By Jessica Bliss
Nashville, TN (AP) – The first time Derek Rowe sat in a helicopter, he knew he wanted to fly for a living.
But as a poor kid in a family of nine living in Wales, he saw only two paths: Join the military or pay for an expensive post-secondary career.
He couldn’t afford the latter, so the British Army became the quickest way into the cockpit.
After nearly two decades of service and a journey across the sea, Rowe now serves as an aviation instructor at McGavock High School.
Several years ago, he resurrected the school’s nearly defunct Aviation STEM program, growing it to serve approximately 150 primarily low-income students each year.
In his role, he helps students see another path to the sky.
On Oct. 24, Rowe was recognized for that commitment in a surprise ceremony at school where he was honored as a second-place winner of the national Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. The honor comes with $50,000 and a trophy, in the form of a large rolling toolbox.
Rowe is the only Tennessee teacher to receive the national award.
“The blossoming talent I’ve witnessed in our young men and women has been life-changing,” Rowe wrote in his award application. “For me, it’s a reminder of the time in my life when someone believed in me, those times when someone said, `You can do this. Here are the tools.’ “
Students in Rowe’s classes graduate with pilot licenses, dual-enrollment credits and scholarships for further study.
They interface with industry professionals from Delta, Boeing and other major companies. And each day in the shop, they learn by doing in a project-based curriculum that integrates math and science with aviation mechanics.
Rowe makes education pay off for his students, and for that, he is receiving a big prize.
“It seemed an impossible dream,” Rowe said in his contest application as he remembered his own fantasies of flying.
That first helicopter ride when he was an 11-year-old boy left an impression. As soon as he was old enough, Rowe joined the British Army. In his 17 years of service, he worked his way up to become a helicopter pilot and mechanic.
When he retired, Rowe moved to the United States, where a heart attack and triple bypass surgery led him to reevaluate his life goals. He decided he wanted to pay it forward, and help other young people pursue aviation careers.
Rowe’s first cohort of students graduated in May 2019. Of 32 seniors, 14 joined the workforce and military. Six enrolled in technical college, and 12 enrolled in four-year universities. They earned $1.7 million in scholarships.
And it’s not only pilots Rowe hopes to inspire, but also air traffic controllers, avionics engineers, airplane mechanics and much more.
In class, students build and restore airplanes, including an $85,000 aircraft capable of flying at 10,000 feet and 200 mph.
In one project, students planned and executed a simulated around-the-world flight, researching navigation, airspace permissions, fueling needs, weather patterns, crew schedules, visas, inoculations, and maintenance and repair.
Beyond attending the U.S. Air Force’s air show, Aviation Nation, Rowe’s students serve on its board, gaining experience in strategic planning and corporate engagement.
They also teach their fellow students, including home-schooled students and middle school girls, through targeted outreach.
Recently, they followed the journey of Nashville pilot Amanda Farnsworth, who sits on boards of directors for the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Farnsworth flew across the Atlantic in her Cirrus Vision jet, retracing a journey that hundreds of U.S. aircraft flew during World War II to deliver warplanes, pilots, equipment and supplies for the planned Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
She was just another example of what Rowe aims to teach. A program that four years ago had just five female students is already growing in popularity. Rowe’s sophomore class is more than 40% female. And stories like Farnsworth’s will only increase that figure, Rowe believes.
“She’s inspiring the young students, the young girls really, who don’t look at the aviation industry as a female-type career,” Rowe said, “when, in fact, it is.”
Demand in aviation careers is high. Aerospace company Boeing forecasts that 804,000 new civil aviation pilots and 769,000 new maintenance technicians will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet over the next 20 years.
Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, which awarded Rowe the prize, aims to drive a greater understanding of and investment in skilled trade’s education, believing that access gives high school students pathways to graduation, opportunity and good jobs.
The prize for Teaching Excellence recognizes outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in public high schools. Of the $50,000 in prize money, the school will receive $35,000 to support the winning skilled trades program and the winning teacher will receive $15,000 to use as he wishes.