Sometimes our experiences early in life shape us into who we will become and what path we will follow. That rings true of Garrett Schmidt, the new director of the Pearson Field Education Center in Vancouver.
His passion for aviation was sparked in second grade when his parents took him to a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds air show. The sight of the jets flying in close formation, upside down and then hurtling toward the earth was thrilling.
“Gosh, I’d like to do that someday,” Schmidt recalled thinking.
From then on, Schmidt continued to gather aviation experiences. His father’s Army career meant the family moved often. In seventh grade, when Schmidt’s family was returning to the U.S. from Korea, the captain of their flight invited Schmidt and his sister to sit in his seat and look at the cockpit dashboard.
“After that, I knew I wanted to be a pilot,” Schmidt said.
He learned to fly in college while pursuing a degree in physical sciences at Kansas State University. He was part of the Air Force ROTC program and the school’s air club. To bank more flying hours, he rented a plane for $20 per hour and offered rides to college buddies.
“So many of my friends in the dorm had never been flying before,” he said.
Did You Know?
The official name of the Thunderbirds is the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron.
The Thunderbirds’ only Northwest appearance in 2016 is Aug. 27-28 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
He was delighted to share his passion with them.
In the Air Force, he first flew the T-37B as an instructor pilot. Later, he flew the F-15 and the F-15 Eagle during deployments in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Following 12 years of active duty, he flew another 13 years with the Oregon Air National Guard. After a 25-year Air Force career, he retired. He hasn’t flown a plane since because “flying is an expensive hobby,” he said.
“I felt so blessed to be able to live my dream job: to be a fighter pilot,” Schmidt said. “I felt I wanted to give something back to the community.”
‘Best of both worlds’
He believed he could do that best by becoming a teacher. With the GI Bill, he earned his master’s degree in education in May. In November, he was hired by the Fort Vancouver National Trust as director of the Pearson Field Education Center.
“Here, I can combine my love of aviation with my passion for teaching,” he said. “I kind of get the best of both worlds.”
Pearson volunteer opportunities
• Help visitors use the flight simulators, wind tunnel and other hands-on exhibits.
• Read aviation-themed books to kids.
• Help volunteers construct a kit airplane.
To volunteer, call 360-992-1815.
The retired pilot is looking forward to introducing students to the world of aviation every Saturday afternoon at the center, where kids can sit in the cockpit of a T-28 Navy plane, sit at the controls of a flight simulator and try other hands-on activities.
“Families show up for the first time and spend a couple of hours here,” he said. “They are so engaged.”
Next summer, the center is planning several week-long aviation youth camps culminating with a flight over Vancouver with an instructor pilot.
Schmidt also spoke about working with the aviation technology program at the ,Clark County Skills Center, bringing hands-on science, technology, engineering and math projects to Clark County classrooms and gathering volunteers to build kit planes in a nearby hangar.
Aviation is often the focus at home, too. His wife is in the Air National Guard. Their four children, ages 5 to 13, “draw planes and make planes out of Legos,” Schmidt said. “There’s always talk of planes.”