Rick Garcia congratulating Garrett Gonzalez

Sixth Annual ‘Solo To Success’

The sixth annual ‘Solo To Success’ was held Friday, November 22, on the campus of the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA) to honor 32 recipients of the James C. Ray Scholarship Fund who had successfully completed their first solo flight. In honor of their achievement, each student was recognized and invited to participate in the traditional ‘laying of the bricks’ ceremony where a personalized brick was placed at the entrance of the school denoting their individual achievements.

Parents and students joined aviation officials, aerospace educators and alumni recipients in celebrating the event. They praised the students for their outstanding contributions to a labor-strapped industry and cited the significance of choosing a career in aerospace.

“We are amazed at your accomplishments,” assistant principal Tammy Epperson told the group. “Through your true grit and determination, you are part of just one percent of the population who can pilot an aircraft.”

The scholarship program established in 2010 is a collaboration between the Aerospace Center for Excellence, the James C. Ray Foundation and Polk County Public Schools. Since its inception over 140 students have completed their solo flight, a major milestone en route to earning their private pilot certificate.

Sean Stoltz, vice president of the Lakeland Aero Club spoke to the group about the importance of education. “As the next generation of aviators, you will always be learning,” he said. “As you learn more, you will be more confident which will mean more opportunities for each of you.”

Olivia Sullivan, a 2017 CFAA graduate who attended the reunion as part of the alumni group, agreed with Stoltz and explained how the scholarship program had changed her life.

“I had never flown an airplane. No one in my family had an interest in aviation, but the first time I went up in a Super Cub here at the school, I knew immediately it was something I had to do with my life,” she said. “It was kinda like love at first sight.”

Sullivan is currently working on her AA degree through an online program and will be heading to the University of North Dakota next year to study commercial aviation management to complete her four- year degree.

“Without the scholarship program, I wouldn’t be on the path that I am on today,” she said. “I hope to become a commercial pilot or an airshow pilot.”

She said her parents, who live and work in Peru, have been very supportive of her career choice despite their surprise that she is a pilot and has chosen a career in aviation.

“They are looking forward to me flying them around Peru one day and I hope to be able to do that,” she said with a big smile.

Unlike Sullivan, Jensen Houck, a 2017 CFAA graduate, never imagined a life without aviation.  His first flight was in a glider with the Civil Air Patrol and he plans one day to become a bush pilot in Alaska.

“I’ve wanted to fly ever since I can remember,” the Hudson, Florida native said. “My dad is a pilot and it is something I have been around my entire life so it was just a natural thing that I would choose a career in aviation.”

He received his scholarship in 2015 and said it had opened the door to many aviation opportunities for him. He is currently majoring in Aerospace Administration at Polk State College and works as a flight instructor at Kingsky Flight Academy in Lakeland.

Houck said the hardest part about teaching people to fly was being able to simplify it. “I try to break everything down into simple steps when I am teaching because it makes it easier for people to learn,” he said.

Highly competitive solo scholarships are awarded monthly to eligible Polk County high school students who may also apply for biannual continuing education scholarships after graduation. High school students from across Florida who are interested in earning a private pilot certificate are eligible to apply for the annual Florida Takes Flight scholarship.

Additional information about scholarship opportunities may be obtained at https://aceedu.org/education/scholarships/

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