Front Page Summary: 

Students Soar to New Heights in Wooddale Aviation Program

Reprinted with permission of The Memphis City School’s Insider, the online Memphis City Schools Newsletter


Students in Wooddale High School’s (Memphis, Tennessee) Optional Aviation Program have the opportunity to practice on four in-class flight simulators, and the school will soon have an additional seven simulators, thanks to the school’s High School Redesign Grant. Participating in the aviation program is an option for students enrolled in technology education and TSA. About 95% of TSA members are enrolled in the aviation program.

When Ken Forbes lived in Tupelo, Mississippi a few years ago, he thought he would probably become a truck driver when he grew up, but his life—and his career plans—changed forever after he caught the “aviation bug”, as he calls it, at a summer aviation camp at Wooddale High School. The Wooddale senior is now only a few weeks away from obtaining his private pilot’s license, and he has carefully mapped out a college and career plan that not only involves aviation, but it also wisely includes a back-up plan for training in a second field.
The Forbes family moved to Memphis several years ago, and when Ken was attending Wooddale Middle School, he would often walk to neighboring Wooddale High after school to meet his sister, who was a student at the high school. After spending time visiting the high school’s aviation classroom, Ken fell in love with aviation, enrolled in Wooddale’s summer aviation camp for middle schoolers, and as soon as he was old enough, Ken enrolled in Wooddale High’s Aviation, Travel, and Tourism Optional Program.

Wooddale is the only public high school in Tennessee to offer an aviation program through which a student can obtain a private pilot’s license at virtually no cost to the student. The program was started in 1993, through a $1 million grant from NASA designed to encourage inner-city students to pursue careers in aviation, in an effort to draw students who might not otherwise have had access to aviation courses or any other exposure to the field of aviation.
Students enrolled in the program at Wooddale take courses in Theory of Flight, Introduction to Aerospace, and other aviation courses, as well as practicing on the school’s four flight simulators. Seven more simulators will soon be added to the classroom, thanks to the school’s High School Redesign Grant.

The Wooddale students also have the opportunity on the weekends to fly a private Cessna 172, owned by a FedEx pilot who donates use of the plane to the aviation students.
If you’ve ever ridden as a passenger in a car driven by a teenager learning to drive a car, it is hard to imagine the bravery that must be involved in riding in an airplane driven by a teenage aviation student, but Wooddale’s dedicated aviation teacher, Jeff Holmes, is up for the challenge. Holmes, who teaches the school’s Optional Aviation courses along with fellow teacher Ralph Schirlo, meets students at the Olive Branch Airport on the weekends to fly with them so they can log the hours they need to obtain their pilots’ licenses. Holmes is a trained flight instructor who has been teaching at Wooddale since 1998. He has a bachelor’s degree in math, a master’s degree in teaching, and a second master’s degree in commercial aviation.
With Holmes serving as co-pilot, the aviation students fly in pairs for three-hour trips, flying from Olive Branch to Holly Springs, Tupelo, or Corinth, Miss., or to Jackson, Tenn. “This is a one-of-a-kind program in Tennessee,” said Holmes, who was named Teacher of the Year by the local chapter of the Air Force Association in 2008. “The classes are taught in small groups. The content exposes them to several different careers in aviation not just the flying (or being a pilot). We have had industry representatives from several different aviation careers speak to the students including Doug Shockey, of Pinnacle Airlines. Pinnacle is headquartered in Memphis and flies over 700 commuter fights for Northwest Airlines, a Fortune 500 company. We also just began working with Pinnacle to offer internship programs to our seniors, Mr. Holmes said.”

Two Wooddale students received their pilots’ licenses last year, and there are six candidates for licenses this year. After graduating, many of the aviation students go on to pursue college educations in aviation at Middle Tennessee State University and at other schools with aviation programs. Many of the Wooddale students also go on to enroll in Tennessee Technology Centers to pursue Aviation Maintenance Technician certifications, a field of study that yields a 100-percent job hire rate, Holmes noted. Other Wooddale students go on to pursue military aviation careers. “We’ve had a lot of success in our program,” Holmes notes.

Students must be 16 years old to fly solo, and they must be 17 years old and have logged 60 hours of flight time in order to become a licensed private pilot. Ken, who plans to test for his license sometime in the next few weeks, says that his first solo flight was an experience he will never forget. Ken’s eyes light up as he recalls the moment last summer when Holmes told him that he was ready to solo. “It was one of the most exciting things in the world,” Ken recalls.
Ken was not planning to solo that day, but after successfully completing 10 take-offs and landings, he was told by Holmes that he was ready to try it on his own. Although Ken was scared, he got through the experience by pretending that he was hearing Holmes talking him through the flight the way Holmes normally did when flying with him. The exhilaration of that first flight was something that Ken will never forget, he said. “It was the best experience in the world.”

The senior, who graduated in May, plans to enroll at The University of Memphis and participate in the school’s Air Force ROTC program while studying aeronautical engineering, and Ken plans to enlist in the Air Force and become an officer following his college graduation. Ken said that he may also study something in the medical field as a back-up, but no matter where his future takes him, he will get there by plane. “I’m definitely going to be a pilot,” Ken said. “That’s my number-one goal. I wouldn’t give this up for the world.”