History of R-MA's Flight Program: An Insider's View

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by Michael T. Turner, '86

It was the fall of 1984 and I was in my junior year at R-MA when my JROTC class took a field trip out to the Front Royal/Warren Co. Airport. After hearing that the airport offered flying lessons, I couldn't get the idea out of my head. I was 16 and just started driving months earlier and the thought of flying was very exciting. So, I went where most 16-year-olds go when they want something - their dad. In this case though, my dad was the President of R-MA, Col. Trevor D. Turner. He was intrigued and asked if there was interest among the other cadets. I said, "How could there not be?"  Well, with the start of the spring semester in January 1985, R-MA had a new after-school elective - flying. I'm sure he approached the Board of Trustees with recruitment in mind and over 28 years later, how right he was.

The first couple of years the instruction was done by airport flight instructors H. "Brownie" Brown and Kevin Fifer. The first students were me, '86; Tareq Salahi '87; and Mickey English '85.  I soloed and earned my private pilot's certificate and decided flying was what I wanted to do as a career. In the interest of having the highest safety standard during the fall of 85, my dad decided the academy needed its own aircraft: a new one to keep perfectly maintained.  David Fridenstein, '86, (who also had his Private Pilot's Certificate) and I were flown to Ohio by David's dad (in his airplane) to pick up the academy's new Cessna 152. David and I even timed our arrival to fly over the campus during the cadet formation to show everyone the academy’s new plane before landing at the Front Royal airport - much to Col. Ivan Mieth's surprise!

As I attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Daytona Beach campus) from 1986-90, several other improvements were made to the flight program at R-MA, including hiring an in-staff flight instructor, John Sheehy, a former Eastern Airlines pilot.  After I graduated from Embry-Riddle with a Bachelor's Degree in Aviation in 1990, I replaced Mr. Sheehy as he headed back to the airlines. During my time as a Flight Instructor and later the Director of Flight Training from 90-93, the academy's flight program tripled in size. This growth included hiring additional in-staff flight instructors including Jay Cullen and John Angeny; purchasing additional aircraft including a multi-engine aircraft; and building an academy aircraft hanger at the airport.  Following an Embry-Riddle style curriculum, R-MA's Flight Program had become one of the nation's premier aviation training schools for secondary schools. I am thrilled that the program has been so successful over all these years and has influenced so many to pursue aviation careers.

For me, I began my airline career in the summer of 1993 as a pilot for Atlantic Coast Airlines, a United Express carrier and in January 2000, I started at United Airlines. I have flown everything from turbo-props to international wide-body jets and have had the chance to visit, explore and have great experiences all over the U.S. and in many other countries. During the decade following 9/11, the airline industry endured many difficulties and I was furloughed (an involuntary leave). By using my aviation background, this setback became an opportunity and allowed me to experience another occupation including three years in public service as a Program Analyst for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I have since returned to United Airlines and I am currently a pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 flying to Europe, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and South America. I thank R-MA for giving me the opportunity to learn how to fly and I know many of my students from the early 90's love it as much as I do and feel the same way.

The flight program at R-MA now enrolls 30 students each year and encompasses a summer flight camp in addition to the flight lessons taught during the regular school year. There are two instructors on the R-MA staff. Lessons are still given at Front Royal-Warren County Airport, but now the students fly in one of two 2001 Cessna 172 aircraft.

Michael Turner, a 1986 alumnus of Randolph-Macon Academy, was inspired to write this look back at history by a recent article about pilots. The article was published in the 2013 issue of Randoph-Macon Academy's magazine, The Sabre. You can view the entire magazine online