BELGRADE, Mont. - A group of pilots are getting ready to take to the skies thanks to an Air Force-funded program that hopes to boost dwindling numbers of pilots across the country, but few of the program's participants are even old enough to drive a car.
There are around 30 cadets involved in the Gallatin Composite Squadron, the local branch of the national nonprofit Civil Air Patrol, with all of the cadets between the ages of 12 and 18. The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is run by volunteers and serve as the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force.
Hazel Wallace, an Airman First Class in the Bozeman-area CAP program, isn’t even in high school yet - and she's still a few years out from getting her driver's license - but she can fly a plane.
“I mean, I’m only 12. It’s pretty cool, you know?," she says. "You wouldn’t learn [how to do drills and fly a plane] if you didn’t know about CAP.”
She took off on her first flight just a few weeks ago.
“It was pretty cool because the first time I was like," she pauses, widening her eyes, "just ‘cause it was like I’ve never done that before.”
Hazel had the rare experience of flying her first orientation flight along with her 16-year-old sister, Mary, another Airman First Class in the program.
“Actually taking off," Mary recalls, "it was like pretty much an experience that I could never get back.”
There are now three Wallace sisters involved in the Civil Air Patrol, an organization that has taken them from their first steps on the tarmac into the skies themselves in less than four months.
"I have opportunities to change things and achieve my goals," Mary says about her time in CAP.
Achieving goals - and building a bright future - seems possible when you look at 17-year-old David Hogenson’s path.
He’s the Primary Nominee in Montana for the Air Force Academy from Congressman Greg Gianforte. The nomination is practically a guarantee that a cadet will get into the Air Force Academy, but he or she still needs to reach a certain set of goals to ensure their enrollment. There was no doubt with Hogenson achieving those goals, though - his superiors say - and he recently received his appointment to the Air Force Academy.
Hogenson is the state’s top cadet. He’s been training for the last two-and-a-half years, and now he’s just 117 days out from beginning his Air Force Academy training.
“That makes me feel very elated," Hogenson says, thinking of his primary nomination. "I’ve been working at this for quite a long time. It’s awesome to see that this came true.”
Hogenson is part of a dwindling number of young people pursuing a career in aviation.
While the airline industry is seeing a dropping number of pilots, the Civil Air Patrol is hoping they can get those numbers to take back off again.
Over the last thirty years, according to Federal Aviation Administration reports, the U.S. has lost over 200,000 active certified pilots while passenger numbers are continuing to grow sky high.
“The ultimate goal is to hopefully get more pilots, both for military as well as for the civilian aviation," says Austin Troth, a Squadron Commander for the Civil Air Patrol and a First Lieutenant.
And in the meantime, the process encourages personal growth in the cadets.
“CAP provides a structure of challenges, is really what it comes down to," explains Troth. "We enable them to become adults, to become leaders, through challenging them beyond their age.”
The Civil Air Patrol is looking for youth and adult volunteers. They operate all around Montana and the United States. You can learn more at gocivilairpatrol.com or gallatin.cap.gov or contact them at email@example.com.