Pilots spark imagination and learning in the classroom, as well as spread Southwest LUV.
Keep ’Em Flying: The Southwest Adopt-a-Pilot® Program
On June 18, 1971, a Boeing 737 “red bellied warrior” with the Southwest name took off from Love Field in Dallas, carrying its first paying Customers and launching a revolution that democratized the skies.
This was years ago, back when she was in grade school at Bridge Creek Elementary, just outside Oklahoma City. The fifth grade to be exact.
Everything, she says, looking back now, changed that year.
As far as fifth-graders go, she was your typical young and impressionable student. With one exception: She harbored a seething disdain for three subjects: Math, science, and geography.
They were the bane of her existence. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) work? She dreaded it. And all those well-intentioned speeches about how math and science were gateways to fascinating and fulfilling careers? She didn’t buy it. Not one bit. Then one morning, David strolled into her classroom and completely rerouted her flight path. Like a number of his fellow Southwest Pilots do every year, David had volunteered for the Southwest Adopt-a-Pilot® program, hoping his experiences might inspire young dreamers to pursue their passions.
David and Jessica met when David visited Jessica’s fifth-grade classroom and inspired her to become a Flight Attendant.
Launched in 1997, the program helps young students—regardless of race, gender, or economic circumstance—see that there are rewarding careers in aviation available to them should they want to give them a try. Southwest Pilots are “adopted” by local schools, where they teach an aviation-focused curriculum that runs the gamut from classroom experiments to behind-the-scenes field trips to local airports.
“It’s really about teaching kids to think of something bigger,” says Senior Advisor Megan Lee, “and to inspire them to think about careers or opportunities in their life that they may not have thought of prior to participating in the program.”
As to be expected, every volunteer has their own reasons for joining the program. In David’s case, he’d never forgotten the sense of wonder he’d felt when his father introduced him to the world of aviation as a young boy. Sharing his own experiences seemed like a way to pay that precious gift forward.
In most fifth-grade classrooms, outside visitors are welcomed with open arms as a much-needed break from the humdrum school week. Over time, that excitement tends to fade. Only that didn’t happen to young Jessica. The spark David provided never dimmed. There was something about his teaching style—passionate and relevant—that struck a deep and lasting chord in her.
David’s science lectures touched on topics she found genuinely interesting—such as the mechanics of flight and the physics behind aerodynamic plane designs—before spinning off into unexpected activities, such as racing paper airplanes or levitating Ping-Pong balls with hair dryers. His geography lessons progressed beyond studying dots on a map into personal stories about the many places he’d visited as a Pilot. Then there were his math exercises, which led to the construction of mini runways and taxiways.
With each lecture, Jessica’s disdain for math, science, and geography slowly melted away, replaced by something approaching affection. Right then and there, in the middle of her fifth-grade classroom, Jessica decided that one day she was going to work for Southwest Airlines. When Jessica made good on that promise in July 2018, her thoughts couldn’t help but flip back to those fateful fifth-grade aviation lectures. “The Adopt-a-Pilot program,” says Jessica, “truly changed my life. I wouldn’t be here today without it.”
Now both Southwest Employees, David and Jessica enjoy promoting the Adopt-A-Pilot program.
Jessica is far from alone—both within Southwest and across the aviation industry—in voicing that opinion. Today, more than 600 Southwest Pilots visit approximately 1,300 schools (with many visiting more than one classroom) in the hopes they can inspire students to stay in school and reach for the skies.
Over the years, the program has leaned on a clever F.L.I.G.H.T. acronym (Fearlessness, Leadership, Imagination, Gratitude, Honesty, and Tenacity) to guide its efforts. As an Adopt-a-Pilot Ambassador, Captain Tyrone Ward has said, it’s about creating an initial “footprint” that children can fill in as they grow older.
Atif Fareed and his son Adam work together to teach an aviation lesson.
For Captain Atif Fareed and Captain Al Shawcross, their Adopt-a-Pilot work didn’t just spark an interest in aviation in the fifth-graders they taught, their classroom time inspired two of their respective children to become pilots.
And in the case of First Officer Ricardo “Ricky” Gonzalez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and helped bring the program to the island in 2018, Adopt-a-Pilot is all about providing kids with “a north in their lives” and reminding them that they are equipped to do these jobs when they grow older.
“If we can impact them through this program,” says Ricky, “to develop an interest in the fields of science, math—[that’s] something that will help them not only to develop [into] leaders for tomorrow but work together as a team. This is what we are at Southwest. We are a great Team.”