DELAWARE STATE UNIVERSITY, Del. — The inaugural class of the U.S. Air Force’s Aviation, Character and Education Flight Program recently graduated the three-week pilot training camp August 4.
The ACE Flight Program is one of the service’s new initiatives working to combat the growing pilot shortage affecting the Air Force. The joint effort between the Air Force and Delaware State University provided students initial flight training in civilian aircraft and a structured environment offering exposure to and education on military aviation careers. It was designed to motivate participants to pursue aviation careers, including the Air Force, through mentorship and tangible flight experiences.
During the three-week-long camp, students received nearly 5-10 hours of simulation instruction and 15 hours of flight instruction, culminating in a solo flight for most students. Each day the students trained on Air Education and Training Command’s Pilot Training Next, a virtual reality simulation technology initiative which began in February 2018. Students also received hands-on training in a PA-28 Piper facilitated by certified flight instructors of DSU’s aviation program. By the last week of camp, students were trained to complete their first solo flight, operating the aircraft from takeoff to landing on their own.
“This was probably the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life,” said 18 year-old Amon Jackson from Chicago. “It’s not just the fact that all 24 of us got to fly every single day, but also the friends we made, the laughs we shared, the places we visited. Because of this program, I’ve solidified my passion for flying, and flying for the Air Force. To say I’ve been blessed is truly an understatement.”
After a student flies a plane by themselves, their confidence levels are boosted tremendously and it confirms they can achieve anything that they put their minds to, said Maj. Kenneth Thomas, Combat Systems Officer instructor and ACE Flight Program deputy director.
Students not only completed ground training and flying operations briefings, they also participated in character lessons led by active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves officer role models and mentors. These lessons gave the students the opportunity to visualize their goals and plan for the future. Students learned how their personality traits contribute to their decision making capability, prepared for college applications, set personal and professional goals and created life maps.
“The character lessons helped establish a baseline for the students,” said William Charlton, ACE Flight Program DSU liaison. “It was meant to help them better understand themselves in an effort for better interactions between other students, their leadership and later, when they are in leadership positions themselves.”
Exposure to role models that youth can identify with, while simultaneously presenting viable pathways to aviation careers, will not only increase the pilot pool for the Air Force and the nation, but also bring in new perspectives that sharpen our strategic capabilities. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only 5.7 percent of Air Force pilots are women, 1.7 percent are African-American and two percent are Asian. The 24 students in the program came from a variety of backgrounds and ranged in ages from high school students to newly commissioned second lieutenants in the Air Force. Of the 24 students, 11 were African-American, four were Hispanic or Latino, two were Asian and eight were women.
“Not only did I have the opportunity to fly with them as an instructor, but as a young pilot myself, I was able to relate to them,” said Maurice Ellis, DSU certified flight instructor. “It was not too long ago when I was in their shoes, faced with the same choices and difficulties that they had to face. While flying with some of these pilots, many who had very little experience with flying, I knew immediately they all had tremendous potential.”
In addition to training on civilian aircraft, students were exposed to military operations and leaders during tours to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware; U.S. Air Force Headquarters at the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia; and a KC-135 Stratotanker incentive flight at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, where they witnessed the refueling of eight F-15E Strike Eagles. They also met the Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson; Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Stephen Wilson; and several other Air Force general officers who answered questions and provided advice to students.
“Participating in the Air Force’s inaugural ACE Flight Program in Dover, Delaware, has been life changing,” said Notre Dame University AFROTC cadet Jill Ruane. “It was truly a blessing to have been given this opportunity. I am eternally grateful to DSU and all of the Air Force cadre for their tireless work to make this program a reality.”
Editor’s Note: Airman 1st Class Zoe M. Wockenfuss contributed to this article.