ARMOUR SQUARE — Isaias Toledo, 15, has known for years that he wants to be a pilot. It's what lead him to Air Force Academy High School.
Now that the high school has unveiled its flight simulator lab, students like Isaias will have a better chance of achieving their dreams.
"I still can't believe this is happening," said Isaias, who grew up near Midway Airport, which sparked his curiosity in aviation. "Once I get into a [pilot] program, I won't waste time. I'll already know a lot."
Air Force Academy, 3630 S. Wells St., on Thursday unveiled its new flight simulator lab, which spans two classrooms and includes seven state-of-the-art flight simulators, a mock control hub, space for 19 students and a teacher's desk.
Air Force Academy student shows visitors how to use the fancy new flight simulators. pic.twitter.com/Z2aztbVyAX— Joe Ward (@JayDubWard) October 12, 2017
The high school is already unique: it's the only public Air Force academy for teens in the country. Located just south of Sox Park, it had already offered military-related curriculum including after school flight classes and partnerships with institutions like the Museum of Science and Industry.
But previous flight training was relegated to the after-school program and used equipment like drones and virtual reality headsets. The hands-on experience the simulators will provide will be a new and very beneficial experience for the kids, said the school's principal, Cpt. Yashika Tippett.
"We wanted to manifest our mission — we just didn't know how to do it," Tippett said. "Now we can offer hands-on, real life experience."
The $450,000 lab was made possible by a number of groups, charities and a state grant. The Driskill Foundation, which sponsors innovation programs in schools, reached out to AeroStars, which helps run the aviation after-school program at Air Force Academy, to see if they knew of a school that could use some flight simulators.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool uses Air Force Academy's flight simulator. [DNAinfo/Joe Ward]
With the U.S. Air Force currently 1,500 pilots short of its mandated level and commercial airliners needing to hire 600,000 pilots in the next two decades, the academy's simulators will help connect needy students to a growing industry, said Tammera Holmes of AeroStars.
"This is going to give kids the opportunity to soar higher than they ever had," she said. "To survive Chicago ... to have a good career in aviation."
For Air Force Academy, the new lab will help it attract students.
Established in 2009, the school has always had Level-1 status but has been a relatively unknown gem of the South Side, Tippett said. The school had the biggest dip in enrollment this year than any other area school, according to CPS data.
But that all could change with this new investment in the academy, Tippett said.
"We will no longer be this quiet school on the South Side," she said.