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Best of 2019: Summer Aviation Program Gives Young People a New and Exciting Perspective “Above the Clouds”


Young people of color, some who have never been on a plane before, are getting incredible exposure to and experience with the aviation field in a new partnership between Above the Clouds and Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church this summer that has been a very successful, um, pilot program.

“The reaction from the young people has been great. It was crazy because some of the kids had never even been on a plane at all,” Everett Mitchell, pastor at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, tells Madison365. “So you’re taking them up in a small plane and they are so nervous, but by the time they land, they are so happy. It’s so transformative. You see them smiling and excited. A couple of them are thinking that maybe this is something they would want to do when they are older.”

Every month, a different group of kids gets in the copilot seat and goes up in the sky to see the world from a new perspective as part of the Above the Clouds program, a non-profit organization that brings joy and hope through the wonder of small aircraft flight to children and teens who are underserved or facing other serious adversity. 

In Madison, Above the Clouds has been partnering with Christ the Rock Baptist Church this summer to engage young people in the fun and excitement of flying. The initiative is led by Susan Schwaab, a recently retired airline pilot who is also a member of Christ the Rock.

“Susan started [this chapter of] Above the Clouds to give children of color and others who might not normally get a chance to do this type of activity and partner them with a pilot to do flights,” Mitchell says. “They meet at the airport and take them in the air around Dane County. It’s really quite an amazing experience for the young people.”

Once a month through summer and fall, there is a ‘Dream Flight Day’ where Schwaab of another pilot takes young people up in the sky one at a time. The first Dream Flight Day was held June 8.  There are also outings scheduled for tomorrow morning, Aug. 24, at Middleton Airport and on Sept. 14 and Oct. 19.

“They’ve had two outings already this summer and another one scheduled for Saturday morning,” Mitchell says. “It’s a different view up there. It’s beautiful. They take that loop around and see the Capitol and the lakes and fly over the neighborhoods where they live. 

Girls show off their flight jackets at Christ the Rock Church.

Above the Clouds is a national program that recently expanded its operations to Madison. Schwaab, the founder of the Madison-area chapter, is a recently retired United 777 Captain who has been a pilot for 40 years.

For the first season, many of the kids going up on flights are from Christ the Rock Church. The kids will come to the airport at an assigned time and get the full attention from the pilots at Above the Clouds.

“We have a group of volunteers that greet them at the airport doors with signs and cowbells and cheering,” Schwaab says. “Then they meet their pilot and go into the airport conference room and do flight planning.”

After that, they are out on the ramp helping their pilot pre-flight the airplane as they get it ready for flight.

“They can take a passenger with them – usually a family member,” Schwaab says. “They do some flying around in the country and get them used to the airplane a little bit and then they’ll go into the city – over the [Camp Randall] stadium, over the [Wisconsin State] Capitol, over the lakes. Then they will have a little flight lesson where they get to fly the plane themselves … which hey love.”

All told, it’s a 40-minute flight. It’s so much fun for the kids that the time goes by quick.

“When they land, they get greeted by loud cheers again and are welcomed back,” Schwaab says. “They go back in the flight office where they are presented with a flight jacket with their name on it and we take pictures and they sign the logbook.”


Along with the Dream Flyers Program, Above the Clouds offers two extended programs for young people including the Discovery Flyers Program, a one-to-one mentoring program that introduces teenagers to aviation and enables them to develop a lasting friendship with a caring, volunteer Discovery Pilot. “These are kids that are really interested in aviation and really loving it,” Schwaab says. 

There is also the Cadet Flyers Program which gives a small number of teens the amazing opportunity to take flying lessons at no cost, and eventually to pilot an airplane by themselves.

“We help them along if they would choose an aviation career,” she says. 

Mitchell says that he is excited about the Above the Clouds program because it’s “a path to something new for a lot of kids.” 

“The hope is that it may give them the passion to one day become a pilot in the future,” he says. “It’s been a fascinating and amazing partnership. We’re looking forward to expanding it more for the next flying season. We’re looking to broaden that partnership next year to include more children in the community and give them an opportunity. 

“It’s really a creative approach to figure out how we give kids more exposure, more education and more experience so they can do something different,” Mitchell adds. “Susan had really been looking for a way to give back to her community and this just seems to be a natural fit for her and the other pilots that volunteer.”

For Schwaab, it has been a very rewarding experience.

“I just love seeing these kids come to the airport and they are really nervous, they’re shy and they’re scared. They kind of just want to hide,” she says. “But then go up and have this whole experience and at the end of this day, they are just beaming with joy and so confident. It’s wonderful to see the transformation in these kids. That’s the part I like best.”