A drone pilot pays it forward
A STEM workshop for high school students gave a pilot who was a teenager himself when he flew for the first time a chance to pass along what he's learned.
Christopher Stewart is a pilot at the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), working on drone operations that help companies and the Federal Aviation Administration determine how to incorporate drones into U.S. airspace. But one day this summer, the Air Force veteran, along with MAAP senior engineer Andrew Kriz, set aside their usual day jobs to head to Newport News, Virginia, to teach a group of local high school students how to fly. The seminar was part of Industry Link, a STEM workshop sponsored by the College Access Collaborative and the Calhoun Discovery Program of the Virginia Tech Honors College.
How did you get involved with aviation yourself?
My grandfather had been a pilot for [Trans World Airlines], and as a little boy I knew that I wanted to fly. When I was 15, I had the opportunity to fly with a local pilot during an airshow at the Charles B. Wheeler airport in downtown Kansas City. He took off from the airport, and then allowed me to take control while flying right-seat for 20 minutes around downtown Kansas City and Arrowhead Stadium — go Chiefs! It was inspiring to see the world from that perspective. As a child my original dream was to be an astronaut, but you have to be less than 6’3”, and I’m too tall. So I thought, all right, I’ll be a pilot.
This wasn't your first experience working with students — you’ve also done a lot of community outreach related to the drone delivery program in Christiansburg. What do you enjoy about sharing this technology with people?
I genuinely feel like this is where things are going. Not only in the commercial drone industry but also with applications like drone delivery and urban air mobility — drone taxis — that will interact with the general public. So, I like getting up in front of people and engaging with them about this technology. It’s exciting to me.
How did the students respond to the workshop?
We started with a presentation. The students were quiet and gave brief answers when we asked them questions. But once they had the controller in their hands, they came alive. You could tell the lights were on, the wheels were spinning, and they were asking all kinds of questions. They were great listeners and extremely focused. I think one of the students actually gave me a fake name originally, which I thought was funny because it was something I would have done in high school. But once we started flying, none of those antics mattered — they really responded.
What was the actual flight training session like?
Piloting seemed to come naturally to them. Several students said that playing video games had prepared them for controlling the aircraft, which is something I hear a lot.
They did have trouble with reverse sensing — knowing how to control the aircraft when it’s facing towards you rather than away from you. Most people struggle with this — even experienced pilots catch themselves getting confused sometimes! I had them perform basic maneuvers: flying up, down, yawing clockwise or counterclockwise, rolling left and right. We did box pattern flying, where you just fly around in a square. In the end, all of them were able to take off and land without me taking over the controls. I was really impressed, and it was so much fun to see their enthusiasm.
What do you hope they took away from the experience?
I spoke with the students about career opportunities in the STEM industry and explained how I found myself in the position I’m presently in. I pulled out my drone license and showed them that it looks just like my other pilot’s license — it’s legitimate.
I broke it down for them and explained that if they wanted to, they could take the FAA test to apply for the license, get it in the mail in a couple of weeks, and start making money as a legal drone operator — for example, by working with a local realtor to get aerial pictures.
One guy asked how old he would have to be, and when I said 16, he said, “What, really? My birthday is in two weeks and I’m 15 now. So you’re saying when I turn 16 I can go take this test, and get a drone and make money with it?”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what you can do.”
“I’m gonna do that!”
Another student said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before; I can do this?!”
A lot of career paths can seem really far away when you’re in high school. They were amazed that this was something they could do now.