Free flight training and real-world life lessons are what teens aged 13 to 18 gain by attending Melbourne, Fla.-based Wings of Grace Ministries. Teens meet on Mondays and follow an FAA-approved curriculum toward earning their private pilot certificate, including all classroom materials and flight operations.
The ministry is the brainchild of real estate agent Dwight Bell. “When I was a teen, I had great parents, but I made horrible decisions and it took me 20 years to wise up. It was only through the grace of God I didn’t end up dead or in jail,” he said.
Fast forward to early 2000, when Bell said he wanted to speak with teens at his church to impart the wisdom he learned. “But they didn’t want to hear what I had to say. I couldn’t connect with them,” he said.
In 2005, Bell started flying helicopters and realized that aviation had all of the principles that he wanted to teach young people. “I wanted to show the aeronautical decision-making process. Kids connect to that, and with these classes, I can show them how they can use these principles in everyday life,” he said. “Teens think they’re coming to learn to fly, but it also teaches them much more. And aviation is the tool to do it.”
The ministry is a standalone 501(c)(3) that can be taken anywhere, said Bell. “The ministry is funded through my real estate business, where we buy foreclosed houses, rehab them, and rent them out to low-income people,” he said. “It’s funded at $50,000 a year right now, and I want to do more. I’d like to eventually make it self-sustainable.”
The program, finishing its second year, has 20 teens. “We meet once a week for ground school. We work with another church that lets us use their aircraft very cheaply,” said Bell. The students use a Cessna 172 and a 150, he added.
Most of the program’s teens are younger than 16, said Bell. “I like to get them in when they’re 13 to 14, and it’s designed to go through their high school years. All the kids belong to AOPA AV8RS,” he said. “We have five simulators that they practice on so they can get familiar with the controls. We do this because we want to make sure they can really fly a plane.”
If a student is mature on the ground, then he or she will be ready to fly, said Bell. “If you have a bad reputation, talk back to your parents, or do badly in school, it tells me you’re not mature enough to get into a cockpit,” he said. “Boys and girls don’t fly airplanes. Men and women do.”
The program has trained 30 teens so far, said Bell. “So far, a young lady who went through our program last year went to college and got her certificate. One student has soloed and another five are close. I’m proud of them all,” he said.