Students fly high – and for free – in Albuquerque – General Aviation News

Robert “Birdie” Garcia-Kaliel began training for his private pilot, Check Ride, in sixth grade.

It was then that the 17-year-old aviator first enrolled at Southwest Aeronautics, Mathematics and Science Academy, known as SAMS Academy, at Double Eagle II Airport (KAEG) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The free accredited public charter school he attends offers a Pilot Progression Path that enabled him to earn his private pilot certificate before high school—at no cost to him or his family. Not for the plane, not for the instructor, not for fuel, not for books.

Southwest Aeronautics, Mathematics and Science Academy, known as SAMS Academy, is located at KAEG in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In fact, Birdie – all Pilot Progression Path students have callsigns – passed his test drive this summer between his junior and senior years. This is somewhat unusual as most SAMS Pilot Path students receive their private pilot tickets during their final year.

Two of the students in the Academy’s Pilot Progression Path.

Ethan “Flash” Gordon was one of those seniors, and while a maintenance delay on the school’s trainer delayed his check flight by several months, it didn’t slow Flash. He was accepted into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. After that maybe NASA. One of his hobbies is creating stunningly beautiful photos of the planets with his 10 inch Newtonian telescope.

Photos by Ethan Gordon

Meanwhile, Birdie considers a different path. He’s not sure college actually makes sense in the current aviation work environment. He hasn’t made up his mind yet, but he’s inclined to skip college and go straight to one of the airline’s training academies.

And while he’s contemplating his options, his instructor isn’t: she has plans for Birdie. This year he’s serving as an Aviation Assistant, a peer instructor who helps younger students with their aviation studies and gives them experiences with the school’s sims, which include a Redbird Jay and a full-motion dual-control Redbird MCX.

One of the sims at the academy.

Speaking of flight instructors…

Meet “Doc” Chavez

The Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief line of a childhood nursery rhyme describes Lauren Hollingsworth Chavez, SAMS Academy Director of Aviation. She is a doctor and AME. She is also a CFI/CFII Flight Instructor and serves not only as Director of Aviation but also as Chief Flight Instructor for the Academy.

But she was a latecomer to aviation, saying, “I was never interested in flying.”

Chavez attended medical school at the University of New Mexico, then early in her career commuted 400 miles between Albuquerque and Roswell, NM to work in the emergency room at Eastern New Mexico Medical Center. The drive was grueling, and eventually a member of her husband’s church (he’s a pastor), who was a CFI, said he would teach them both to fly if they bought an airplane.

That’s how Sundowner N9758L – and aviation – came into Chavez’s life.

After earning her private ticket, an instrument rating made sense for the type of commuter flights she was operating. She said that while she was studying for her instrument rating she realized how little she really knew about aviation. This led to a business certificate and eventually her CFI, not because she wanted to teach, but because she believes that in order to teach a subject you have to really master it. Basically, she became a CFI to make sure she had mastered her own knowledge of aviation.

But then SAMS came along and everything became secondary to the impact she could have on the student’s life.

Lauren Hollingsworth Chavez is the driving force behind SAMS Academy.

“I just fell in love with these kids,” she says.

So much so that classes and flight training now dominate her weekdays, and she has reduced her medical practice to part-time, focusing primarily on performing medical screenings for air traffic controllers.


SAMS Academy Pilot Progression Path students will not be matched with third-party flight schools.

The school’s trainer is a 1978 Cessna 172.

Instead, they train in the N739HK, the school’s 1978 Cessna 172, which features sexy metallic silver and dark blue mist paintwork, new leather seats and a modern glass cockpit with dual Dynon Skyviews – a 10-inch model for the student and a 7″ model for the instructor, with an Avidyne 540 in the middle.

Chavez admits it might be overkill, and makes sure her students are given steam measurement time in the Sims so they’re prepared for anything they might find in the workforce’s fleet.

The school coach’s cockpit.

Chavez says she flies full house — three students at a time — when weight and balance permit, and maximizes “bums on seats” so her students can learn by observing their peers and tutoring each other.

She brings traditions of medical school to her teaching at SAMS and says that in medicine, the way to master material is “see one, do one, teach one.”

STEM lab

SAMS academics are not limited to the classroom, simulation and airline. The school features an advanced hands-on STEM lab that looks more Silicon Valley than high school with an overwhelming array of equipment. There are 30 computer workstations with a robust range of software, graphics tablets, three 3D printers, virtual reality systems, pneumatic equipment and a wind tunnel.

The STEM lab.

Flash says you can design a wing in CAD, print it on a 3D printer, and then test it in the wind tunnel.

Entrances and the pilot “Funnel”

Currently 100% of students who apply to the school are admitted. Students can participate at any grade level and the school is actively recruiting.

Flash and Birdie describe the student culture as “pleasantly nerdy” and both commented on what a safe environment the school has created. Both pilots have been with the academy since sixth grade and could only recall seeing one fight in all that time.

There are currently about 250 students in grades six through twelve, with 87 students on the Pilot Progression Path, which begins in the ninth grade.

The academy’s non-STEM academic core is taught remotely via the Edgenuity platform, which both young pilots described as “shit,” but this is offset by the quality of STEM instruction they’ve received from the received by local employees.

To participate in the SAMS Academy Pilot Path, students must first complete a Young Eagles flight, typically through the 100-member EAA Chapter 179, also affiliated with KAEG, which hosts half a dozen Young Eagles events each year . The chapter has competed in Young Eagles every year since the program began 30 years ago, completing more than 4,200 first rides.

Each Young Eagles flight, in turn, qualifies students for free student membership in the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), which then grants them access to Sporty’s Learn to Fly course, again free of charge. Three chapters of this course behind and the EAA pays for a flight hour.

At this point, after demonstrating the right drive and commitment – and the opportunity to ensure that flying is right for them – students are admitted to the SAMS Pilot Progression Path, with full flight instruction from private pilots managed by be paid by the school.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t still hard work. Chavez says that while the school has cleared the financial hurdle to getting her first pilot’s certificate, she’s not holding her student’s hands. She expects a lot from them and much of their studies are self-directed.

(All photos by William E. Dubois unless otherwise noted)

build pilots

Chavez says that historically, to become a pilot, people either have money or have had to join the military.

“I love it so much that we can open the door to an amazing career in aviation for our students without meeting any of those profiles,” she said. “I think that’s my favorite part about working at SAMS. You may be the poorest kid from a bad background, but if you have a good attitude and a strong work ethic – or are willing to develop them – you can be a pilot before you graduate. And when you graduate, you can continue your education at university or start your professional life. That our country has such a shortage of pilots right now is the icing on the cake for the career opportunities for these kids.”

And Chavez has bigger plans for the future. She just added a drone program and is working to create pathways for flight maintenance technicians and air traffic controllers.

She also hopes to get SAMS students into aviation sooner.

“Some middle school students come by and look longingly into the simulation room,” she says, “hungry for the day when they can go to high school and start flying. I hope to be able to help them… soon.”