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Students get the chance to fly for real at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport
Sixteen-year-old Andrew Hugonnett, a junior from Austin, Texas, fiddles with controls inside a Cessna plane Monday at the Lanier Flight Center. About 120 students from around the country participated in a national leadership program offered through North Georgia College & State University. This aviation program is offered through LeadAmerica, which lets high school students learn about careers through real world experience. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Some people have to explore a number of options before they discover what they really want to do with their lives.

But Ashley Thompson, a rising high school senior from Richmond Hill, isn’t one of those.

"My goal in life actually is to design a military spy plane," Thompson said.

Thompson and about 120 other high schoolers are getting the chance to explore their interests in aviation and aeronautics this week as part of the LeadAmerica Conference at North Georgia College & State University.

Students from across the country were able to pilot their own flights Monday as the 10-day conference kicked off at Lanier Flight Center at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport.

Phil Shockey, vice president of Lanier Flight Center, said he has enjoyed working with the Lead-America group.

He and other flight instructors accompanied the teens as they piloted a 30-minute flight from Gainesville to Toccoa.

"We’re giving them the experience and the thrill of flight," Shockey said. "It’s pretty special."

Shockey said 30 students get the chance to fly each day.

"It was great fun. It was thrilling, something you’ll remember forever," said Thompson, who aspires to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after high school.

Thompson said she enjoyed flying the plane, but her greatest interest is in designing and engineering aircraft.

The program attracts a range of kids with different interests. Some, like Thompson, have been interested in aviation and aeronautics for years, and some are just interested in learning what it’s all about.

Mitchell Stockenburg of Fredericksburg, Va., said he has wanted to be a fighter pilot for the Navy his whole life and was interested in the program to learn more about flying planes.

Michelle Lin of Cupertino,
Calif., said she is just interested in learning something new.

"I actually don’t know ... anything about planes. I’ve never had a huge passion for them either," she said. "This is the perfect age to learn solely for the purpose of learning."

Besides having the opportunity to actually fly an airplane, LeadAmerica students will get to take other classes and field trips and hear speakers throughout the week.

Darrell "Coach" Kain, the program director for the conference, said the group also will be going to Dobbins Air Force Base and Lockheed Martin in Marietta.

Only high school students who are in the top 10 percent of their classes are able to attend Lead-America conferences.

"They’re leaders in their own communities, and they’re looking for different leadership experience over the summer," Kain said.

The teens get to have fun and make friends, but there is also quite a bit of work and learning involved.

"We also have a ground school program where we have an instructor that comes in and gives 11 lectures on how to fly planes from just an instructional standpoint," Kain said.

And he said when they are not doing aviation-related activities, the teens are learning about leadership, participating in team building exercises and public speaking.

This year, Hall County was selected as the location for Lead-America.

"It’s a big deal for us," Shockey said. "I think it’s probably a really good thing to speak of as far as attention to Gainesville and attention to Lee Gilmer (Memorial) Airport."

And Kain said during the organization’s first session in Georgia, the LeadAmerica staff has had a "great experience" so far.

"They’ve had the military program at North Georgia College before, and it was very successful. And the reputation of the Lanier Flight Center was excellent, so those are the main two reasons that it moved the program here," Kain said.

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