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Still flying: F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation reaches milestone

Several local and state officials came out to celebrate the F.L.I.G.H.T Foundation flying its 10,000th student. Pictured, from left, are George Huddleston Jr., Tennessee aeronautics commissioner; W. T. Daniels, Greeneville mayor; Jerry O’Connor, CEO of Impact Plastics; State Representative David Hawk; Col. Tom Reeves, former U.S. Army member; Bill Powley, founder of the F.L.I.G.H.T Foundation; State Senator Rusty Crowe; the three Greene County AFJROTC cadets who soared into the air – Jeremy Hankins, George Rapp and Isaac Michalenko; and Daryl Brady, field service representative for congressman Phil Roe. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

The F.L.I.G.H.T (Flight Lesson Instructional Grants Helping Teens) Foundation continues to aim high, evidenced by the nonprofit’s celebration on Saturday, June 16, for the milestone of flying its 10,000th student.

Air Force Lieutenant Bill Powley, F-4, A-7, F-16 fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran who founded the F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation, was joined by local and state legislators as three students from Greene County High School soared into the air this weekend.

“We had a great time,” Powley said about the memorable day. “Everyone was so positive and upbeat.”

The program has roots in Unicoi County after the program was approved to be part of the Air Force JROTC curriculum at Unicoi County High School before it moved into the Sullivan County High School in 2001. While serving as a JROTC instructor at UCHS, Powley came up with the idea to offer students the opportunity to fly as an exciting recruitment strategy.

Out of the 10,000 students that have flown with the F.L.I.G.H.T. program, Powley has flown more than 7,500 of them personally.

The program proves the sky is the limit for enthusiastic students in more than 20 high schools and, on average, provides the opportunity for 500 to 600 students to fly each year.

“The idea of this program was to build an infrastructure of people who love aviation and understand the meaning of airports in the state,” Powley said. “If you have flown in this program, you are probably a fan of flying, aviation and airports.”

Since 1996, more than 150 students have earned their solo wings and 14 students have earned their private pilot’s license since 2002.

“I just soloed my 166 student Sunday morning, so it was a good weekend for me,” Powley said.

The F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation is responsible for sending eight students to the Air Force Academy, three to West Point, one to the Naval Academy and one to Purdue, along with several others who have gone on to attend flight schools in the region. 

“I would say we send more kids to careers in flying than football players that go into sports careers,” said Powley, who was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame for the program.

In 2010, the program was recognized as the top aerospace science program in the nation among high schools, rising high above the other 10,000 in the nation.

“It’s taken lots of passion, persistence, and miles on my vehicle,” Powley laughed.

He initially funded the program by flying for an hour with three students in Unicoi County and during that time they would take photographs of various properties before compiling a portfolio of aerial shots for the owners.

“I raised $8,000 that way from 80 portfolios over the years,” said Powley.

In the first nine years of the program, Powley was able to fly 250 students, averaging 27 per year. After gaining the attention of NASA and acquiring a grant, he has been able to fly 9,750 students over the last 17 years.

“Grant funding was key,” Powley said about maintaining the program.

After receiving the initial grant from NASA, the Tennessee Aeronautics Division sponsored the program for the last 18 years.

“They have basically sponsored 9,750 of the kids,” Powley said about the Tennessee Aeronautics Division. “It seems like every solo student wants to go on and become a pilot, so that’s pretty cool. Now if we get more funding, we can actually satisfy a lot of dreams for kids to become professional pilots because we do a 50 percent scholarship for them.”

Powley said he expects that the 14 pilots the program has already produced will double in number over the next two or three years.

The F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation typically flies out of the Greeneville, Tri-Cities, Chattanooga or Dallas Bay airports. Usually, three students fly at a time, although Powley recalls having 14 flights in one day with about 40 students.

“A typical trip would be Unicoi County or anybody else bringing maybe 21 to 27 kids to the airport, so I’d have seven to eight flights which takes about three hours,” Powley explained.

The program is offered to students of all grade levels as long as they are enrolled in a JROTC program. In some cases, Powley said students get to fly several times by staying in the program all four years of their high school career.

“Part of the plan is they get a 15 to 20 minute flight and if they do that over four years they get an hour to hour and a half,” he said. “It keeps them motivated, so hopefully by the time they’re 17 or 18 they get excited and want to get their pilot’s license.”

With a pilot shortage, Powley said it is important to provide motivation for students to pursue careers in aviation, and also noted that for many of the students, the program provides them with their first opportunity to be on a plane. 

Some of Powley’s most touching moments with the program come from reading the assigned journal entries he gives to the students. He commonly finds entries that read ‘this is the first time I’ve ever gotten to fly’, and ‘that’s the neatest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“I don’t think you can excite someone any more than that,” he said.

Powley also thanked many of the F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation contributors such as the Aeronautics Division, countless individuals from Unicoi County, Gerald O’ Connor, CEO of Impact Plastics,  and philanthropist and businessman Scott Niswonger and FedEx.

After just recently celebrating his 100th solo student, Powley said a future goal he will aspire towards will be to have his 200th solo student take flight.

“That’s a huge milestone,” he said. “After that, maybe another 15,000 students in the next eight years or so.”