WASHINGTON — Christopher Alexander Ballinger is still on cloud nine after being cleared for take off
Ballinger became one of the youngest licensed private pilots in the United States thanks to an Air Force Junior ROTC flight academy program. The program was created to inspire and encourage youth toward aviation careers.
Ballinger says he one day dreams of flying in the Air Force.
A rising senior and a D.C. native, Ballinger will enter his freshman year of college with his Private Pilot License (PPL) after he completed his instrument checkride with a FAA medical examiner Wednesday. The minimum age to earn your private pilot license is 17. He completed his ride on his 17th birthday.
The flight academy program, equivalent to a $25,000 scholarship, is a collaboration between the aerospace industry and the Air Force to address the nationwide pilot shortage.
During the eight-week program, Ballinger has been stationed at Walla Walla University, one of the partnering universities along with six other cadets. He performed a solo cross-country flight three weeks ago, and was only the second cadet ready to do so in the program. It usually takes months and months to earn a PPL and is quite costly.
Ballinger said being a part of the program was a lot of work, but worth every minute.
"This has been a phenomenal experience for me all the way around, but it has been intense," he said. "We wake up at 6 a.m., some mornings at 4:30 a.m. to get ahead of the winds to fly six days a week, hours and hours of ground school, studying to pass all the tests, but it's so worth it."
The flight academy program also addresses the issue of diversity in the industry. Right now, minorities represent less than 12% of all Air Force pilots.
Ballinger described what it's like to now be able to fly any single-engine airplane.
"It's freedom. There's no one else in the air, really. You're the one in control of the plane. It's hard work but it's freedom."
He said he hopes that hard work will be an inspiration to other teens.
"[I hope] it helps them realize there's a spot for them, too, and that they can reach their dreams if they work hard for it."
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