Akira Roberson is ready to fly the coop.
The 17-year-old with dreams of becoming a pilot will graduate from Jacksonville’s Riverside High School.
Aviation is Akira’s answer to being able to see the world while getting paid for it. Her dream was instilled as a young girl who was exposed to Naval jets and fighter pilots.
“I did flight simulators and airplane simulators and, actually, got to feel what it was like to fly the plane in sixth grade,” Akira recalls. “So, once I felt that passion for it, this was my (goal). I was going to be here.”
For the last four years, here has been the schoolhouse on McDuff Avenue. For the next few years, it will be in Arlington.
Akira plans to enroll in Jacksonville University’s School of Aviation. Her arrival comes during a period where the aviation industry is desperately seeking to recruit more people into the field.
She comes by her interest honestly.
Akira is the only child of Beno Roberson and Jennifer Harness, who met while both served in the Navy in the early 1990s. She was deployed on the USS Butte and he was stationed at Naval Station Rota in Spain. They ran into each other again years later at a Lil’ Champ gas station on Cassat Avenue and eventually married.
“We instilled in our kids real young (that) you don’t have to be stuck in one spot,” Harness says. “You can go see the world.”
“I was always in one of the officer’s hands being babysat,” Akira says. “From what I was able to hear and recall, there was a lot of energy that was pushed in my direction. There were a lot of stories. Everyone was so happy when they came off work. I was like ‘I want to be this happy when I come home from work.’”
Last month, a U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittee discussed the challenges facing the aerospace industry. Faye Malarkey Black, CEO of the Regional Airline Association, told Congress that half of all current pilots will retire in the next 15 years.
“Today’s pilots are 96% white and 91% male,” Malarkey Black told Congress. “A racial wealth gap means cost barriers hurt people of color most. Many find workforce jobs to avoid pilot jobs.”
U.S. Rep. Aaron Bean, R-FL4, is a member of the subcommittee. During the April 19 hearing, he agreed that the industry needs to rethink how to get more children fired up about careers in aviation and aerospace.
Bean asked whether changes need to be made to the Pell Grant program in order to engage more students.
Malarkey Black said the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which mandated that pilots must log 1,500 flying hours before earning an Airline Transport Traffic Certificate, was well-meaning, but hindered the ability to recruit pilots.
Graduates from a four-year aviation program, like JU’s School of Aviation, only need 1,000 hours of flight time in order to earn their license. Capt. Matt Touhy, director of JU’s School of Aviation, says program alumni typically graduate with between 210 to 230 flight hours.
Touhy says most JU graduates typically spend 12 to 15 months working as flight instructors or flying small cargo in order to reach the 1,000-hour threshold.
JU’s Aviation Management and Flight Operations program, which is what Akira has her sights on, currently serves approximately 190 students.
“There is a lot of opportunity throughout the industry,” Touhy says. “Students need to take a look at what their desired end goal is and how they can best get there. …I think JU is a great place to do that.”
Akira met Touhy through contacts she made working at a barbecue restaurant in Orange Park.
“From all the other stories that I’ve heard from pilots and flight attendants, it will be a dream come true for me to become a pilot,” Akira says. “I want to break records. You don’t see a lot of Black, female pilots and I want to be one.”
Akira was born in Michigan, lived in Atlanta for most of her childhood and moved to Jacksonville in 2017. She may be an only child, but she has found a community at the 96-year-old high school that her father attended. Roberson graduated from what was then known as Lee High School, and a litany of other family members also graduated as Generals.
Riverside principal Tim Feagins has witnessed Akira’s development as a student, an athlete and a teenager navigating a new environment following a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“She understands that there is more to school than academics, but she makes academics her priority,” Feagins says. “She understands it’s important to be a well-rounded student. The experiences you have in high school will lead to more opportunities down the road.”
Akira was on the wrestling team as a freshman, played volleyball and was the state-runner up at this year’s Class 2A girls weightlifting championship in the 139-pound division.
“Because I was able to discipline myself, body wise and mind wise, with sports, it will help me once I get to school, for college, digest and be able to focus on what I need to do,” Akira says. “If I can focus on lifting a weight over my head, I can definitely focus on getting my schoolwork done.”
In separate conversations, Akira and Harness admit that her freshman year was challenging from a social and academic perspective.
Because she skipped a grade in elementary school, Akira started at Riverside as a 13-year-old in August 2019. When March 2020 arrived, the pandemic closed classrooms, and lessons were taught virtually.
Feagins praised the entire Class of 2023 for their resiliency in staring down the worst of the pandemic during a period where many students are setting their academic foundation.
Akira’s grades improved — she will graduate with a 3.2 grade point average — and she found a group of friends through sports and elsewhere who have helped her navigate the turbulence that can arise in high school.
“I feel like it’s going to be a different aura that comes around me because everything’s going to sink in and settle down,” Akira says. “I’m going to feel like: I made it, I’m here and we’re going to continue this journey and make it through. And, I’m not going to stop until I get my goal.”