ROCKINGHAM COUNTY — McMichael High School Senior Cade Isley is reaching new heights by setting sky-high standards.
The 17-year-old was one of just 250 cadets nationwide selected to take part in the 2019 Air Force JROTC Flight Academy earlier this summer.
And while being part of the eight-week summer aviation training program and landing a $20,000 Chief of Staff Private Pilot Scholarship is quite an accomplishment in itself — Isley turned it up a “knot.”
While at Purdue University, one of the training program’s 11 partnering colleges nationwide, the avid Air Force JROTC member landed his private pilot’s certification in just 29 days — becoming the first in his class to obtain the credentials.
Isley said that it was never his goal to lead the pack until a few days prior to his checkride — the Federal Aviation Administration flight exam required for certification.
Going into the academy, he had no idea he would do so well or that his instructors would push him with such focus toward success.
On test day, Isley sat in the cockpit — just moments after cutting the West Lafeyette, Indiana, sky. He soaked in the altitude of his accomplishment as his instructor exited the plane after handing him his pilot’s certificate.
“I’ve never cried tears of joy before,” said Isley, whose only flight experience prior to this summer was riding shotgun in a single engine Cessna with his father, also a licensed pilot.
“It was just an amazing achievement, just the feeling of doing that in such a short time. I called my parents — it was overwhelming. I had no idea I would get to that point or have the ability to get there, but the more I did it, the more I felt confident.”
Isley’s quest for flight began late last year with a question from Maj. Andrew Mercer, who leads the McMichael High School Air Force JROTC program.
The instructor asked Isley if he wanted to be a pilot.
“I said, ‘Well yeah, of course, what do you mean?’ ” Isley said, noting he thought Mercer was initially asking a general life question about future aspirations.
In actuality, Mercer was pointing Isley in the direction of the scholarship program launched in the summer of 2018.
“Maj. Mercer told me about the scholarship and gave me all the resources I needed to apply and I just dug into it,” said Isley, who studied rigorously by watching videos and reading textbooks related to the program, before completing the application process last December.
The academy, created to encourage high school youth toward aviation careers, was a collaborative initiative between the Air Force and aerospace industry — in an effort to address a national pilot shortage, according to the Air University Air Force website.
Aerospace leader Boeing anticipates a need for 6,000 civilian pilots a year over the next 20 years, while Air Force officials anticipate a they’ll need an additional 2,000 pilots annually.
In March, while running errands in Greensboro, Isley was notified by his instructor that he had been accepted to the program.
From there, the soon-to-be cadet dove nose first into preparations and prerequisites for the summer academy that aims to grow to 2,000 cadets per year.
“There were a lot of nights that my dad would come upstairs and he thought I was playing video games, but no, I was reading a textbook at 11 o’clock at night,” said Isley, who was dedicated to acing the physical training exams and aviation knowledge test associated with the competitive selection process.
“At my brother’s graduation party, I was sitting there in my room, learning about aerospace,” said Isley of his dedication. “My brother came in and asked what I was doing. I said, ‘I got to get this done.’ He asked if it was due tonight and I said, ‘No, but I got to get it done.’ ”
Isley’s list of preferred flight schools included nearby Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, as well as other institutions in Florida, Arizona and California.
“I don’t even know if I wrote down Purdue, but that’s where they decided to send me,” Isley said with a laugh. “I definitely feel very grateful that I got to go there. The program is just the best in the country. We had the most cadets out of any university, and I believe we were the only school that had a 100 percent success rate. I got sent there by the grace of God.”
Once he arrived in June, Isley was given all the tools he needed to succeed.
For the first few weeks, cadets attended ground school at the Purdue terminal and a professor answered questions.
Eventually, cadets were in the air, instructed during four daily flight slots.
Isley said the very first lesson was very stressful as high winds made it difficult to control the plane as it pitched all over the place.
Instructors assured the cadets that their initial struggles were because of the conditions.
“We all thought they were being nice and we were still bad,” Isley said. “…It was complete overload, but the second lesson and after that, it got easier and easier, until I just felt like I was ready to fly anywhere.”
After reaching the pinnacle, Isley left the cockpit thinking about those who had helped him reach his goals.
When he returned home, there was one person in particular he wanted to honor. Isley and his squadron members had received expensive Purdue water bottles from the airport where Isley’s lifelong dream took flight.
“My first thought was I’m going to give this to somebody who helped me get here, and that was Major Mercer,” said Isley. There were people like him and my parents that I couldn’t have gotten to that point without. Even though to get there, it took a lot of dedication and hard work on my part, there are a lot of people I couldn’t have done it without. He was one of the first people I thought of as soon as I was finished.”
Now, after a summer full of clearance, crosswind and climb — Isley will shift his angle of attack toward his final year at McMichael.
Before boarding the next flight on life’s path, the high school senior hopes to break McMichael High School hurdle records this fall and learn to play guitar.
As for what’s next, Isley is currently applying for the Air Force Academy, with hopes of serving his country.
“The abilities I had are just natural and I understood it,” said Isley, when asked why it was important to him to become a fighter pilot. “Not only that, I’m gifted with a good family and support system. “I feel like there are a lot of gifts that I’ve been given that if I don’t use to help other people or serve others or give back in some way, then I feel like I’d just be a waste,’’ Isley said.
“I just want to serve.’’