Civil Air Patrol’s Cadet Wings program is moving onward and upward at full throttle.

The ceiling seems unlimited for the U.S. Air Force-funded program, which helps cadets of every gender, race, economic, or ethnic background earn their private pilot certificate.

The goal is to train new pilots and help diversify America’s pilot corps, which is weathering a shortage in its ranks.

horizontal-logo-color_ray-foundationAnd thanks to a grant from the Naples, Florida-based Ray Foundation Inc., Cadet Wings has cracked the 200-pilot threshold. Of the 213 cadets who have earned the privilege and responsibility of flight so far, 18 were funded through the Ray Foundation grant. 

The foundation provided funding to support CAP Cadet Programs for James C. Ray Flight Training Scholarships in 2022, with the goal of minting 30 new pilots.

The Ray Foundation, founded by James C. Ray, is a nonprofit that supports education programs and organizations focused on getting young adults involved in aviation and aerospace. The programs the foundation supports develop life skills for these youth in the areas of honestly, work ethic, self-confidence, and self-discipline. 

“We met with the Ray Foundation board members this summer,” said Kristina Jones, CAP chief of philanthropy. “They were pleased with our first-year progress and made a commitment to support a second year of supporting an additional 30 cadets in 2023.

“We are very appreciative their two-year commitment totals $660,000 to support James C. Ray Flight Training Scholarships for our cadets,” Jones said.

‘We Evened the Playing Field’
“When we got our 100th  [pilot trained], we were like, ‘Wow,’” said Margarita Mesones, CAP’s Cadet Aviation Career Activities program manager. “In going from 100 to 200, we almost doubled our pace.”

Fittingly, the program reached the 100-pilot milestone on Independence Day in 2021. The 200-pilot mark was reached in September 2022 when a Ray Foundation scholarship recipient, Cadet Capt. David Cavazos II of the Texas Wing’s Marauder Composite Squadron, earned his wings. The first cadet completed the program in January 2019 through funding initiated by the Air Force.

“ I think it’s shown how many cadets we have out there that are truly interested in aviation careers, giving them the right sort of incentive and fuel to get started. They just needed an ‘up,’” Mesones said.

For many cadets and their families, the cost of flight instruction is prohibitive. Cadet Wings solves that problem for those accepted into the program after a rigorous application process.

“These are kids that might have ended up doing something else. Aviation is so expensive,” Mesones said. “We evened the playing field is what we did.”

‘A Source of Great Personal Pride’
The contributions of the Ray Foundation make CAP pilots like Maj. Mark Nicholson available to help cadets navigate the process of learning to fly. Called Ray navigators, these pilots are more familiar to the cadet and can often help them expedite the process.

Nicholson, a member of the California Wing’s San Diego Cadet Squadron 144, helped Cadet Capt. Katelyn Winkleblech prepare for her check ride with an FAA examiner.

“Cadet Winkleblech approached me with her desire to learn to fly several times before we had the resources available,”CAsdcadet  Nicholson said. “When finally offered the aircraft and funding, we put together a flight training program from which Cadet Winkleblech and others benefit.

Watching her succeed is a source of great personal pride.”

Nicholson said his motivation for taking on the role of Winkleblech’s flight instructor had many facets.

“The primary impetus is a desire to develop and mentor young people, particularly in the area of aviation,” he said. “I have a professional background as an educator, particularly at the middle- and highschool level. I also developed a strong, lifelong interest in aviation, ultimately leading to a flight instructor certificate.

“The CAP Cadet Flight Training program melds these two interests of mentoring young people toward success and a passion for aviation.”

Nicholson said Winkleblech is an excellent student who demonstrated a strong devotion to academics, which helped in her journey of flight. “What’s most impressive is her ability to set priorities that allow her to achieve ambitious goals. She manages her time very well,” he said, adding that as an educator he appreciates this skill set.

“Academically, she ranks at the top of her class. As one recruiter of our military academies referred to her, she is a ‘must have.’ This speaks volumes about her academic ability as a student as well as her leadership and character,” Nicholson said.

Winkleblech said the encouragement from Nicholson and others within Civil Air Patrol helped her succeed.

“I would recommend Cadet Wings to other cadets because other than the scholarship being completely free, they will be provided a support system of both [adult] members and cadets who truly care about their goals and future in the aerospace community,” she said.

‘I Am Actually a Pilot’
For Cadet 1st Lt. Andrew Z. Green of the Michigan Wing’s Livingston Composite Squadron, successful completion of the Cadet Wings program means one word: “Progress.”

“It means I am not just some teenager who has dreams of flying; I am actually a pilot who has started on their career in aviation,” Green said.

Green was trying to pay for flight instruction out of pocket, but that proved to be a struggle. He worried that his aviation dreamsMIivingston would stall until he could save enough to continue training.

Cadet Wings and the James C. Ray Flight Training Scholarship lifted that burden from his shoulders.

“It was not working out well,” Green said of his efforts to foot the bill for flight training on his own.

 “Without this scholarship, I do not know if I would have been able to finish without taking a year or two off to work more and save enough to come back to training.”

‘Appreciation and Gratitude’
For Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Skyla Ziegler of the Georgia Wing’s Peachtree City-Falcon Field Squadron, her Cadet Wings training has impacted other areas of her life.

peachtreeZiegler feels a deeper connection to CAP and is thankful to the Ray Foundation.

“Being able to work for my PPC has helped me with being more disciplined with my time and studies, she said. “It has also helped me develop a deeper appreciation and gratitude for those that help others.”

The new pilots, like Green, are looking ahead. Green wants to become a commercial airline pilot. But he also wants to give back to CAP and Cadet Wings.

While it’s not financial, he still feels he owes a debt to the organization. He’s already helping a fellow cadet in his squadron prepare for the next Cadet Wings selection cycle.

“I feel the need to give back to the CAP even more so now by using the skills that I have been taught,” he said.

‘Assisting Other Teenagers in Aviation’
Cadet 1st Lt. Cecilia Delgadillo of the New York Wing’s Westchester Cadet Squadron 1 feels the same way as Green. “I also love assisting other teenagers in aviation … I basically help others achieve their aviation goals in the same manner that other young aviators helped me.

“Flight training at a young age was a character-builder. I discovered a lot of things about myself … that I am able to trust myselfNYwest even in stressful and unplanned situations,” Delgadillo said.

But if you want to understand the power of accomplishment, the magic and mystery of learning to fly, and the impact of the Cadet Wings program, consider the words of Cadet Capt. Cayden Smith of the Ohio Wing’s Columbus Composite Squadron.

He completed the program in March 2022.

Smith  flew  his first solo in June 2021 at the Southwest Region National Flight Academy in Shawnee, Oklahoma.  He took off to the cheers of his fellow cadets.

‘Like a Blur’
“As I stepped into the airplane my nerves kicked in; but as I went through my checklists, I felt more confident, and I taxied out to the runway with all the cadets cheering me on. As I pushed the throttle in and lifted off the ground, the aircraft seemed like a rocket with just me on board. I looked to my left for a moment and admired the sunset and the sky. It all seemed so surreal now that I was flying alone, with nobody there telling me what to do. My instincts had kicked in and my training was finally being put to use. I only went around the pattern once.

OHcolumbus“As I turned off the runway, a wave of emotion hit me. I had just done it, the very thing I had dreamed of doing for years. It all flew by like a blur, and after I had the back of my shirt cut off and water dumped on me by the other students at the academy, I just sat there and couldn’t stop being in awe about what I had just done. It was incredible.

Cadet Wings, through its staff, volunteer flight instructors, and students, is walking the walk when it comes to broadening diversity in CAP and across the aviation community.

“The goal for us is to have our aviation program reflect the same diversity that we have across the country — or better,” Mesones said. “So our starting point is always I want to have the same diversity percentages that we have in CAP. But that’s just my starting base. My goal is to get 10% above that.”

She added, “It’s kind of like a sky’s the limit sort of thing, so we never stop trying.”

Mesones, leader of the program since its inception, is almost like the “mother hen” of Cadet Wings. News of the newly certified Cadet Wings pilot sparks the same feeling. She admits to often shedding tears of joy over cadets’ accomplishments as they overcome the challenges of flight on the way to their PPC.

“When you see these young men and women turn that lemon into lemonade and then come out the other side and they say, ‘I can’t believe I did it. Now that I did this, I know I can do anything.’

For these cadets, the sky’s the limit.
Paul South
Contributing writer