bob hoover academy harrison ford
Marc Howard

Every Kid Can Fly

The Bob Hoover Academy mixes an aviation curriculum with guidance from flying legends to steer at-risk high school students along the right path.

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estled between the Pacific Ocean and the rolling, oak-clad hills of central California lie the fertile farmlands of Salinas, the largest community of Monterey County, with a population of about 160,000. Aptly referred to as the “Salad Bowl of the World” due to the intensity of local agriculture, Salinas is home to many low-income immigrant farmworkers who dedicate their lives to producing the food that shoppers so easily collect from the produce sections of their local grocery stores. Fewer than 60 percent of the city’s residents 25 years or older have completed high school, and only about 12 percent have achieved a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 19 percent of the people in Salinas live in poverty. An unfortunate side effect of the area’s poverty is parents who often work too much to properly manage their children. The result is an increase in drug use and an incessant youth gang problem, leading Monterey County to the highest homicide rate per capita in California for people ages 10 to 24 — about 23.5 per 100,000 — according to a 2015 report by the Violence Policy Center. “Monterey researchers analyzed 20 years of Salinas crime statistics and concluded that violence correlated most closely with lack of education,” noted Miriam Pawel in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. “The findings confirmed what people have long known in the Salinas Valley, where dropout rates are high and literacy rates are low: A lack of options for poor Mexican children has driven cycles of gang violence for decades.” An initiative that aims to turn around this epidemic is the Bob Hoover Academy at the Salinas Municipal Airport. The program was conceived by famed airshow pilot Sean D. Tucker, who has become known for flying his bright-red custom-built Oracle Challenger III biplane in a thrilling aerobatic routine that he narrates, while flying, in a manner only Tucker can. If you have seen his performances, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you need to.

Tucker wanted to give back to the community where his own flying career began in the early 1970s. At that time, he was working as a crop-duster, spraying the agricultural fields in biplanes and helicopters. He was well aware of the gang problem and the need for positive role models in his community. Tucker started a nonprofit organization with his son Eric in 2013 called Every Kid Can Fly. Their idea was to redefine the lives of at-risk youth, using flight as a catalyst for change. The concept was to use aviation as a carrot of sorts to inspire at-risk teens to create a better life for themselves. Every Kid Can Fly was run as an after-school program through a local social services center called Rancho Cielo.

But the program didn’t really take off until Chris Devers, who is now the senior director of the Monterey County Office of Education’s Alternative Education Department, saw its potential and incorporated the Tuckers’ program as a component of an alternative-education STEM curriculum. “He risked his job on this program,” Tucker says. While the program includes aviation topics, it is not about making pilots. It is about providing the students with inspiration, successes, hope and opportunity through flight.

One at a time, the lives of these teens are being transformed. “They start seeing themselves as different people when they look at themselves in a mirror,” Tucker says. “It gives them self-esteem and hope.”

The graduates are moving on to real jobs and becoming contributing members of society. Tucker proudly announced that one of his students, Edgar, won a science competition against students from nationally recognized aviation-targeted high schools.

Bob Hoover Academy
A visit by actor and pilot Harrison Ford made for a special day at the Bob Hoover Academy at the Salinas Municipal Airport.Marc Howard

After seeing some successes with the program, Tucker asked permission from his good friend Bob Hoover to use his name for the school a few short weeks before the legendary test pilot, fighter pilot and airshow pilot passed away in 2016 at age 94. “It took courage to ask Bob,” Tucker says. “He had to trust me. And he commanded me to not screw it up.” Every Kid Can Fly transformed into the Bob Hoover Academy, and if Hoover saw the program today, he would not be disappointed.

“Now it’s a win that people can be proud of,” Tucker says.

The students at the Bob Hoover Academy are alternative-education kids who generally came there by recommendation from a parole officer or because they were expelled from a Monterey County school. “These are troubled kids,” says Jeff Hardig, the principal of the SAFE program. “The normal approach to teaching didn’t work with these students. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

The Bob Hoover Academy provides the school district with the unique alternative the community needed. “These kids are basically broken, and we try to put the pieces together,” says Tucker. “But I don’t ask them what they did wrong. They come with a clean slate. You can’t rebuild somebody if you rebuild them with the same bad parts.”

One of the academy’s main sponsors is Harrison Ford, who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the cause. I was fortunate enough to join Ford and his pilot Spike Minczeski on their first visit to the academy. We jumped into Ford’s Cessna Grand Caravan at the Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) and flew along the Pacific coastline to Salinas on a beautiful afternoon in March. The coastal hills were green from recent rains, and scattered clouds made for an atypical Southern California day. While I generally prefer the front left seat of any airplane, this was a special flight. Not wanting to disturb the two pilots’ terrific CRM, I spent most of the flight working on my laptop. But we had time for some great conversations about airplanes and some not-so-great discussions about the tragic state of the Santa Monica Airport.

One at a time, the lives of these teens are being transformed. “They start seeing themselves as different people,” Tucker says.

We landed in Salinas and Tucker gave us a quick tour of the school before we headed out for dinner. Tucker’s wife, Colleen, joined the four of us at a scenic golf resort near Monterey. It was a very private setting because we were tucked into a corner, away from the other restaurant visitors, though Ford admitted that someone he ran into in the restroom had marveled at his “similarity” to the famous actor who played Han Solo. Many great aviation stories were told, and many laughs were had. It was evident that these aviation legends were good friends.

The next morning, Tucker and Ford stepped into the alt-ed classroom at the Salinas Airport, where the Monterey County Office of Education Alternative Education Department’s SAFE program operates. Aside from the ground school and flight-training component the Bob Hoover Academy provides, the program uses a full high school STEM curriculum that includes aviation-related topics. In addition to the opportunity to earn a high school diploma, the students are provided with computers, psychotherapist sessions, internship opportunities, hands-on courses and much, much more. In all, the program can accommodate up to 20 students, and it is currently at full capacity.

Some students have been given additional opportunities for learning and growth through the program. Peggy Chabrian, from Women in Aviation International, learned about the Bob Hoover Academy and offered two scholarships. Two of the three young women from the academy, Sugey and Dulce, applied and won a trip to WAI’s conference in Reno, Nevada, this year along with $1,000 each for the academy. Having been the winner of a similar WAI scholarship as a budding flight student 18 years ago, I have no doubt that the visit to the conference was a transformative experience for the two students, whether they decide to go into aviation-related fields or not.

While in the classroom, Tucker gave a heartfelt and motivational speech to the students about why he started the program and what he hopes it will do for them. After telling them about Ford’s financial contribution to the program, Tucker asked Ford to say a few words to the group. Ford was literally speechless and got visibly emotional. He was simply too moved to speak after realizing the impact this program has on the students.

The uncomfortable silence was broken when one of the teachers asked Ford how he and Tucker met. The two shared several great stories, including a tale of when Tucker took Ford for a flight for the first time in a borrowed Pitts. The intercom was broken, so they couldn’t communicate verbally during the flight, but Tucker flew several aerobatic maneuvers and, after each demonstration, let Ford attempt to copy those maneuvers. When Tucker praised Ford for his flying skills that day, he responded, “I was just acting.”

The students transformed from being visibly intimidated to fully engaged, and it was truly a special moment in the classroom. They seemed amazed that someone so famous would care so much about their lives. As we all exited the classroom, Ford said to Tucker, “This makes me really happy.”

bob hoover academy harrison ford
A solo flight by a student brought smiles to Harrison Ford and Sean D. Tucker.Marc Howard

We drove down the street to the location of the Bob Hoover Academy. The academy has a beautifully restored Cessna 150 as its primary trainer and one instructor for the students. But one Cessna doesn’t provide much opportunity for the students to fly. The students only come to the airport on Wednesdays, and if the weather is bad one week, everyone is grounded. Fortunately, Redbird Flight Simulations came to the rescue earlier this year and donated an FMX simulator worth about $60,000. Not only can the students now train regardless of the weather, but Tucker has been impressed with how quickly the students become proficient both with flying and ATC communications through the realistic learning environment the sim provides.

The simulator has also become a source of income that helps pay for the facility costs because the school rents it to other local schools as well as corporate flight departments. During our visit, one of the students, Diego, was asked to teach Ford to fly in the Redbird simulator. “Pretend that I know nothing about flying,” Ford said to Diego. “I want you to teach me how to fly.” Diego was up for the challenge, and the two spent at least 20 minutes in the box.

For the students to continue toward the ultimate goal of soloing the Cessna, they must adhere to several strict rules. Tucker thought that only through accountability could the students stand a chance of getting out and staying out of the bad situations they had found themselves in. Attendance is required, and the students will be on probation if they miss two days without a valid excuse. The program also requires drug testing. Tucker says nearly everyone fails the first drug test. A failure removes flight privileges for seven weeks. With two offenses, the student will be out of the program. This provides the students with an excuse not to engage in any drug-related activities, one that their peers are not likely to ridicule.

Before the students can engage in any flying activities, they must successfully complete the ground school. They start in the simulator before beginning their training in the Cessna 150. The ultimate achievement is solo flight. “Soloing is a big deal,” says Tucker. “If I lose a kid, the program is over.” Tucker is adamant about keeping the students safe, and those who have soloed had accumulated about 50 hours of flight time beforehand, much more than average. “Soloing is the most powerful tool that I have in my arsenal,” Tucker explains.

One of the students who achieved that ultimate goal is Martin, who had an opportunity to show off his flying skills during our visit. Despite having a large group of people watching, including his peers at the school, several dignitaries and teachers from the local school district, his flight instructor, Tucker and Ford, Martin exuded confidence and pride as he climbed into the airplane to fly a couple of laps in the pattern. The characteristics Martin exhibited are exactly what the Bob Hoover Academy set out to achieve.

In addition to completing his high school degree, Martin was bitten by the aviation bug. He is now working on his A&P certificate, and Tucker says he is certain Martin will eventually go on to become an airline pilot.

After Martin landed the 150, it was time to say goodbye, and we climbed back into the Grand Caravan. Two days after our adventure in Salinas, Ford flew to Washington, D.C., to be honored with the R.A. Bob Hoover Trophy from AOPA president Mark Baker for his unwavering enthusiasm and dedication to aviation. He might be publicly known mostly for flying the Millennium Falcon and for a couple of mishaps in his airplanes, but he is an exceptional pilot who has used his aircraft for humanitarian efforts and to inspire kids to get into aviation. He has also donated his time to get politically involved in issues close to general aviation, such as the fight against ATC privatization.

In his acceptance speech, Ford took the opportunity to speak about the Bob Hoover Academy.

“Bob has inspired Sean, using the metaphor of aviation, using the metaphor of flight, to use Bob’s name to create social justice. He’s helping kids, one at a time, to pull themselves up, out of dire circumstance, and it’s an amazing thing to see,” Ford said. “God bless America and God bless Sean D. Tucker, because our love of aviation, our respect for the legacy of aviation, our understanding of what it can mean is being used to bring these kids, one by one, boys and girls, up to be productive, real, strong people.”