After 5 years, Air Force Junior ROTC Flight Academy changing the face of aviation

  • Published
  • By Phil Berube
  • Air University Public Affairs

The face of aviation is changing, and it’s beginning to look a lot like high school students.   

It’s been five years since the first group of cadets buckled up in cockpits in pursuit of an Air Force-sponsored private pilot certificate through the Air Force Junior ROTC Flight Academy program.

Since the summer of 2018, 1,089 AFJROTC cadets have pursued their dream of becoming a pilot, with 861, or 79%, succeeding. A significant achievement considering that outside of the Flight Academy program, the dropout rate for learner pilots is around 80%, according to research by aviation advocacy groups, such as Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Headquarters AFJROTC first started taking Flight Academy scholarship applications in the fall of 2017, with the first aviation classes starting the following summer at six partnering universities. That number has since grown to 24 participating universities in 2023, which includes some of the nation’s leading flight programs like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Purdue University.

The program was initially launched as part of the Air Force Aircrew Crisis Task Force with the stated goals of restoring the “luster of aviation” to high school students by increasing the pool of pilots for both the military and civilian aviation communities, each facing severe pilot shortages, and to increase diversity in the cockpit.

The AFJROTC Flight Academy accepted the challenge, and the program has grown significantly since the initial class of 120 cadets took to the skies in 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the program in 2020.

“All cadets are encouraged to apply for Flight Academy and to consider aviation as a profession,” said Ben Caro, division chief for Headquarters AFJROTC Program Development. “It’s fantastic to see the diversity of the cadets interested in the program.”

In 2018, the percentage of underrepresented cadets participating in the Flight Academy was 41%. That number increased each year, with the years 2022 and 2023 each boasting 60% underrepresented groups. For 2023, of the 301 AFJROTC cadet participants, 40% were minorities and 37% female, with 239 receiving their pilot certificate.

“The Flight Academy has generated tremendous interest among our AFJROTC cadet corps with over 9,000 applicants expressing their desire to fly,” said Col. Johnny McGonigal, director, Headquarters AFJROTC. “We believe this program meets the Air Force chief of staff’s desire to increase interest in aviation. It also provides an enduring solution for pilot production, while also impacting the diversity challenge facing both the military and civilian aviation communities.”

While the Air Force fully funds the extensive eight-week summer program, there is no requirement for graduates to pursue a military commitment. However, this program has inspired many cadets to take the next step toward becoming a military pilot. Of approximately 591 Flight Academy attendees who have also graduated high school by April 2023, 47% enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program in college to further their goal of becoming an Air Force pilot. 

Even for those not pursuing a career in aviation, the academy was a very memorable and valuable experience.

"I highly recommend the flight academy to anyone who is considering it. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had and wouldn't trade it for anything,” said 2nd Lt. Adam Landry, who completed the Flight Academy program at Delaware State University in 2019. “I made amazing connections and was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to fly. Thanks for the opportunity to attend the academy, I still think back on the memories quite often even though it was four years ago.”

Landry graduated from Syracuse University’s ROTC program in 2023 with a degree in civil engineering.

I’ve been extremely impressed with the Flight Academy cadets I’ve met, and with the outstanding quality of the program overall
Brig. Gen. Houston Cantwell, Commander, Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development

“I’ve been extremely impressed with the Flight Academy cadets I’ve met, and with the outstanding quality of the program overall,” said Brig. Gen. Houston Cantwell, commander of the Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development, the parent organization for AFJROTC. “Our intent is to help regenerate interest and inspiration in our nation’s youth to pursue careers in aviation and to diversify the industry as a whole. With this program, we believe we are changing the face of aviation one cadet at a time.”

For more information about the AFJROTC Flight Academy Program, visit