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Learning to Fly

PASA was founded and is led by, from left: Lisa Wininger, Virgil Williams and Ginger Devillers.
Aviation academy gives kids a chance to soar

A pilot training program in Plainwell is hoping to help underprivileged kids take off in aviation careers.

Housed in a blue building at the Plainwell Municipal Airport, the Plainwell Aviation & STEM Academy was started in 2008 by Ginger DeVillers, Virgil Williams and Lisa Wininger. Williams, a former corporate pilot for the Upjohn Company who retired in 1994, felt there was enough interest to start an aviation school in Plainwell and suggested the idea to DeVillers, who was working for a Grand Rapids flight school at the time. She brought on Wininger, a former Plainwell teacher, Michigan Department of Education MISTEM Coordinator and current NASA Grants Coordinator. Together, the trio started the non-profit Plainwell Aviation & STEM Academy.

Pre-pandemic, DeVillers visited area middle and high school science classes once a week to talk about how the concepts students were learning applied to aviation and aerospace. With a background in the U.S. Air Force and aircraft mechanics and teaching degrees in biology, chemistry and physics, DeVillers made lesson plans for school visits that were complementary to school and state curriculums.

“I started the program because I wanted to offer [students] that whole pathway,” says DeVillers.

“People go into the schools and talk about aviation. You kind of go, ‘Aviation’s cool, pilots are cool, airplanes are cool, and science and math are important. Yay!’ and you leave. What does that leave the kids? They don’t know any pilots. They don’t know anybody who ever flew airplanes.

DeVillers describes the academy as a “follow through” for students who have been introduced to aviation by visitors to their schools. “The follow-through is a full career path, starting with an intro to aviation in middle school, then on to flight training and ground school and college at an aviation university. We have had this program for youth for over 15 years and some of our former students are now returning as flight instructors to teach our current youth. (It’s) an unexpected bonus and one we are very proud of.”

Drake Witt of Plainwell is a great example of this. Witt began participating in the Plainwell Aviation and STEM Academy in 7th grade when his math teacher saw his interest in aviation and secured permission for Witt to enter the program a year early. After high school, he went to Western Michigan University for its aviation program from which he graduated this year. Since graduating, he has helped out as an instructor for PASA, working with kids that are just as interested in aviation as he was when he started.

“There’s nothing like flying, I mean unless you do it, it’s kind of hard to explain. But everyone that does it, they kind of know what it is,” says Witt.

Starting on the ground

Currently, the academy has 21 students in middle or high school, who attend for an hour and a half each week. These students, who can begin at the age of 14, come from various areas within Michigan, with some traveling from Illinois and Indiana. The class is called ground school and teaches the basics of aviation, where students observe the mechanic working on the planes, try their hands at washing planes and cleaning hangars and learn about meteorology. The students build radio-controlled airplanes to learn about engineering, wing structures and aerodynamics and use flight simulators to get accustomed to inflight controls. Ground school costs $50 a month, which includes the cost of field trips to places like the Air Zoo or Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport.

Once a month, students will fly with an instructor and record it in a log book as time toward their license. As students approach the age of 16, they begin flying once a week or more; students can perform their first solo flight at age 16 and test for a private pilot’s license at 17.

Lucy Rapp, 14, of Grand Rapids has been in the program for a year. She says initially aviation was not her focus when she started.

“Some of my friends were going to be doing this program, and I heard about it. And I was like ‘Okay, I’ll just follow along,’ and then I got hooked,” says Rapp. Now she wants to learn aviation mechanics and earn a private pilot’s license.

PASA places an emphasis on enrolling students from underprivileged backgrounds. When considering students to enroll, DeVillers looks at a student’s socio-economic status and their need and interest.

There is no minimum academic grade point requirement, says Devillers. A student with a 1.8 GPA is as likely to be considered as one with a 3.8 GPA.

“If you’re willing to work hard, that’s how you get in,” she says.

DeVillers does expect students’ GPAs to go up once enrolled in the academy, however, and tutors students in biology, trigonometry and geometry.

Summer camp, too

The academy’s ground school operates during the traditional school year, with students having the summer off but expected to work on homework. During the summer, the older students that are part of the academy’s ground school earn volunteer hours by working at the academy’s summer camp.

PASA offers three summer camps for students in 6th to 12th grades — two in Plainwell and one in Ludington. Each camp is five days long and students alternate between flight time and in-class instruction and activities. Weather permitting, students fly everyday and these flights count toward their private pilot’s license. If there are more students than can fit in the academy’s three aircraft, local pilots will often donate their planes, time and fuel to fly students, says DeVillers.

The academy has strict behavioral standards to keep students safe at the airport and in planes. Students follow FAA regulations and “if students cannot adhere to airport safety rules and classroom standards they are sent home,” says DeVillers. “It is a good space to learn why rules matter and that it is not just a rule for rules’ sake.”

All of the adults at PASA are volunteers, which is critical to PASA’s operation. The majority of the academy’s funding comes from donors, many of whom remain anonymous. The remaining cost of the youth students’ fees are covered through grants and scholarships such as NASA’s Space Grant Consortium and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Ray Aviation Scholarship Fund, which donates $10,000 per student for flight training.

At the same time, PASA has an adult flight school, of which the fees help cover the cost of the two airplanes that PASA leases, maintenance of all four aircraft the academy uses and some of the youth students’ fees.

“You’re earning your private pilot’s license, but you’re also helping a kid earn their private (pilot license),” she says of the adult students in the program.

For those who decide that being a pilot isn’t for them, there are still benefits of completing the PASA program. PASA co-founder Williams gives the example of his three children, all who attained private pilot’s licenses under his coaching, but did not pursue careers in aviation. His daughter became an engineer, one son is a cardiovascular research scientist, and the other son works for sales in a pharmaceutical company.

“Flying an airplane gives a person a lot of self-confidence, that they can accomplish and do whatever they set out to do,” Williams says. “Learning to fly is a great confidence builder.

Jarret Whitenack and Brian Powers also contributed to this story.

Kalloli Bhatt

Kalloli is a Western Michigan University student majoring in journalism and a former Encore intern.

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