Will Strickland has wanted to be a Marine Corps fighter pilot since he was age 7.
Now at 11, he got the chance to see what it’s like to feel the control buttons under his fingers.
Strickland won a scholarship to attend Space Camp Aviation Challenge June 20-25 in Huntsville, Ala. He was one of 44 students selected for a full scholarship this summer — and pushed his dreams of flying even higher.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Strickland said. “My favorite part was using the flight simulators. It looks like a cockpit from the side, and you use a throttle and stick inside. We learned how to flight and not crash, land and go on missions.”
The camp took on military-style rules, teaching the students to make their beds, clean the dorms and follow specific instructions. As one among a group of boys named “Team Mustangs,” Strickland took on the call sign and nickname “Tractor” for the John Deere hat he wore during camp.
“We also simulated a helicopter crash in a lake, and we’d have to help each get out,” Strickland explained. “In one scenario, two kids were blind, two couldn’t use their legs, two couldn’t use their arms and two were helpers. I was a helper, and we worked as a team to rescue everyone.”
Strickland also took sessions about tent-building, fire-making and evasion techniques.
“You’re wearing camouflage and the counselors come look for you,” said Strickland, holding up his beige flight suit, with his name badge and wings pinned on the chest. He also received a mission patch with the team name and the Flag Award, which is given to the team that earns the most points during the week.
Strickland talked excitedly about the different planes available in hangars for the campers to check out. He talked throughout the week to his grandfather, who was in the Air Force, and thought about his great-grandfather, who flew in the Army Air Corps.
Strickland won the scholarship by writing about the aircraft he would want to fly the most — the P-51D Mustang.
“It’s the only plane that could escort bombers from England to Germany, almost to Russia and back, which is a long flight,” Strickland said. “It has a bubble canopy to see what’s behind you. I would fly it over Normandy in France because of D-Day.”
His mom, Renee Strickland, is looking for other camps for Will to attend. Will, of Cleveland, is moving on to North Hall Middle School next year, but his mom is checking out JROTC programs at surrounding high schools in case he remains interested. Right now, his heart is set on attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., after high school.
“He’s inquisitive about it and has taken a huge interest in history, especially World War II,” said Renee Strickland. “This was the first time he’s been away from home for this long, so that was a good experience for him — and for me.”
The scholarship keeps giving back. Will is saving up to go back to space camp next summer. The scholarship was founded in honor of Thomas Holman, who passed away at age 6 before he could achieve his dreams of becoming an astronaut.
“It’s starting to teach him how to give to other people,” Renee Strickland said. “We’ve sent thank you notes, and the family sent back a boys’ teen Bible to him, which was really nice. We’ll start giving a little each year so others kids can attend the camp.”