met many youth who were doing everything they could to pursue their passions — some were more supported than others by their school systems. Though sparse, the little pockets of innovative educational programs, like EPIC, dotting Vermont give me hope. One high-schooler I know received a Harbor Freight Fellowship, where she got to spend her senior year apprenticing with a professional tradesperson at their business, and she and her mentor each got stipends for doing this work.  

Through access to real-world learning alongside professionals, young people will be prepared to seize the opportunities that come their way in the future. Because I could pursue my passions — aviation and sustainability — through EPIC, this led me to EAA Chapter 613 and eventually to earn a scholarship with EAA’s national Ray Aviation Scholarship program. Not only was I well positioned academically, but I also had the opportunity to build my network connections, which together made the BETA opportunity possible.  

Creating Opportunities for the Future

It is amazing how during the pandemic so many aspects of the education system turned on a dime — teachers and youth shifted to powerful at-home learning, communities became the center of educational experiences, and in most states, standardized testing went out the window. COVID-19 offered us these odd blessings, including flexibility and permission to experiment with new and unconventional ways of learning. For me, I never would have imagined taking a gap year, and now I am a full-time employee at BETA Technologies. 

Young people need to be prepared to seize the opportunities that come their way in life. Programs like the Harbor Freight Fellowship, EAA Ray scholars, and EPIC need to be offered to youth everywhere and supported nationwide. The pandemic is giving us the opportunity to experiment — let’s take it and work together to dismantle systems that are no longer serving youth. Let’s build new approaches that prioritize interest-based, real-world learning. Youth know best what makes their hearts soar; I knew at age 12. It is time to give our young people the opportunity and support to pursue those interests and expand their networks. Who knows, it might just launch us into a new age where everyone is doing what they love.

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