Lee Giat landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida Saturday, ending a 60-day extended flight tour of the Western Hemisphere, flying from North to South America.
His mission, called “Passage,” was not about getting a name in the record books, but instead providing school books, and other support to inspire underprivileged children to dream big. This trip was also a tribute to his late father.
Lee’s father, Nissan Giat, was a seasoned pilot that flew throughout the Caribbean islands. Lee’s childhood memories include accompanying the experienced cargo pilot (affectionately known by many as ‘The Pilot of the Caribbean’), where he witnessed his father’s work transporting disaster relief supplies to hurricane-affected island communities. Beyond the hard work and skill of flying cargo, Nissan also gave Lee flight lessons and mentored him during primary training.
A Dream Takes Shape
The close relationship with his father inspired Lee to dream about using aviation as a tool for positive change. “Passage was a project that I wanted to do as a surprise for my dad,” Lee told FLYING.
Having that sense of purpose, making an impact, and sharing his love of science and STEM came from his work at a planetarium and volunteering for NASA and local schools doing astronomy education. During the early summer of 2020, Lee decided to pursue his dream of inspiring children and organized his plans for Passage Flight.
The next step was raising awareness, and Lee planned to record his first promo video in South Florida. On August 26, 2020, the young pilot flew from his home in Jacksonville, Florida, to film the video and visit his father, who was still unaware of the project. Unfortunately, the ‘Pilot of the Caribbean’ perished in a tragic air accident two days later and never heard about the project.
“I stayed at my dad’s house that night, and that was the last time I saw him,” Lee recalled.
Dealing with his father’s death grounded the young aviator for nearly three months. At that point, he asked himself a question that would change the course of future events. “Am I going to stop flying, or am I going to continue (with Passage Flight)?” He understood the answer and admitted, “I knew I would regret it if I didn’t continue.”
Limited Funds, Unlimited Potential
Lee’s mission was now twofold: motivating children while taking on a project as a living tribute to his father. Venturing on such an undertaking can be challenging for someone with many sponsors and resources, but while this young aviator was full of enthusiasm, he was short of money. “I had a few dollars to my name and no airplane to fly,” he emphasizes. So, he started to reach out to his contacts throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and inquired if there might be interest from teachers, local politicians, or anyone else who may want to support his case. Lee was nicely surprised to get much positive feedback. He also reached out to friends and colleagues in the space community. “I’ve received an overwhelming amount of support from hundreds of people.”
Why the Caribbean and Latin America? In addition to having many contacts there due to his father’s travels in the region, Lee knows the educational deficiencies children in the region face. “Science has forgotten about that part of the world,” Lee opines, as he points to recent commercial space ventures that have marketed themselves as embracing diversity yet overlooked Latin America altogether.
In addition to motivating children about the beauty of STEM careers and encouraging them to pursue their goals, Lee’s mission also reinforces the message that lack of funding should not impede the pursuit of a dream. He draws upon his challenges in getting big-name sponsors for this Passage Flight. “It’s not a million-dollar project,” he explained. “It’s barely a $100,000 project. It’s disappointing that not a single, large corporate aviation entity responded to any of my calls. Not one,” Lee said.
Thanks to the support from friends, contacts, and small aviation businesses, Passage Flight could gather enough funding to purchase a Piper Seneca (named “Spirit of Science”), finance trip logistics and operational costs, and buy school supplies for donation.
His Mission Takes Flight
The most challenging part of this flight came as he crossed the Andes mountains. He flew the Seneca at its service ceiling (25,000 ft) while wearing oxygen. While Lee practiced high-altitude flying in the U.S. beforehand, this crossing was still challenging. “It pushed me and the airplane to the limits.”
Aside from that segment, the rest of the flights were uneventful since extensive planning and adhering to personal limitations were top priority for Lee. “My mission is also to promote aviation safety, so I’m not going to do anything that could jeopardize me or the mission,’’ he advised.
At each stop, the Passage Flight team brought kids to the airplane, held astronomy events, including stargazing, and conducted science experiments. The team also facilitated workshops for teachers to help introduce them to STEM topics in the classroom. In Colombia, Lee visited schools with barbed wire in the classrooms for security. “They were basically jail cells,” he said.
Something else he did not expect was the cost of required flight handling. The most expensive stop was Jamaica which charged nearly $2,000 for parking and handling services. He attributes part of that high cost to the lack of general aviation traffic compared to airline and business aircraft operations.
Flight Planning for the Future
So, now that Lee has completed his first Passage Flight mission, what lies ahead for the young aviator? “There need to be more projects like Passage (Flight),” he quickly said. “I don’t want to be the only one.”
“The goal is awareness, letting everybody know here that people are thinking about you and that you can do anything you set your mind to do.”