Having spent more of his life in the air than on land, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Bill Powley said FLIGHT is not only his preferred - and arguably the safest - mode of transportation available, but also the name of the aerospace education program he started 22 years ago to familiarize area high school junior ROTC students with aviation through actual flight.
FLIGHT, a clever acronym Powley coined to stand for “Flight Lesson Instructional Grants Helping Teens,” is a non-profit foundation responsible (so far) for 2,388 orientation flights carrying 6,663 local students/ passengers since 1992 - as well as 116 solo flights performed by students from 15 regional high schools and one college since 1996.
The president of the foundation, Powley was recently inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame. He attributed his shining achievement to the program's rarity and long-lived success.
“I look at it as the program getting inducted into the hall of fame and I'm there to give the speech,” Powley humbly stated. “I didn't walk on the moon; I didn't break the sound barrier; I didn't fly X-15s... I worked with kids.”
Powley, a Baltimore, Md., native and longtime Unicoi, Tenn., resident, served 23 years active duty in the U. S. Air Force before retiring in 1991.
When seeking employment with the airlines proved difficult, the former flyboy decided to interview for a JROTC instructor position at Unicoi County High School (UCHS).
Powley said he was hired because, “I wanted to start a flying program... Their JROTC program was on probation and I thought flying kids would be something that would excite them.”
The school board narrowly voted 4-3 in favor of Powley's proposal in April of 1992 and flight became a legitimate part of the daily school curriculum.
“That one vote was why I'm in the hall of fame,” Powley said in retrospect.
In its first six years at UCHS, the FLIGHT Foundation raised $8,000 by offering area businesses and individuals aerial portraits taken of their property in return for a donation. However, Powley soon realized grants and other funding were necessary to fly more students in a shorter time frame.
He contacted Mark Leon, director of NASA's Aims Research Center to tell him about FLIGHT and later briefed the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission - with the help of five solo students - on the foundation's value to the state in its purpose to “change perspectives of people as to what flying is.”
Powley's persistence paid off. In 1999, FLIGHT received a $10,000 grant from NASA and, since 2000, receives a yearly grant from the Tennessee Aeronautics Division (totaling $440,000 over 14 years).
In 2001, the company of two - Powley and his “co-conspirator” Fain Bennett - took the FLIGHT program to Sullivan South High School in Kingsport. Since then, they have flown thousands of JROTC students from South, as well as students across upper East Tennessee, in Cessna-172s out of the Tri-Cities and Greeneville airports.
In recent years, Powley was awarded numerous honors for his hands-on aerospace program. He received the A. Scott Crossfield Teacher of the Year Award in 2010 and the Career Contribution to Aviation Award from the Tennessee Aeronautics Division in 2011. On, Nov. 9, 2013, he was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.
The induction ceremony held in Nashville, Tenn. on Veteran's Day weekend- a weekend Powley referred to as “the best weekend of my life”- caused him to poignantly reflect on his career in the Air Force, as a pilot, and as a teacher.
Powley explained that he entered the Air Force Academy in 1963 and underwent pilot training in 1967. He then flew two tours as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, one in the F-4 and one in the A-7 for a combined total of 347 combat missions. He later ended his 23.5-year military career “flying in the F-16.”
“I retired in June of this year from teaching after 22 years in ROTC...” he said. “So, for 50 consecutive years from '63 to '13, the Air Force paid me to wear the uniform.”
In his speech, Powley gratefully outlined every action and thanked every person that paved his way to the podium that day, especially his wife of 27 years, Phillis whom he said is “the reason I fly.”
Powley said the experience was very special because he was not only surrounded by family and friends, but former students, parents, combat buddies and the family of his friend and fallen brother-in-arms Bob Gomez. He was physically reunited with the Gomez family there after 43 years.
The father of three and grandfather of four may have retired from teaching, but Powley said he will continue to serve Sullivan County's youth as STEM coordinator for aerospace education and through participation in the governor's aviation initiative.
There's no landing point in sight for Bill Powley. He said he'll keep flying kids as long as he can pass his physical.
For more information on the FLIGHT Foundation or how to donate to the cause, visit www.flightfoundation.com or call (423) 743-7099.