OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — Career and college pathways are taking off in Oak Ridge Schools. A state grant allows students to graduate high school with their pilot’s license. 

A small group of freshmen completed their first flight lesson this month. 

“I love the feeling when you are going down the runway and then you just start to lift up and you feel like you are defying gravity, it is a great feeling,” said Carson Chuy, an ORHS freshman.

The student pilots are enrolled in the school district’s aviation program which partners with AVZ Flight Academy at McGhee Tyson Airport

But before students are in the cockpit, they are in the classroom learning from flight instructors like Jeff Coffey, a seasoned air traffic controller, and gaining authentic flying experience on simulators. 

“I think the biggest surprise for students has been the amount of knowledge that you’ve got to work through to get ready for the written exam. You can’t just go out and jump in the airplane and go fly and boom you’re a pilot. As much as we would like to do that because flying is the fun part,” said Coffey. 

In-flight training students learn where everything is and what all of the buttons and controls do on the airplane. They also perform a few basic flying maneuvers. 

AVZ Aviation CEO, Adrian Van Zyl, has been a pilot for more than 40 years and he’s passionate about exposing others to the power of flight. 

“I had gone on helicopter rides before, and I thought it was going to be something similar to that, but it was way better,” said Kimberly Martinez, an ORHS freshman. 

Students can graduate high school with their pilot’s license if they meet the requirements, including passing the private pilot written exam. 

“I think it will give me a big head start to my career, so I’ll be able to be a pilot a lot younger than all the other people and I’m really thankful for that,” said Porter Foust, an ORHS freshman. 

The program offers a valuable learning opportunity amid a shortage of skilled aviation workers hampering the travel industry. 

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“This opportunity will put these students in a position to really participate in an effective and a very tangible way and participate and contribute to aviation in the United States,” said Van Zyl.

The College, Career and Technical Education team and Oak Ridge Schools maintenance are currently building a state-of-the-art facility to house the aviation program. Students will have access to additional flight simulators and even learn how to build an airplane.