After their apartment in Bayonne burned down several years ago, the Quiles family – mother Juana and daughter Karen – moved to a unit in the projects in Hoboken. But Juana worried about finding ways to keep her daughter off the streets.
She had no idea just how many activities young Karen would soar in.
Karen Quiles, 14, is now part of the Eagle Flight Squadron, Inc. “Youth in Aviation” program in East Orange. The non-profit organization teaches youths from low-income families skills for the aviation industry and life in general.
Besides instilling leadership and continuously pushing for the young aviators to work hard in school, the program also allows them to fly.
Quiles has been part of the squadron for two years. She’s amassed 20 hours of flying with her instructor, more than enough to qualify for her solo flying license. But young aviators need 15 hours and to be 15 years of age, and Quiles won’t be 15 until September.
“I have the hours but I don’t have the age,” she said last week.
Not to mention a black belt
Age is just a number. Quiles has accomplished more at 14 than some people ever will. She became a black belt in karate at 11 years old – she’s still training for higher degrees of black. She has been to Japan twice for competitions.
She runs track at County Prep in Jersey City, where she is a freshman, and still finds time to fly.
And even with all the extracurricular activities, Quiles does very well in school. Her mother, Juana, said the aviation program pushes hard on the academic side.
“They want A’s and B’s,” her mother said. “They said, ‘C means see you later.’ ”
Juana is a single mom and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She and her daughter lived in Bayonne until they returned from a karate tournament years ago to find that their apartment had burned.
“Nothing was there when we got back,” Mrs. Quiles said. “I never thought I would live in the projects.”
In Hoboken, she was determined to keep her daughter as busy as possible – anything to keep her off the street.
First it was ballet and piano. Then Karen asked her mother if she could try karate.
Mrs. Quiles thought it was too manly a sport for her daughter, but she considered the alternative.
“She never wants me to be on the streets,” Quiles said of her mother.
Years later, it was Mrs. Quiles who found the flight classes through a friend. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t nervous about her daughter flying. She also feared that her daughter would wind up in the military.
“I’m a little afraid,” Mrs. Quiles said. “I don’t want my daughter to be involved with the Army.”
The program has no affiliation with military service. That just leaves the fear of her only daughter being up in a small airplane.
“The first time [she flew], I’m waiting in the airport. I’m praying, ‘Please, please,’ ” Mrs. Quiles said.
It has gotten easier, but urgent situations still arise.
“[Last time] we were flying, [the instructor] was looking back [towards the rear of the plane], teaching me about flight patterns, and I saw birds in front of me,” Quiles said. Bird strikes, as many learned with the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight, can be devastating to aircraft, especially the single-engine Cessna that Karen was flying. Did she panic?
“I dove – just like [the instructor] told me to do,” she said. “But he turned around, and was like, ‘What happened?’ I said there were birds. So he said, ‘Oh, okay. Good job then.’ ”
Birds aren’t the only things that can alter your flight path. Quiles has learned how to deal with stalls, or sudden reductions in lift that can send a plane falling 100 feet downward. Her instructor induces stalls to teach the young pilots how to right the plane while keeping their cool.
Learning to fly
The flight class is held once a week in East Orange in a converted old firehouse, and the group flies out of Essex County Airport in Caldwell, where the school owns four planes. The class is $400 per year, and the 45 kids enrolled (ages from 13 to 19) also visit a flight camp in New Hampshire over the summer. Mrs. Quiles, like many of the other parents, hosts fundraisers through the year to help support the program.
The program, run by Rev. Russell White, preaches “honesty, dignity, integrity,” Quiles said. Besides leadership skills and aviation training, it affords the students a chance for scholarships to schools associated with aviation, like Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire (also a sponsor of the summer camp).
The classmates elect each other for new ranks, and Quiles was recently voted in as a Major, two ranks up from Cadet and two ranks away from Commander.
Quiles said she thinks she wants to be a commercial airline pilot or a forensic scientist when she finishes high school and college. She’ll have time to decide, but for now she’s waiting until September, when she turns 15 and can start her solo flights.
It will be another 24 months until she can drive a car alone in New Jersey. So she’ll be flying before driving?
“Actually,” her mother said, “she drove a car in the Dominican. She can drive there.”
Driving a car in the Dominican Republic. Karen Quiles can add that to her list of accomplishments, and at 14 years old, she has quite a list.
For more information on Eagle Flight Squadron and their “Youth in Aviation” classes, visit www.eagleflightsquadron.org or call (973) 674-3580.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.