Learn to Fly with the Aero Association of Caltech (AACIT)
While Techer culture boasts many peculiarities in the form of zany pranks, Ditch Days, interhouses, LN2 dipped pumpkins shattering at terminal velocity, and many more activities contributing to the “quirkiness” of a Caltech undergraduate experience, unbeknownst to most is the existence of the Aero Association of Caltech (AACIT), founded by chemical physics graduate student Dave Cartwright in 1966. A little over 58 and a half years ago, the following was posted in the California Tech, ‘Anyone interested in flying, learning to fly, buying a plane, sightseeing, etc., come to the meeting of the Caltech Flying Club tonight at 7:30 in Winnett Clubroom 1.’ (Learn to Fly, The California Tech, November 12, 1964.) (The California Tech LXVI).
From its humble 18 member and single Cessna 150 origins, present day AACIT owns and maintains a fleet of 7 single-engine land airplanes based out of the San Gabriel Valley Airport (KEMT), colloquially referred to at El Monte. AACIT was founded for members of the Caltech and JPL community with the certainty that some Caltech students are going to fly, more literally than figuratively. This certainty should be compensated with the allocation of a club in which students could fly safely, in addition to “providing more available flying time for less money” (aacit.org). With several full and part-time instructors, AACIT members are granted the opportunity to train for any of several pilot certificates, including Private Pilot, Instrument Flight Rating (IFR), Commercial Pilot, and more.
Having been lucky enough to receive full-funding to pursue my private pilot’s license from the AOPA “You Can Fly Flight Training Scholarship” in Spring 2021, I came to Caltech Fall 2021 more than ready to start flight training. For me, the motivation to fly is simple: I long to be suspended above the Earth, looking down at the conglomeration of nature and architecture in constant battle below the horizon, at the mercy of the intractable atmosphere. Upon completion of my first fall season on the Caltech women’s soccer team, I began training with flight instructor, AACIT Vice President, and Caltech Alum (B.S. 1986) David Werntz. One year later I passed my checkride on the glorious day of 12/8/22. While the journey had no drought of delays, setbacks, and tribulations, I could not have asked for a better experience supported by the resources AACIT afforded me. Beyond flight training opportunities, AACIT hosts monthly wash days, during which members come together to degrease and wash the 7 plane fleet, with a bit of socializing in between, for $100 of flight credit, amounting to about 1h of airplane rental in one of the club’s Cessna 172s. I now regularly enjoy flying friends and family around the LA basin, and plan to continue training with the club in the near future to obtain my Instrument Flight Rating (IFR).
As one of AACIT’s few full time flight instructors, Werntz’s motivation for being a flight instructor stems from “seeing the joy that someone has as they fly for the first time or later when they develop the skills and confidence to fly by themselves (solo) for the first time are priceless memories that I get to enable and participate in. Werntz further hopes “that in the future one of my students will go on to be an astronaut. I’ve had several make it far along in both the US and Canadian astronaut application process and AACIT has had at least 3 former members go to space. Ultimately Werntz acknowledges that “Flying is a beautiful combination of knowledge, skill, risk management, and art. Caltech has a long history of its students, alum, staff, and faculty leveraging their love of flight into new technologies. I see many examples in the current day, with companies such as Ampaire.” Ampaire is a hybrid-electric airplane company whose founder and CEO is Caltech Alum Kevin Noertker (B.S. Mechanical Engineering 2009)
Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, Caltech has weakened its once strong ties with AACIT. Werntz laments, “I’m disheartened by Caltech’s trend of eliminating or distancing from many clubs and activities that used to be supported by Caltech that drew participants from faculty, staff, and students.”
Nevertheless, AACIT was made for those who wish to soar the skies, so to anyone who is interested, yet feels financially restricted, apply for a scholarship! Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) offer scholarship opportunities. A quick Google search yields plenty more options for people from varying backgrounds. If you don’t currently have all the resources to fund the full training, take a ground school course. AACIT offers one for the private pilot knowledge test every fall and spring term, and one for IFR knowledge tests in the winter, which I very much enjoyed. And to anyone who has never flown in a small 4-seater plane before, I am more than happy to take newcomers up for a ride to one of the small local LA airports. Feel free to reach out with interest, or if you simply have questions about the process (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you are a Techer and you want to Learn to Fly, AACIT is a great place to start.
FUN FACT: The airspace beginning at 1000’ above Caltech is an active flight training area, which is why you may regularly spot small planes flying at low altitude over campus.