Aviation academy's mission is kids
JANESVILLE — As a licensed pilot and teacher, Tom Morgan saw an opportunity more than a decade ago to fuse his hobby and profession into a program that would help kids.
With the help of others, Morgan started the Wisconsin Aviation Academy, a nonprofit organization that helps youth improve their educational skills and achievement through aviation-based activities.
"I had been a teacher of at-risk kids, expelled kids," Morgan said. "I'd been with them before a judge and had them in my home."
Morgan routinely heard that the kids lacked discipline and communication skills.
He didn't necessarily agree.
"They just have a different style of discipline and communicate differently," he said. "They need to be taught to communicate in a business or professional setting.
"Aviation provides that in a really rigid, yet fun environment."
That was the basis for the Wisconsin Aviation Academy, which uses communication, planning and discipline as the pillars for its year-round program.
"The academy has been a life-changing thing for so many of the kids," Morgan said. "They come back three, four, five years later and say what a great opportunity it was.
"Others come back and tell us they wished they would have finished."
Founded in 2001, the academy got off the ground with a $200,000 donation from Morgan and his wife, a $300,000 grant from the Beloit Foundation and a significant gift from another anonymous donor.
After buying two airplanes, Morgan realized a sustainable revenue source would eventually be needed.
"Aviation is expensive, and we can't do it with pancake breakfasts and $10 raffle tickets," said Morgan, the academy's president and the executive director of the Southern Wisconsin AirFest, which was developed first and foremost to benefit the academy.
George Messina, chairman of AirFest's board of directors, said the annual air show is not designed to enrich anybody or anything other than the academy and its students.
"Everybody behind this is behind it for one reason and one reason only: We want to get money together so these kids can get a scholarship and learn how to fly," he said.
Messina and others associated with AirFest said the academy offers an affordable path to a career that's unavailable anywhere else locally.
"Not only do these kids have to do things properly to get a pilots license, they have to share grades with us and maintain a certain GPA," he said. "It's not just about getting a pilots license; it's teaching these kids discipline, attitude and building confidence in them."
That worked for Damaris Robertstad, who enrolled in the academy at age 16.
"I was interested in becoming a pilot and looked at the options in the area," she said. "The academy stood out, and it's a really good deal for high school students."
Morgan said scholarships are available to all students who apply. They're awarded based on family income, and the most any student pays is 60 percent of their training, which he said could average up to $8,000.
Applicants are screened, and at least 50 percent of students come from low- to moderate-income backgrounds, he said.
"We have eight different scholarship levels that range from paying 0 percent of the cost to 60 percent," Morgan said. "That's the only way this would be affordable for so many people."
Robertstad said she would not have been able to enroll without a scholarship. She earned her pilots license in less than a year.
She's now a home-schooled senior who works 15 to 20 hours a week as the academy's administrative assistant.
She's looking at colleges and wants to become an aircraft mechanic and bush pilot.
"There are a lot of great organizations out there for kids," Morgan said. "Programs like the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club, which have the ability to reach hundreds.
"Our successes are not done in the hundreds; they're done in the dozens, primarily because of the cost and intensity of the training we provide."
Morgan runs the academy as an unpaid volunteer. He hasn't received an AirFest salary for the last couple of years, and he said he hasn't asked for one.
With dwindling financial support from AirFest, outside donations—five airplanes in the last 18 months—have helped the academy.
But it is still operating "hand to mouth," he said.
"We don't have any future commitments, and we need AirFest, no doubt," he said. "We're literally as lean as we can be."