JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas – While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited some in-person efforts for Air Force Recruiting Service, technology – like video teleconferencing – has helped bridge the gap and allowed the service to keep performing its mission.
For AFRS’s Detachment 1, VTC has allowed young people from around the country to participate in events like the Virtual Aim High Flight Academy, where teens are able to connect with mentors and work toward getting their private pilot’s certificate, and ultimately a step closer to becoming an Air Force pilot.
Det. 1 was established in October 2018 to develop innovative programs in support of the Air Force’s Total Force (active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve) recruiting efforts. It focuses on pre-accession audiences (youths, young adults and their influencers) and works with partners to provide pathways to accession sources like the U.S. Air Force Academy, Reserve Officer Training Corps and Officer Training School.
Det. 1 is also the tactical execution arm of the chief of staff of the Air Force’s Rated Diversity Improvement (RDI) initiative.
“The Aim High Flight Academy is normally an in-residence program where students spend three weeks immersed in aviation education, character development and mentorship,” said Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a C-130 navigator and the diversity and inclusion project manager for the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. “They normally fly five days a week and do several base visits during the program. The goal is to get students to their solo flight during the program.”
Like most other events this year, the pandemic put an end to thoughts of an in-person AHFA. But organizers went to work and developed the virtual AHFA so students could still receive Air Force officer mentorship and the opportunity to fly.
“This year, many of the students selected were from a pool of applicants scheduled to attend the Aim High Flight Academy and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps’ Flight Academy,” said Lt. Col Lindsay Andrew, who recently left Det. 1 for a position instructing flight training at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “These students were already selected for these prestigious programs which were unfortunately cancelled due to the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic. Therefore, we created this year’s Virtual Aim High Flight Academy in order to allow these students to continue their flight training and receive virtual mentorship and leadership opportunities despite not being able to gather in large groups.”
Andrew was the director of operations for Det. 1 since it was formed in 2018 and was integral to initial program success.
“Lt. Col. Lindsay Andrew and I were working together on AHFA when it got cancelled. I had worked with Lt. Col. Andrew for several years on other rated diversity initiatives,” Thomas said. “She found a way to fund the student’s flight training and we worked a plan to combine the flight aspect of the program with a mentorship aspect that would help the students navigate the program."
Programs like the Virtual AHFA try to reach students who may otherwise not have an opportunity to be exposed to aviation. This exposure allows the Air Force to reach under-represented areas that can help improve diversity by targeting youth who traditionally don’t have access to aviation. Diversity can be racial, gender, cultural or geographic.
“There are 28 students from around the country in the program,” Thomas said. “Applicants are nominated from a variety of youth programs like the Civil Air Patrol and Junior ROTC among others. Some of the criteria for selection are grade point average, community involvement and desire to fly. Selection is not based on race or gender. The Air Force casts a wide net and everyone is offered the opportunity – no matter their background.”
The Virtual AHFA has two main phases. During phase one, students meet once a week virtually with the Det. 1 team and select mentors and guests. In phase two, students work to complete their private pilot certificate at a local flight school while paired with a mentor. Working virtually with their rated Air Force officer mentors, they have 12 months to earn their certificate.
“During the first seven weeks, the focus is character development,” Thomas said. “Students learn about time management, goal setting, team building and aviation ground school. Each week, students have group presentations on the various topics.”
During phase two, students gain valuable aviation knowledge and experience while accumulating up about 60 hours of flight time.
“This gives students a huge advantage when applying for pilot slots,” Thomas said. “The flight hours they earn will help them be more competitive for pilot training slots and will increase their PCSM (Pilot Candidate Selection Method) score by around 20 points. It will also give them the knowledge to score higher on the aviation portion of the AFOQT (Air Force Officer Qualification Test) and potentially do better on the TBAS (Test of Basic Aviation Skills) portion.”
Having mentors share their experiences and motivate tomorrow’s rated aviators is critical to the success of the Virtual AHFA, Thomas said.
“Having an Air Force rated officer mentor the students is game changing,” he said. “The mentors add perspective and motivation the students may have never seen.”
While the mentors understand the value of the program and are excited to help guide these students on their journey, the students are grateful for the opportunity to fly and get mentored by Air Force rated officers.
AFRS Det. 1 has a team of over 350 rated volunteers who serve as mentors and Air Force ambassadors.
“The Aviation Inspiration Mentorship (AIM) team is one of the greatest assets of Det. 1” said Lt. Col. Annie Driscoll, AFRS Det.1 commander. “It’s an amazing group of motivated individuals that care about giving back to the community and love to share their Air Force journey with others. While the mentorship is invaluable to the youth who receive it, the true reward is with that of the mentor. To help someone succeed to fulfill their dream is worth every minute spent doing it.”
The AIM team is comprised of rated officers from every platform in the Air Force inventory, as well as U.S. Space Force members. In itself, the AIM team is diverse and allows youth to find a mentor who may come from a similar background and have overcome similar struggles.
“Ensuring aspiring aviators that they are not alone in life’s struggles and providing advice on how to find resilience when the going gets tough is the bread and butter of AIM team mentorship” Driscoll said.
Thomas, also an AIM mentor, said sharing his passion with young people who may not have had this opportunity otherwise is priceless.
“I enjoy seeing students excel and overcome the barriers and challenges put in front of them and develop as a team,” he said. “The students and mentors come together from a variety of backgrounds and work together to accomplish one goal.”
Thomas said the Virtual AHFA has been so successful, Det. 1 may keep some parts of the academy virtual even after the pandemic has passed.
For AFRS and Det. 1, the bottom line is giving opportunities to young people who might not otherwise be exposed to aviation.
“Flying is cost prohibitive,” Thomas said. “For a lot of students, money is a real barrier to pursuing aviation. By providing these opportunities, the Air Force is able to identify the best and brightest America has to offer, including those who wouldn’t normally have access to aviation.”