JROTC Cadet Johnson becomes pilot
Lillian Johnson flies toward new adventures after earning her private pilot license.
The West Nassau High School senior and Air Force JROTC cadet completed summer flight training at Kansas State University July 20.
She was one of 128 cadets selected from more than 1,560 applicants from across the globe who vied for $20,000 scholarships from Headquarters Air Force Junior ROTC, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala.
After classes began May 28, Johnson was the second student out of 17 to complete her private pilot license certification. Johnson is the daughter of Cris and Jeff Johnson of Callahan. Brother Travis, 15, is a sophomore at WNHS.
The 17-year-old and her classmates flew Cessna Skyhawk 172-R single engine planes in the mornings and in the early evenings. The three-hour college-level ground and air classes were condensed from 16 weeks to eight.
“Normal college students take this as one of their four or five classes as part of their semester,” said WNHS Senior Aerospace Science Instructor Col. Gregg Kline.
Cris Johnson said her daughter was initially reluctant to pursue aviation.
“When she got there and we were able to connect with her and she was telling us about all the stuff that she had learned and all the friends she had made, she was really excited about learning how to fly,” she said. “Then we were, ‘Alright, she can do this. She’s OK.’”
The teen completed 35 flight hours to earn her license.
“Lilly has always been very confident,” her mom said. “She has always been able to put herself out there and try, no matter what it is, and so I knew she was going to be able to do this. I didn’t know how wonderfully well she was going to excel in this, but I knew she was going to be able to do it.”
Kline expressed admiration for the cadet’s self-confidence. She took her first solo flight within 11 days of starting the immersion program.
“Sounds like she was a great student – passed everything the first time and was able to move through,” he said. “She landed with her instructor, and her instructor got out of the airplane and said, ‘Alright now, you go take it and fly around.’”
With that, Johnson took over the controls.
“It was fun,” she said. “Being by yourself, it’s lonely. But the first time I was probably concentrating a lot.”
Her mom interjected, “She was never a good flyer to begin with, because we’ve traveled. We’ve always traveled huge commercial planes and she was always very anxious and very nervous when she would fly with us. But then she went to the flight academy and learned how to fly. Then when she texted me back, she’s like, ‘I love it.’”
During Johnson’s training, she stayed in a dorm and spent hours studying the curriculum. She advises other teens to give it a try, but to also research aviation to ensure it’s a good fit.
“I’d say, look a little into it,” Johnson said. “Like, study up some on some of the things you might need to know, because it’s a lot information to memorize in eight weeks. Because I didn’t know, like, anything about flying and it’s a lot, so maybe, like gradually start learning some stuff.”
She has yet to decide on a career path, but having a private pilot license gives her freedom to pursue options.
“I’d like to start flying soon. I don’t know when,” Johnson said.
The U.S. Air Force will pay for her to fly monthly with the local civil air patrol to keep her skills fresh, according to Kline.
He said that Fernandina Beach High School plans to start a ground school program soon. Johnson may have an opportunity to fly a plane that was donated to the school district.
Just after Johnson received her license, she and a few classmates rented a plane and flew to Nebraska. Although she was old enough to fly an airplane at 17, Johnson wasn’t of legal age to rent a vehicle after the plane landed. The airport had a courtesy car available for pilots to utlize.
“She couldn’t rent a car,” Kline said. “But she rented an airplane, flew to Nebraska, took their courtesy car and went out to dinner.”
Kline, Johnson’s family and WNHS cadets were connected to Johnson’s experiences through a Facebook page that followed students’ progress.
“Every year she moves up into a higher leadership position,” Kline said. “This October she’ll be interviewing for our command position for the second semester. What was interesting, when I went to her graduation, I started talking to all of the cadets that were there. They were all the leaders of their individual cadet corps, so the Air Force, I think, really did a good job and the instructors across the world really did a good job nominating their top people. Lilly was one of two people that we nominated, and Lilly was our top push. And we’re so happy that she was selected.”
WNHS JROTC Cadet Devyn Lambert was also chosen, but she did not meet the age requirement to attend classes this summer. She plans to apply for the program in 2020 along with five other fellow cadets.
Johnson plans to share her books and experiences with those cadets so they can prepare ahead of time.
Kline is proud of Johnson’s accomplishments. Master Sgt. Ed Spiezio also leads students in the JROTC program.
“She’s worked hard since she’s been a freshman and she’s risen above her peers and so I’m excited, ” Kline said. “She’s done something I’ve dreamed about my entire life. I don’t have my private pilot’s license. It’s something that I just never made myself take the time, with raising kids and coaching sports and being in the military. It’s a big-time commitment.
“Asking a young high school kid to give up her summer – eight weeks of a summer – is a big deal. I couldn’t be more proud of what she’s accomplished – what she’s gone through. I’m looking forward to her final year here with the program and her just sharing her knowledge and her confidence and being a leader for all the rest of our cadets.”