FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. – If you’ve ever thought about flying drones or becoming a pilot, the best time to start, as with most professions, is at a young age. The Aerospace Technology classes at Fernandina Beach High School are offering students that option.

Flight instructor and teacher Keoki Gray began this curriculum several years ago with the intent of getting kids interested in the FSCJ aviation program at Cecil Field in Jacksonville. The high school course started out teaching students the information they would need to pass the FAA exam for a private pilot license, according to Gray.

After a low initial success rate, the curriculum underwent some changes and became what it is today.

“So, they gave me a little bit of leeway and we came up with a different program instead that introduces kids to physics thru model rocketry the first semester and then more complex aerodynamics using model airplanes and quad-copters during the second semester,” said Gray.

Students in Gray’s class learn the basics of aviation via textbook and video flight simulators in the classroom. Students then build foam board model airplanes, equipped with battery-operated propellers, which they will use to put to the test what they’ve been studying.

Needless to say, learning to fly these somewhat fragile model airplanes requires practice, a little tape and a good amount of decent weather. When the planes inevitably do break, students head back to the classroom and work together to fix them.

Gray says he’s seen a lot of engagement on the students’ part since changing the curriculum to include drones, model rocketry and airplanes.

“I can see their eyes light up and some of them tell me it’s their favorite class, which still kind of blows me away sometimes,” Gray said, “but I think the fact that it’s a lot of hands-on, a lot of problem-solving, they actually get to see what they’re capable of doing and I think that’s a big deal for them.”

Former Aerospace Technology student, Seth Lendry, earned his private pilot license after graduating from Fernandina Beach High School and is now pursuing his commercial license.
Former Aerospace Technology student, Seth Lendry, earned his private pilot license after graduating from Fernandina Beach High School and is now pursuing his commercial license.

So much so, students from Gray’s classes have gone on to pursue professional careers in aviation. Several have even enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, according to Gray, while others have pursued licenses after graduating.

One of the biggest components that remains a part of Gray’s class, despite changes in the curriculum, are the written tests fashioned after the actual FAA Private Pilot-Airplane Rating exam. These tests give the up-and-coming pilots a look at what they’ll face when pursuing a career.

Conveniently enough for former student Seth Lendry, the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport – located less than five miles from the school – has proved to be an excellent place for him to continue his pursuit. Lendry, who has already earned his private pilot’s license, is now pursuing his commercial license in hopes of working for an airline one day.

“For me, it was more kind of learning the ground school of your private pilot’s license,” Lendry said of his experience in Gray’s classes. “So, planning flights and we did somewhat of a simulation of the written exam that you take for your private pilot license and that kind of made me see what I’m about to be getting into.”

It’s not for everybody, as the students in Gray’s class might tell you, but for those who are curious about flying planes or may just be interested in drone photography, this class could be worth the credit hours.

“It’s something if you’re interested in aviation it will kind of really give you a broad sense of all the different aspects,” Lendry said. “You got rockets and stuff like that, you’ve got the model plans and the more pilot side of it and it’s just something to kind of really give you an idea of what it’s all about.”