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Students Reach for the Sky: Potential Careers in Airplanes, Drones, Even Flying Cars

Jan 27, 2022 02:35PM ● By JEFF LYTLE

The aerospace curriculum is flying high. Nearly 140 students at Bonita Springs High School (BSHS) are lining up for the cluster of academic interests such as engineering, physics, and math, leading to careers as pilots—of airplanes, as well as drones. 

Drones command attention these days, as a small robotic helicopter, Ingenuity, achieves the first powered flight on Mars; Detroit continues work on flying cars reminiscent of the 1960s-era cartoon, The Jetsons; and Amazon inches closer to home delivery via drones, as first unveiled to a stunned world on 60 Minutes in 2013. 

Several high schools throughout Florida are certified to teach the aerospace program sponsored by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University based in Daytona Beach. The BSHS offerings are led by Todd Callahan, a retired Air Force colonel who navigated massive B-52 bombers.  

Students who stick with the aerospace curriculum for three years, and get good grades, Callahan explains, can come away with 11 college credits and a commercial drone pilot’s license for aircraft and cargo of up to 55 pounds, plus special drone safety certification. 

Callahan calls the licensing more important than that to drive a car, leading to drone gigs in public safety (tracking criminals, for example), the military (finding and punishing enemies), real estate photography, and telecommunications (checking conditions on cell phone towers). Web searches turn up job opportunities inspecting offshore oil rigs, wind turbine blades, and smokestacks, among the dirty and dangerous jobs for which Callahan says drones are ideally suited. 

The Collier Mosquito Control District has many examples of drone use. Patrick Linn, a pilot and executive director, says drones detect alligators in swamps before employees wade in to work, map, and inspect mosquito habitat, report wind data for larger aircraft, and even apply insecticides. 

The drone story started with the military as far back as World War I, teacher Callahan explains, with small aircraft for target practice. Now they are weapons, as portrayed in the 2015 movie, Eye in the Sky. 

As for those Jetsons flying cars, Callahan says, “They’re not too far away, and today’s students may be the first ones to fly them.” 

The timing is right for the aerospace program at BSHS. Amir Ferreira Neto, assistant professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University, cites new local warehouses for Amazon and Wayfair, which promise speedy delivery, and new international commerce via Airglades Airport in Clewiston. “Drones are already helping improve logistics within businesses by tracking packages and containers, collecting smaller items, and doing inventory, for example,” Neto says.  

“These school programs should help prepare the region for increasing workforce demand,” he continues. “This synergy of business plus education can eventually create a small aero-tech cluster in the region.” 

Meanwhile, the 30 BSHS students who worked on their Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) commercial drone pilot licenses last year studied designing, building, and programming the devices. Students learned how to remotely steer and adjust drones’ speeds and fly them safely—avoiding tall buildings, populated areas, and airport flight paths. A BSHS team won a countywide drone agility contest sponsored by Junior ROTC. 

Lee County Public Schools TV show captures students demonstrating how to solder a drone circuit board and fly the finished product—even flying in formation and performing acrobatic stunts.  

These skills, Callahan says, can lead to working with full-scale, advanced aircraft. His own learning curve went in the opposite direction, bringing B-52 know-how first and adding aeronautic fundamentals as he prepared the Embry-Riddle lesson plans. 

The aerospace program can also lead students to earn their pilot certifications. Some students enroll specifically for that, he says, while others are simply curious. 

Students in the program say they were drawn to it because drones are front and center in so many fields these days. They mention military applications in particular. One class member offers the idea of using drones to find teeming fishing holes, even attaching a baited line to a drone to use as a fishing rod. 

The high school students also like the prospect of earning college-level credits offered through the Embry-Riddle program. 

BSHS principal Jeff Estes credits parents and students for input on curriculum when the school opened in 2018. They endorsed special academies for medical care, as well as aerospace. Island Coast High School in Cape Coral later joined the space race with its own aerospace program. 

It pains Callahan to lose promising students before completing three years, but he understands and even cheers the main reason: attraction to other classes at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University. “There are so many good options and choices for our students,” he beams. 


Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host at the Naples Daily News.