Summer program taking students to new heights


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ST. THOMAS - Middle and high school students from across the territory caught the flying bug this week during a unique summer program that put them in the cockpit.

"It was awesome. It was scary, but it was more awesome than scary," Kendrick Campbell, 17, said to his friends after his first flight.

Twenty-five students from the territory took the controls of a Cessna 172 for the first time Wednesday as part of a program to encourage children to enter the field of aviation.

Wednesday was the highlight of the week for most of the students.

They climbed into the tiny cockpit of a Cessna 172 with a certified pilot for a 40 minute flight. The students touched down in Tortola, flew over St. John and returned to St. Thomas.

Central High School student Regine Acosta, 15, began the camp thinking she wanted to enter a career in engineering. She said that after flying Wednesday, she wants to become a pilot.

Each year, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals partners with the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct multiple week-long Aviation Career Education academies across the nation.

This is the first time the ACE Academy has been held in the U.S. Virgin Islands, thanks to one of the organization's members, Granville Smith Jr.

Smith, who grew up on St. Thomas, is a recent graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He now works at the university as a flight instructor.

From the time he was a baby, Smith's favorite place to be was King Airport, watching the planes come and go, he said.

Smith's older brother, DeVaughn Smith, shared the same fascination with aviation. DeVaughn Smith is now a private jet pilot.

Both brothers were volunteer instructors for the St. Thomas ACE Academy this week.

DeVaughn bought Granville a flight simulator when Granville was 8 years old, and Granville began flight lessons just two years later.

"I was 10 years old when I did my first flight," Granville Smith said.

In February, Granville Smith heard that the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals wanted to do an ACE Academy on St. Thomas but was having trouble because they had no connections in the islands. He volunteered to help organize the week-long summer camp.

Granville Smith made the rounds on local talk radio shows promoting the summer program and encouraging students to sign up. To help encourage more participation, the $20 application fee was waived.

"For the first time, we wanted to make sure it's really well received," he said.

The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals also received a $12,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior for the St. Thomas ACE Academy.

Thirty students, including 10 from St. Croix, were selected to take part in the program, at almost no cost to their families. No prior experience was required.

The University of the Virgin Islands donated classroom space, and Cleo Hodge at ACE Flight Center volunteered his planes and instruction services for the students' first flights.

During the week, federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, the FAA, and Customs and Border Patrol made presentations. Students also toured King Airport, specifically the JetBlue and Cape Air facilities.

The students also watched the movies "Double Victory" and "Red Tails," both about the World War II pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Smith said he hopes the ACE Academy will inspire the territory's youth to become pilots and work in the aviation industry - a profession very closely tied to the territory's tourism product.

"My hope is that we can eventually open an OBAP St. Thomas chapter, where pilots and professionals can network and help inspire more young people to enter the field," he said.

For more information on the ACE Academy or the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals go to www.obap.org.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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