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Rock Hill Youths Soar to Success Through Unique Aviation Program

Teenagers flying planes enthusiastically.

Rock Hill Youths Soar to Success Through Unique Aviation Program

Adrienne Mack-Heath always saw planes flying in the sky, but never thought she would get a chance to be in the pilot seat. That opportunity came in the summer of 1994 for her and several dozens of teenagers aged 14 to 17 from Rock Hill, mostly from lower economic backgrounds. They were part of the HiTek Aviation One, a summer youth employment program, which operated through the then-Catawba Regional Planning Council.

Reflections: 30 Years Later

Now 30 years later, Mack-Heath and other members of that inaugural class are reflecting on the program and how they were soaring, not just in a plane, but later in life as well.

“I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet,” Mack-Heath, who is now 44 and works for LPL Financial as an analyst, said. “I learned to fly before I could drive.” And the excitement of joining the program is still vivid in her memory. “My sister said no. I, however, said absolutely. I don’t know what I was expecting but I wasn’t expecting to fly planes.”

Conceptualization and Execution of the Program

The program was debuted as a novel way to enhance students’ math and reading skills by applying these concepts to real-life situations. Incorporating planes was perceived as an engaging method to integrate these skills. The selection of students was based on their household income or academic standing. The program took place at the old Applied Technology Center, nearby Northwestern High School, concluding month-long classes with a flight from the Rock Hill Airport along with a co-pilot.

Flying Experience and Plane Specifications

These flights, which included two students, a flight instructor as well as a school instructor, usually lasted about 15 minutes. They would fly to the local airports in Lancaster and Union counties. “It feels like operating a manual transmission car, once you get it in your head you never forget it,” Mack-Heath said. Students conducted pre-flight inspections on the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a relatively smaller aircraft but popular for training purposes, it could fly over 800 miles on a full tank of fuel.

Changing Lives: A Perspective

Alton Johnson, the former project director, was involved in the program and was instrumental in teaching the children and maintaining class organization. Johnson still appreciates how he was able to impact hundreds of young lives. “I had an opportunity to work with some great young people. I got more out of it than I expected,” Johnson said.

The program was financed by federal funds through the Job Training Partnership Act. This act was passed in 1982 to enhance the skills needed for job placements, further preparing youth and unskilled adults for the labor force.

The Monetary Aspect

In addition to the unique learning experiences, the program offered remuneration as well. Classmate and now a construction worker, Darryl Brown talked about the paycheck. “At the time the only thing I was thinking was the money aspect of it,” he said. “It was like a trial run. It gave me the chance to do something different than sports, not knowing it could have helped me in the future.”

These students got compensated for attending the program and earned $4 an hour, about $12 in today’s money, for an eight-hour day, from Monday through Friday, besides an invaluable opportunity to fly a plane.

“We have our memories,” Brown said. “I always wanted to be in the air and see the world from a different perspective. Aviation One gave me that opportunity.”

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