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November 10, 2022

A few Philly high school students are learning to fly as part of a program that's finally getting off the ground

The recently resumed Frankford Aviation Academy provides a pathway for adolescents to pursue careers as commercial pilots, flight instructors and traffic reporters

Education Schools
Frankford Aviation student.JPG Courtesy of/Frankford High School

A Frankford Aviation Academy student prepares to fly a plane. Through a partnership with Tailwinds Flight School, Frankford High offers students the chance to develop piloting skills through airplane and drone training. Qualifying teens may also earn private pilot certificates.

Students at Frankford High School can expect to graduate with a grasp of history, chemistry and geometry. But a lucky few also will leave with the skills to fly a plane.

Launched in 2018, the Frankford Aviation Academy offers flight training and a path to a private pilot certificate to qualifying Frankford High students. Though the program is in its fifth year, it suffered setbacks during the onset of COVID-19, temporarily shuttering the flight training to focus solely on drones. As a result, no students have managed to graduate with a private pilot license, School District of Philadelphia officials said.

This year, they're hoping to change that.

Frankford Aviation Academy marked its return Wednesday with a demonstration at Northeast Philadelphia Airport. As captured in photos and a video taken by Superintendent Tony B. Watlington, students demonstrated their technical know-how by prepping a small, single-engine plane for take-off and then steering it into the skies.

Due to budget constraints, the Frankford Aviation Academy only offers three slots per year. Frankford High students get their first exposure to the program through the Aviation & Drone after-school club. If it seems like a fit, a student can then request admission to the Frankford Aviation Academy, but not everyone will meet the cut. The school requires at least one year of algebra, excellent English language written and verbal skills and either U.S. citizenship or approval from the TSA for consideration. Qualifying students also must earn their aviation medical certificate from a qualified aviation medical examiner before they begin flight training, and pass an aptitude test specially developed by Frankford and its partner, Tailwinds Flight School.

Tailwinds Flight School handles the actual training through lessons at Northeast Philadelphia Airport. Per Frankford High's website, the majority of this training takes place during the school day and students typically do not participate in aircraft flight training until their second year in the program. 

Through the aviation academy, students get the chance to earn various flight certificates. For those who would rather fly with their feet firmly planted on the ground, the program offers unmanned pilot training on drones and simulators, with the opportunity to earn a drone pilot certificate — which one student has, district officials told PhillyVoice. Pathways to student and private pilot certificates also are offered. 

Students hoping to fly commercial planes one day will need to keep training after graduation, but the skills they acquire at Frankford Aviation Academy also can prepare them for careers as flight instructors, traffic reporters or aerial photographers. Those on the unmanned pilot track might seek postgrad work in power line or roof inspection, search and rescue operations or the military.

Regardless of what they do with their aviation skills professionally, students say the experience is unforgettable.

"When we first (took) off, I was scared. I was scared," Aderah Davis, an alum of the program, said in a 2020 video interview. "When I looked down, I thought I was going to fall. But it was actually fun. I loved it."

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