It’s been five years since the first group of cadets buckled up in cockpits in pursuit of an Air Force-sponsored private pilot certificate through the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (AFJROTC) Flight Academy program. Since the summer of 2018, 1,089 AFJROTC cadets have pursued their dream of becoming a pilot, with 861, or 79%, succeeding. This is a significant achievement considering that outside of the program, the dropout rate for learner pilots is around 80%, according to research by aviation advocacy groups, such as Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Headquarters AFJROTC first started taking Flight Academy scholarship applications in the fall of 2017, with the first aviation classes starting the following summer at six partnering universities. That number has since grown to 24 participating universities in 2023, which includes some of the nation’s leading flight programs like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Purdue University.

The program was initially launched as part of the Air Force Aircrew Crisis Task Force with the stated goals of restoring the luster of aviation to high school students by increasing the pool of pilots for both the military and civilian aviation communities, each facing severe pilot shortages and increase diversity in the cockpit.

The AFJROTC Flight Academy accepted the challenge and the program has grown significantly since the initial class of 120 cadets took to the skies in 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the program in 2020.

“All cadets are encouraged to apply for Flight Academy and to consider aviation as a profession,” said Ben Caro, Headquarters AFJROTC Program Development division chief. “It’s fantastic to see the diversity of the cadets interested in the program.”

In 2018, the percentage of underrepresented cadets participating in the Flight Academy was 41%. That number increased each year, with the years 2022 and 2023 each boasting 60% underrepresented groups. Of the 301 AFJROTC cadet participants in 2023, 40% were minorities and 37% female, with 239 receiving their pilot certificate.

“The Flight Academy has generated tremendous interest among our AFJROTC cadet corps with over 9,000 applicants expressing their desire to fly,” said Col. Johnny McGonigal, Headquarters AFJROTC director. “We believe this program meets the Air Force chief of staff’s desire to increase interest in aviation. It also provides an enduring solution for pilot production, while also impacting the diversity challenge facing both the military and civilian aviation communities.”

While the Air Force fully funds the extensive eight-week summer program, there is no requirement for graduates to pursue a military commitment. However, this program has inspired many cadets to take the next step toward becoming a military pilot. Of approximately 591 Flight Academy attendees who have also graduated high school by April 2023, 47% enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program in college to further their goal of becoming an Air Force pilot.