When you hear the words “Air Force,” most people automatically think of Air Force pilots and flying. So, when the Air Force-affiliated Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal was looking to distinguish itself from other schools back in 1985, it decided to offer a flight-training program to its students.
“I think they were trying to stand apart from other military schools,” says Laura Abraham, who has served as flight director for the school for the past 14 years. “It’s been a very successful program.”
This year, approximately 40 students are enrolled in the flight-training program, and it’s a great program for teaching responsibility.
“I see a lot of students who come to school here, and once they take our program, and they’re successful at it, it’s a huge ego boost and makes them more confident about themselves,” she says. “It teaches them responsibility and decision-making skills. I see a lot of people come in here who are very shy and reserved, but once they learn how to fly and take control of that, it’s a huge deal.”
As flight director for the program, Abraham wears a lot of different hats. She is head instructor, makes sure the airplanes get regular maintenance checks, makes sure the maintenance facilities are safe, checks that all inspections are scheduled and complete, and is also in charge of aircraft acquisitions (both buying and selling).
Looking at her experience, it’s not hard to understand why she was selected for the program. Abraham started out as an education major, but didn’t want to be confined to a classroom and started taking flying lessons in Pittsburgh. She received a master’s degree in aeronautics and has both a seaplane rating and rotorcraft helicopter add-on to her license as well, meaning she can fly everything from airplanes to seaplanes to helicopters.
Each year, young men and women have the opportunity to earn their solo wings through the flight lessons taught by Abraham and fellow on-staff flight instructor Ryan Koch, and many also achieve other aviation credentials.
“The R-MA Flight Department took my interest in aviation and dream of flying and turned it into the reality I live in today,” says flight student Danny Scarlzello, Class of 2016. “The instructors have fueled my curiosity into a passion that I will have for the rest of my life. They have helped me grow, not only as a flight student into pilot, but also as a person. I will be graduating this school with the knowledge and skills that will help me to excel in my future aspirations of life in aviation and with a confidence in my skills I couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Not surprisingly, the flight school is one of the most popular electives at Randolph-Macon Academy, with most who are eligible for the class signing up.
“We get a lot of students who come here because they want to fly in our program,” Abraham says. “It’s kind of the deciding factor, which is nice, and it sets us apart from a lot of the other schools.”
The school’s flight training program is the only one of its kind at the private secondary school level in the entire U.S. Lessons are available to all Upper School (grades 9-12) students, with priority given to seniors and juniors. Per FAA regulations, students must be 16 to solo and 17 to test for their private pilot certification.
“[Students] have to maintain a certain GPA (3.0 or higher) and it does cost extra; it’s not part of the tuition,” Abraham says. “Most of our students who take part are juniors and seniors because before that they’re just too young.”
In March, sophomore Jared Keefe performed his first solo flight, and he kept the calming advice of Abraham in his head while in the air.
“I was really nervous the first time, but once I got in the air, I knew I just had to do it. When I landed on final approach, it was such a relief because I knew I could do it again and again,” the 17-year-old says.
“I kept thinking, ‘Wow, I’m flying a plane by myself.’ I have always wanted to be a pilot, ever since I was 10, and now here I am.”
Sasha Matson, a 16-year-old junior, is in her first year of the flight program, after taking flying instruction at several summer programs.
“I’ve been travelling in airplanes since I was really young and did a simulator when I was young, and always though flying was really cool,” she says. “It’s kind of crazy when you realize you are actually flying a plane. My parents tell all their co-workers and everyone is amazed that I am flying planes.”
The students in the program take flying lessons in two Cessna 172s, which are housed year-round inside the William H. Garber Hangar, named for 1933 R-MA graduate and aviation enthusiast William H. Garber.
The hangar is located at Front Royal/Warren County Airport, only six miles from the school. The aircraft are professionally maintained by FAA certified flight mechanics and are routinely inspected to meet Federal Aviation Regulations. Recently, new GPS systems were installed in the planes to be competitive with other schools and to ensure safety.
Randolph-Macon Academy, situated on a 135-acre campus in Front Royal, is the oldest co-ed boarding school in America with Air Force Junior ROTC, serving grades 6-12 and postgraduates. For more information about the school and/or the flight program, visit www.rma.edu.