Every day Wilson Air Center is filled with the sights and sounds of high commerce. CEOs and corporate executives fly private aircraft into the airport’s year-old facility, their pressed and tailored suits move quickly through the LEED-platinum certified halls of the terminal and on to their meetings in Chattanooga. Their high stakes work often brings investment and jobs into Chattanooga, improving the quality of life in the city.
On Saturday, the sights and sounds in these immaculate rooms were very different. Nearly two dozen teenagers roamed the halls in jeans and t-shirts, learning about solar energy and sustainable building practices. They toured the aircraft hangar, and most of them took their first airplane ride on a private, chartered plane. Then they enjoyed a catered lunch and talked to aviation professionals about career opportunities in the industry and how to ensure they are preparing properly.
These students are all residents of the Shepherd community – the neighborhood immediately surrounding the Airport – and are part of Shepherd Training Academic Respect and Service (STARS). The program was started by area residents who were concerned about the gang problem within the community. All funding for STARS outings has been donated from Shepherd community residents.
Malcolm Walker, a retired educator, coordinated the first flight experience with the airport and said community support is critical to reach potentially at-risk kids.
“Some of these kids don’t know about all of the opportunities they have in Chattanooga,” Mr. Walker said. “We want to work with local organizations to help educate them about their options for careers and help them believe that these things are possible for them.”
District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz participated in the event, as she has most of the STARS sponsored activities. “These kids are so bright and it really is incumbent on us as a community to rally around them and give them every chance to succeed in life.”
Taylor Newman, director of Operations for Crystal Air, piloted the 10-seat Caravan aircraft that took three short trips over the city. Each flight was filled with Shepherd community children and their neighborhood chaperones.
Later, he talked to the group about some of the jobs he has within his company, and how the kids can prepare to compete for them. He closed by talking about why, many years ago as a student at MTSU, he changed his major from engineering to aviation management. “Flying gives you a completely different perspective on your world. You can pass the same street corner every day for a year and not see what you’re passing by. But when you’re in the air, it all looks clear.”
As the kids boarded the bus for the short drive back to the Shepherd Community Center, Chattanooga Airport Authority President and CEO Terry Hart said that perspective Mr. Newman discussed is exactly what he hopes they gained during their visit.
“Our community is experiencing remarkable economic growth and the opportunities are endless. The airport has benefited from that growth and we want our closest neighbors – these great kids who are growing up in the shadow of the airport – to understand that this growth helps them, too. Their possibilities are endless.”