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Former JROTC instructor’s foundation continues sending students to the skies

Ret. Lt. Col. Bill Powley heads the F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Curtis Carden)
Ret. Lt. Col. Bill Powley heads the F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Curtis Carden)

By Curtis Carden
Sports Writer

After years of service overseas, Unicoi resident Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Bill Powley continues to serve local students who have aspirations of flying.
Powley, a Vietnam veteran who served as a former F-4, A-7, F-16 fighter pilot, had an interesting career prior to creating the Flight Lesson Instructional Grant Helping Teens (F.L.I.G.H.T) Foundation.
“I did not get hired by the airlines,” Powley said, regarding the path his career took after he left the military. “When I retired from Air Force, I was hired into a pilot pool but never got called up.
“I ran into a guy at a crafts fair that taught JROTC and said it was the best job he had. So after that, I sort of threw my hat in the ring and the first interview I got around here was at Unicoi County High School.”
The journey to the Valley Beautiful saw the JROTC program at the school at a low point, but Powley had an idea to spark interest in the UCHS program.
“Ellis Murphy, the principal at the time, and Ronnie Wilcox, director of schools, both interviewed me,” Powley said. “Their ROTC program was about to get dumped. So, bringing a flight program to excite the kids about something was discussed. It sort of just grabbed me from there.”
Bumps in the road were to be expected, but a decision made by the Unicoi County School Board propelled the program into the atmosphere of success.
“The first year I was here, we submitted a proposal to the school board to include flying as part of the ROTC curriculum to make it an in-house program,” Powley said. “The school board voted 4-3 to have that happen. I always tell the story … that one vote, over 20 years ago, later turned it into a hall of fame program and the number one program in the nation .. it’s pretty special and a great story. Since that first flight, I said it was fun for me. It took six years, but the program has taken off and gone on to be an outstanding unit.
“It’s a terrific story about teamwork and the educational system … very unusual,” Powley continued. “You won’t find another program like this in the country. It is unique and somehow turned out great.”
The program also resulted in Powley being inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame during a ceremony held in Murfreesboro in 2013.
F.L.I.G.H.T. was established to provide funding to secure the future of the program at UCHS before it moved to Sullivan County in 2001.
According to information provided by the F.L.I.G.H.T. website, the group has provided 3,093 flights with 8,566 students and passengers for orientation flights, the majority of which were made by Powley. All flights were sponsored by grants and donations.
“The program is a non-profit and we receive grants from the state,” Powley said. “We help kids that don’t have the money to fly. We give scholarships … basically up until this year, over 8,500 kids flew for nothing. Some of the kids would never have the chance to fly.”
Powley added that any individuals who have been part of the program and have a story to share are encouraged to send them to be featured on the foundation’s website,, in the coming months.
Individuals can email their stories to [email protected] Along with sharing stories, Powley said his goal is to assist a student from every high school in the area. As of this year, the foundation has helped students at 18 high schools, he said.
With 2016 underway, an upcoming concert will raise funds for the group.
The F.L.I.G.H.T Foundation will host an evening of country music on Friday, Feb. 12, at the Johnson City Country Club, located at 1901 East Unaka Ave., from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Highlighting the bill for the night is rising country star and Kingsport native Austin Moody, who participated in the foundation under the guidance of Powley. Tickets for night are priced at $25.
Visit online to purchase tickets for the event.