While serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, retired Colonel Jack Howell ’66 was periodically tasked with being a casualty assistance officer. That role included knocking on doors to notify families their loved one had died in service.
“You can only imagine what it was like delivering that news,” says Howell, who served 25 years as Marine officer. “We’d spend time with the families to help in any way we could, and one thing that struck me was how much it impacted the kids. They had very little help and many were acting out. I remember thinking that some of these kids were going to end up in the juvenile justice system, or worse.”
Howell vowed that, when he retired, he would do something “over the top” to help those children recover and do something they didn’t think was possible.
True to his word, Howell founded Teens-In-Flight Inc. in 2008, a nonprofit organization that offers flight training to teens who had a parent or sibling killed or wounded in action while serving on active duty in the U.S. military. The program has expanded to include children of first responders and at-risk youth.
The primary purpose of Teens-In-Flight is training students to earn their pilot’s license at no cost. Students must first earn the Federal Aviation Association–mandated ground school certification, which can be accomplished online. Howell and his staff then provide a minimum of 20 hours of dual instruction and 20 hours of solo flying.
But there is also a healing component to flying that can stimulate strength from a teen in despair.
“When I get them up in the air, they’re not thinking about the baggage on the ground,” says Howell. “There is a fear factor in the beginning, but you educate and convince them they’re capable of flying. When you challenge a student, they understand that you believe in them. Once they take control of that aircraft, it hits them, and they can’t believe what they’re doing. You see that huge smile and you know you got them.”
Every graduate from Teens-In-Flight has enrolled in college. Pilot training has also launched careers in aviation for many graduates. Some are currently commercial airline pilots, while Lieutenant Giovanni “Gigi” Gonzales earned an ROTC scholarship to study space physics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She is currently an electronic warfare officer on the Boeing EA-18 Growler.
The Teens-In-Flight operation relies on grants, fundraising, and donations. Flight instructors donate their time to teach the students, and Howell has never earned one dime from the work. In fact, he bought the original plane used for training and spent over $30,000 rebuilding its engine.
“The greatest satisfaction is giving different perspectives to students who are suffering from a traumatic experience,” says Howell, who earned a degree in secondary education English from Monmouth. “Learning to fly teaches them that life is worth living. Even though you’ve lost a loved one, there is always hope. And equally important, I’m going to push you hard and you’re going to discover talents you never thought you had.”