Being a Southwest Airlines Pilot carries with it tremendous responsibilities and privileges, but being an Adopt-a-Pilot carriers its own responsibilities and honors. This year marked my eighth year volunteering as an Adopt-A-Pilot, and going into the classroom and teaching young minds about aviation and the keys to success never gets old! The students’ shining (yet unsure) faces quickly become familiar; their personalities, mannerisms, and enthusiasm are as comfortable as a favorite pair of blue jeans. As soon as the initial ice is broken, and their sincere desire to learn takes over, a bond is formed—I am “their” Pilot, and this is “my” AAP class.
On Friday, May 9, my students at Oak Hill Elementary graduated from the Adopt-A-Pilot Program. We ended the year with a party, complete with cake, punch, and a very special guest—Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines CEO! “Mr. Kelly” tested what the students learned this year, plus gave them the unique perspective as “the boss.” The students’ faces beamed with pride as Gary spoke with them. It’s been several years since he’s had little ones like these students, but he hasn’t lost a step in teaching values—it was amazing to watch and participate in!
The Adopt-A-Pilot Program reaches more than 42,000 students nationwide, with lessons on careers, life values, and the importance of staying in school—all with an aviation twist. My greatest hope for these kids is that they not only learn the curriculum, but also gain valuable life skills. I strive to form a special trust with each kid; I want them to know they have an adult who cares about them and their personal success.
If you’re a Pilot, and you’ve been wondering if the AAP Program is really for you, I encourage you to jump right in! You will never be the same again, and neither will your students. I am already beginning to gear up for next year. I cannot over-emphasize the blessings I receive from being invited into the hearts and minds of these students, and the sincere gratitude I have toward Southwest Airlines for their willingness to invest in such a critical venture like the Adopt-a-Pilot Program—no monetary return, but something infinitely more valuable—the satisfaction of investing in the future of America. I am a better man and a better Southwest Pilot because of this program and our Company’s commitment to give from the heart to our communities.
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For almost 15 years now, I’ve had the sincere privilege of being a Southwest Airlines Adopt-a-Pilot. I cannot begin to capture the flood of memories I have from working with these amazing kids over the years. It is one of the few things in life I get to do that never gets old.
The Southwest Adopt-a-Pilot (AAP) program is heading into its 17th year, and, to date, it has reached more than 450,000 kids across America. This year, 40,000 more shining faces will be mentored by over 900 Southwest and AirTran Pilots in more than 1,000 classrooms across the country. After last year’s invitation for AirTran Pilots to “ride along” with an established Southwest Adopt-A-Pilot in the classroom, we were thrilled to have more than 80 AirTran Pilots register to volunteer this year. We appreciate this incredibly generous group of Pilots for giving of their time and know the kids will appreciate it too.
I believe that you will always receive more than you give if the motives are right. After flying a trip, the last thing I want to do is put on a fresh uniform and head off to school—that is, until I get there. When I walk into an AAP Classroom and see those young faces light up, I can almost feel their enthusiasm. Every year I have participated in the program, the benefits have far outweighed the costs.
The Southwest Airlines Adopt-a-Pilot program is a proven way to serve our kids and brighten their futures. Many AAP Pilots have contributed to our incredible AAP curriculum, and this spring they return to their classrooms to send and track rockets in space, build and fly model airplanes, teach life lessons, and even engage our Customers to write letters to their students. Through their teaching and investment, students learned about math, geography, science, and aeronautics, as well as honesty, hard work, and other character traits necessary to be successful in life. Our Pilots impact the very futures of their students.
As Southwest and AirTran Pilots, we get to do our part to shape the future of America by sharing our experiences and knowledge with the ascending generation. Through sharing life experiences and showing genuine concern for students, our Pilots help raise up a generation of gifted young people—and some of those might even go on to become Southwest Pilots.
We know our Pilots are not the only ones at Southwest or AirTran who engage with their communities. We are so glad that we have People at our Company who give so generously of their time to mold and shape the future of America. Your Co-hearts, your Company, and your communities appreciate you.
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We have some remarkable People walking the halls of Southwest Airlines, working around the system, and flying in our aircraft over America’s skies. We work alongside individuals who have served in combat, downed enemy aircraft, and conducted covert missions deep behind enemy lines. Though they are from all walks of life, the central theme that runs through each of them is a deep understanding of sacrifice.
The meaning of sacrifice to our Veterans comes from the highest ideals of human nature—these are men and women who “give up and surrender something else for something considered more important or valuable”—many times even their very lives. I know Southwest Airlines Employees who’ve missed the births of their children or the deaths of their parents while away at war, all in sacrifice and service to their country. Their families sacrificed in their absence, knowing America’s freedom and way of life depends on their serving this great nation.
As moving and impactful as these examples of sacrifice are to me, one story stands out as an exemplary definition of sacrifice by one of our Employees. Houston Flight Manager Mike Penn was downed by a surface-to-air missile in Vietnam flying missions for the Navy and spent more than ten months in the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam. We were able to capture his unbelievable story and share it on Veterans Day a couple of years back. The three-part video series we originally filmed for our Pilots features Mike humbly recounting his story, which sounds eerily like a Hollywood movie script. As you watch each part of Mike’s journey, which I hope you will take the opportunity to sit down and view, and even share with your family and friends. The story will make you proud to be an American.
I am proud of our great Company and the emphasis that we place on honoring our Veterans throughout the entire month of November. Freedom certainly isn’t free, and if anyone understands the high value of sacrifice and service, it is our honored Veterans. If you see or know someone who has served this United States of America, please take a moment to thank them for their service.
November is Military Heroes Month at Southwest. Share your photos using #Sacrifice and #MilitaryHeroes.
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As a member of the Adopt-A-Pilot program, I have the opportunity to go into fifth-grade classrooms and help shape impressionable minds each school year. Through this program, the Pilots who volunteer their time are tasked with teaching school children about not only aerodynamics, math, and geography, but the hard work it will take to reach their goals. Each year, Adopt-A-Pilot hosts a Tie Design Contest, giving our students an opportunity to be creative and design the following year’s tie for Adopt-A-Pilot participants to wear. I never fail to be shocked by the incredible designs that are entered from students around the nation. The winner for the 2012 Tie Design Contest was Geni Lopez. With help from PHX Adopt-A-Pilot Ambassador, Capt. Nancy Martin-Belitz, and Geni’s own Adopt-A-Pilot, Phoenix First Officer Kevin Reece, I was lucky enough to fly to Phoenix and surprise Geni with the best in class award. Before the ceremony, I saw Geni’s entire family walk in. Just seeing the smiles on their faces and the pride they felt for Geni was truly moving. The entire event was a complete secret to Geni and the 200 other students in her grade. We all hid backstage, and we could feel the excitement from behind the curtains as the kids were ushered in and told to take their seats. The buzzing energy was palpable, and we realized that we were about to have a unique opportunity to influence these young lives. I began the ceremony by sharing some Adopt-A-Pilot history and then introduced Capt. Nancy Martin-Belitz. After sharing her inspiring words, Nancy introduced First Officer Kevin Reece, Geni’s adopted Pilot. Kevin called Geni, her parents, and siblings up on stage, presenting her with a shadowbox containing her original drawing and the first tie created with her design. The auditorium erupted in applause and cheers, and Geni could hardly breathe. Her smile was worth a million bucks! Here’s what Geni shared with me: “The day before the big event, I thought it was going to be an Arizona Instrument Measure Students (AIMS) assembly or presentation. When it was time for the assembly, I wasn't really excited about it, but then, the two Pilots came out and I recognized something that they were wearing—my tie! I was shaking and I was really excited because I knew this was going to be for me. When they called me up there I was nervous, and I was really surprised when all of my family joined me on the stage to be with me on that day. They even had a cake with my face on it and my tie. I felt very special! This was a very exciting day for me, and I definitely enjoyed it!” Since its beginnings in 1997, the Adopt-A-Pilot program and its participants across the nation have had a profound effect on more than 412,000 kids. Students like Geni motivate each of us to continue our work with the program, and I look forward to reaching the half-million mark of students!
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For me, it’s important that we invest in the future of our country by giving from the heart and devoting time to the future generations. Through Southwest’s Adopt-A-Pilot Program, we Pilots have the opportunity to go into classrooms all across America and help shape impressionable minds. Helping kids dream big dreams—this is why I volunteer for Southwest’s Adopt-A-Pilot Program to inspire fifth-grade students to find their “wings” and set goals to go after what they love in life. We teach children about aerodynamics, math, and geography—plus the good ol’ hard work it takes to reach their goals. With each visit, I hope that I am able to provide a little extra “push” that could send these children soaring on to greatness. At many other Companies, this could be an impossible task; however, at Southwest, we have always stood for community and through the Adopt-A-Pilot Program, not only do we get into these classrooms, we have hundreds more clamoring for us to visit.
Created in 1997, Adopt-A-Pilot started as a community outreach program in just 50 classrooms, and 16 years later it has grown to reach more than 412,000 students nationwide with 900 Pilots participating.
This year, we’re also excited to add AirTran Pilots to this fantastic program.
Recently, I watched “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a Ron Howard documentary featuring NASA’s living Apollo mission crew members and their remarkable journeys. I distinctly remember a scene during a layover in Paris when an interviewer asks a young French woman about her opinion on astronauts. Her response astounds me to this day: “If anyone could accomplish this monumental feat, I knew an American could.”
Ron Howard found that a common denominator among all of the Apollo Astronauts is that they were each given a “push” from someone in their early years. I ask my fellow Adopt-A-Pilots—will you be the one to give that push? You never know—there could be a young Neil Armstrong in your classroom.
To get involved or learn more about the Adopt-A-Pilot Program, contact your Domicile Ambassador or visit southwest.com/adoptapilot.
Photo: Southwest Airlines has joined forces with photographer Robert X. Fogarty and Dear World, which works through the medium of photography to give its subjects a simple and profound voice through photos.
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Even after many years of doing Adopt-a-Pilot, I am still astounded at the benefits I receive as I am trying to give a little of my time to these students—this year is certainly no exception. I was asked by the fine ladies in the Adopt-a-Pilot Program (and they are simply the best) to be adopted by Plano Senior High School (in Plano, Texas) with a very special group of students. The excitement and energy when I first entered the room was as thick as a London fog—these kids were jazzed that a Southwest Airlines Pilot would take time to come and teach them about airplanes, careers, and just life. (My Class has varying degrees of needs, most are hearing impaired and have special learning needs—but their enthusiasm and smiles were contagious!).
Working through the teacher, she “signed” to them everything I was saying out loud (and trying to say) and these kids hung on every word—any awkwardness quickly faded away, and soon we were communicating with each other like fast friends! After I had learned their names, they quickly realized I needed a “sign name” (a pretty darn cool one I might add), and then the questions began to flow. How fast does an airplane fly? How high can it fly? How fast are you going when it lands? The genuine interest almost brings a tear to my eye as I reflect back on our time—none of these kids will be able to fly an airplane—still their interests and desires were like everyone else. The class went nuts when I got out old uniforms, flight suits, helmets, etc., and let them put them on—we had so much fun laughing and teasing each other.
In the end, I walked out with my heart full—feeling like I had gained infinitely more than I had given. Of my entire adopted classrooms, this one meant the most to me. What if? What if I hadn’t accepted, and carved out a little time? I would have missed out on one of the greatest experiences of my life. There are gems waiting on us to come and pour ourselves into them. I have come to realize, in the end I was the one being “poured into.” I cannot wait to head back and visit with some charming and special people—better get to it.
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