A’Janay Lurry looked at the airport’s wind pattern and traffic flow before hitting the runway.
Only that runway was a dotted line of blue duct tape in a classroom at Chicago’s Corliss High School, and the air conditions were instructions from her teacher.
Lowry is among the participants in Corliss’ new aviation program known as “pilot school”. It gives students an opportunity to train for the FAA’s Unmanned Pilot Certification Exam, a license that allows the chartering of drones or any non-recreational purpose.
Five students from Corliss — an early college STEM school in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago’s Far South Side — passed the two-hour, 60-question test this year. This included Laurie, a coming-of-age student who, according to Chicago Public Schools, became the first black commercially licensed drone pilot under the age of 21.
“It was a good learning experience,” Lowry said. “And flying drones is a bit like video games, and I enjoy video games.”
Corliss, Air Force Academy High School, and Dunbar Career Academy are the three buildings at CPS that host the aviation programs.
At Corliss, “pilot school” is specifically designed to focus on drone flight certification and is taught by someone with air traffic control experience from his time in the Marine Corps, Brandon Parks.
So by the time Senior Student Vincent Smith took the exam in November, he was ready. Although he said some of the questions blew him away, he got an 88%, much higher than the 70% he needed to pass. “It was easier than I expected,” he said.
Phylydia Hudson, director of Corliss’ STEM program, said the entire program began with a student’s curiosity.
After participating in a previous summer auto detailing program, a student asked Hudson, “Do we have drones?”
“Of course, I didn’t know about drones,” Hudson said. But the questions led her to search online for resources on drone education and learn about the licensing process. At first, Hudson thought she could learn and teach the material. And she soon realizes it’s beyond her scope, with a curriculum full of science, math, and weather.
When students indicated an interest in sitting for the actual FAA licensing exam, Hudson thought it was a bit ambitious.
But Hudson said Parks, a former Marine on the staff, told her he thought it could help students prepare for and pass the test.
With donations from Corliss employees, as well as the school’s corporate sponsors, the school covered the cost of the exam for students, usually around $175. Instruction was also free for students. Online test prep courses for the exam can cost $200.
Of the 12 students who took part in the program, Hudson said, five took the exam. She said that just the fact that the students were willing to try was a win for her. Then, defying her expectations, two students pass on the first try – the one who inspired everything and is now a sophomore, and senior Jonathan Turner.
Turner, who hopes to study computer engineering in college, joined the summer program because he didn’t know much about drones. But he learned about the smart features and AI technology that is constantly evolving with the machines.
Thanks to this license, he said, his understanding of what he can do in the engineering field has expanded. While he may start out flying drones, he hopes to eventually work on the technology research and development side.
“This has really given me a lot of choices in life, and a lot of interesting ones as well,” Turner said.
Hudson said many of the opportunities for young people on the North Side are out of reach for students farther south. Now, with the success of the program, she hopes the school can become a hub for drone command and flight.
“We see this as an emerging technology, and we’re actually training them on things for jobs that don’t exist yet,” she said. And it all happened because one of the students said, ‘Hey, can we have this? “
There is not a lot of actual drone flying required to obtain a license. But what is required is the ability to understand maps.
These maps are called sectional charts, and to the untrained eye, they may look like a collection of concentric circles filled with numbers. Reading a tomogram that tells pilots where they can or can’t fly.
Parks said the FAA 107 exam syllabus is very similar to what an air traffic controller needs to know.
“It’s more important to know where you can fly, how far you can fly, how fast you can fly, versus flying the plane,” he said. “Flying an airplane is the simple skill.”
While the test does not test their ability to fly the drone, the students have been able to try it several times. But when the teens weren’t flying the real plane, in Corliss’s classroom they got to use two drone flight simulators created by teachers and students. The use of simulators allowed students to log flying hours.
Turner said that studying for the exam required some juggling. During the summer, he balanced the basketball team’s workouts with the program’s hours. Some mornings he got to Corliss at 7:30 a.m., an hour before class started, just to have extra time to take practice tests.
By the time Turner sat the exam, his confidence was high, and he said he finished answering the questions in 40 minutes. After checking the time, he worried that it was over too quickly and began to speculate on his answers. But instead of giving in to doubt, he turned to the exam.
“I’m glad I didn’t, because I probably would have screwed up,” Turner said. “I knew I knew what I was talking about.”
To get licensure, test takers have two attempts, so this second chance was more of a do-or-die situation, Parks said. For one week at the beginning of November, Parks worked with three students each school day to prepare.
When Parks heard the grades were up, he said of his students “I think I probably had more anxiety than they did.” But he was met with good news.
“I’m so proud,” Parks said.
To celebrate the students who passed, Corliss recently held an installation party in the school auditorium. Along with their families, each student was awarded a golden pair of wings, pinned to the matching black jackets.
At the ceremony, school counselor Cheryl Dyer encourages other students to participate in the program.
“You will remember this as the day Corliss … took a trip,” said Dyer. “Well, I know my joke was vulgar.”
At the ceremony, students demonstrated the application of their skills through a demonstration of flying drones. Turner flew a drone over the students seated in front of the lectern.
“Turn on!” someone shouted.
“I could do something cooler,” Turner said, before raising one hand. While his other hand controlled the drone, Turner moved his outstretched arm back and forth as the drone moved synchronously, as if by the action of telekinesis feats.
Lori showed off her quick trick, flipping the drone 360 degrees.
To the students gathered in the auditorium, Parks emphasized the intense work and focus that leads to licensure.
“You have to leave the toys out, and when you come in, it’s just work time,” Parks said. “But the rewards are countless, and I look forward to all of you taking up this field and working with it.”