In triumph, World Series winners soak themselves in champagne. Super Bowl champs go to Disney World.
But when aviators achieve, their reactions are a bit more understated.
On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright were too busy trying to keep warm against the hard-blowing winter bluster of North Carolina’s windswept Outer Banks to celebrate the first powered flight. And on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took a small step on the moonscape, then went about his business. No big deal.
And when Cadet Maj. Isaac Walker of the Gorge Composite Squadron in Hood River, Oregon, earned his private pilot certificate as part of Cadet Wings’ Commercial In-Residence Flight School this past summer, he kept with that subdued tradition.
“When the examiner told me I got my license, I was too exhausted to celebrate,” he said. “A 5½-hour check ride is no fun.”
Walker, who wants to join the fire service after high school, was one of seven CAP cadets who earned their certificates in the in-residence program. An eighth, Cadet Lt. Col. Jacob Brown, is expected to join them by month’s end.
It’s another summer of success for Civil Air Patrol’s Cadet Wings program. Since its inception in late 2018, 197 cadets have earned their certificates – an 80% success rate.
Margarita Mesones, CAP’s Cadet Aviation Careers Program manager, and her team built the program from the ground up. They are the engine that propels Cadet Wings and the university in-residence program, funded this summer by the U.S. Air Force and Air Force ROTC.
Mesones is also a 23-year CAP volunteer and a lieutenant colonel in the organization.
“I give the cadets a chance to experience flying,” she said. “It’s often too pricey for teenagers, and there are other activities that are just as enjoyable for less money that draw their attention. I remove that barrier.”
The opportunity to fly was huge for Cadet 1st Lt. Jeremy Abegg-Guzman of the Florida Wing’s Pines-Miramar Composite Squadron.
“Getting up every morning knowing that I was going to fly … every day, getting one step closer to finally completing my lifelong goal of being a pilot — that was the best part,” he said.
The intense, immersive 60-day program helps youth interested in aviation clear a critical hurdle. Purdue University in Indiana, Craven Community College in North Carolina, and Walla Walla University in Washington hosted this year’s in-residence program.
Cadets from CAP along with other aspiring pilots from Air Force ROTC and Junior ROTC flew daily, attended ground school, and earned college credits.
“They’re able to decide at this young age if flying is really for them, or not, before they start college,” Mesones said. “They’re able to make this decision before they invest large amounts of time and money on studying aviation.
“I assist them in validating their long-term goals,” she said.
Cadet Wings is part of CAP’s continuing effort to build a more inclusive, diverse organization. Often, underrepresented groups lack the means or access to get needed training.
The financial support for Cadet Wings participants isn’t free. Their money is earned from dawn to dusk as they toil tirelessly in the cockpit and in the classroom. Cadets are chosen through a rigorous interview and application process.
Mesones, a self-described “Aviation Santa Claus” when it comes to funding participants, believes the in-residence initiative is a solid investment, as demonstrated by its record.
According to Mesones, the Cadet Wings program emphasizes doing your best rather than being perfect. In addition, if unforeseen circumstances arise, the program doesn’t ground or penalize a cadet.
“We look at the big picture,” she said. “We consider the individual as a whole.”
And the overarching message of the Cadet Wings program? Mesones puts her cards on the table.
“I don’t care what you look like, where you are from, where you live, or even what your cadet grade is,” she said. “Money doesn’t care. The fact that you are dedicated to achieving these goals and making progress toward them is the only thing that truly matters.”
“We are a good risk for any donor’s wallet,” she said. “We make sure that they are committed to completing the program and not dropping out, even when training gets tough.
“We don’t spoonfeed them. If we’re going to put them in a plane by themselves, we make sure they pay attention to details.”
One of those committed students, Cadet Lt. Col. Gwendolyn Vongkasemsiri of the Tennessee Wing’s Music City Composite Squadron, joined CAP driven by a desire to fly. Earning her private pilot certificate has been a four-year journey. An experienced computer coder, she attends Dakota State University, where she studies cybersecurity and competes on the women’s volleyball team.
Along with the practicality of a pilot’s certificate, she gained intangible benefits from her summer at Purdue.
“Some of the things that stood out to me were meeting other like-minded people,” Vongkasemsiri said. “You’re Civil Air Patrol cadets, and you’re also interested in pursuing a goal.
“All of them were goal-oriented, driven people. It was really cool to be around people who are trying to make a difference in the world.”
Another of those driven flyers was Cadet Col. Jacob Brown of the Texas Wing’s Redbird Composite Squadron.
Along with discipline, attention to detail and desire, pilots must possess the ability to respond effectively in the face of the unexpected. A series of circumstances beyond his control kept Brown from completing his license. However, he expects to finish by month’s end, a study in perseverance.
“I believe the Cadet Wings program is one of the best programs in CAP,” Brown said. “Prospective cadets can use the Wings program to learn and help them in their careers, in whatever way they go.”
“The learning and leading experience is what attracted me to CAP,” he said. “The experience you get from ranking up and from leading in and out of the squadron kept me going.”
Cadet Wings, as well as CAP in general, has helped prepare Brown for a future in one of the nation’s service academies, as well as in military service.
For all the intensity that is the in-residence program and the seriousness of gaining a private pilot certificate, there are lighter moments.
For instance, Oregon Wing cadet Walker’s completion of the program was a thrill for his mother, but she also had another reaction.
“She thought it was weird that now I can rent a plane, but I can’t rent a car,” he said.
Participants in Cadet Wings’ Commercial In-Residence Flight Schools
(italicized cadets earned their private pilot certificate)
Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana)
- Cadet 1st Lt. Jeremy Abegg-Guzman, Pines-Miramar Composite Squadron, Florida Wing
- Cadet Capt. Bethany Mullen, Towson Composite Squadron, Maryland Wing
- Cadet Lt. Col. Caleb Savoie, Bethesda-Chevy Chase Composite Squadron, Maryland Wing
- Cadet Lt. Col. Gwendolyn Vongkasemsiri, Music City Composite Squadron, Tennessee Wing
Craven Community College (New Bern, North Carolina)
- Cadet Col. Jacob Brown, Redbird Composite Squadron, Texas Wing
- Cadet Col. Leland McAbee, Ellijay Composite Squadron, Georgia Wing
- Cadet Lt. Col. Christopher Starnes, Tamiami Composite Squadron, Florida Wing
- Cadet Col. Ishan Swali, Phoenix Composite Squadron, New York Wing
Walla Walla University (College Place, Washington)
- Cadet Maj. Eliron Rosin, Randolph Composite Squadron, Texas Wing
- Cadet Maj. Isaac Walker, Gorge Composite Squadron, Oregon Wing