The world looks different when viewed from a Cessna cockpit high in the sky. Problems below suddenly appear smaller, while the horizon ahead expands with possibilities. That’s why Virginia pilot Dave Brubaker created a program that uses introductory flight instruction to spark young students’ early interest in aviation and STEM. Connecting youthful dreams with unforgettable hands-on experiences is the key to unlocking confidence and ambition, says Brubaker, a retired brigadier general who served for 34 years as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. He’s president of Alexandria-based STEM Flights, a nonprofit he founded in 2018 that arranges no-cost flight experiences for youth ages 11 to 18 at airports across the country. The program pairs students with volunteer pilot mentors who lead tailored lessons while allowing young ones to actually take hold of airplane controls during a free one-hour flight. To be considered, candidates submit an application and letter of recommendation, then complete related reading assignments.
After the mission, STEM Flights follows up with education and career guidance. They have yet to turn a student away. “If an applicant demonstrates serious commitment, and an involved guardian supports their efforts, we will search until we match that student with a pilot and a plane,” says director of development Carley Walker. Charlie Gilbert, a 14-year-old eighth grader at J. Lupton Simpson Middle School in Leesburg, flew the General and Commercial Aviation mission with volunteer pilot Michael Johnson at Winchester Regional Airport in March. “Pretty cool,” says Charlie, who aspires to become an Air Force pilot. “I had never flown a plane before, but I learned I could do it, and it was easier than I thought.”