When Jamail Larkins, the country's youngest African American air show pilot, tells students to follow their dreams, he knows what he's talking about.
The 22-year-old pilot and student visited South Lake High School last week where he talked to students about career opportunities in the aerospace and aviation industry. Through his personal story, he also showed the students that they can achieve their goals no matter what they may be.
"Ten years ago if someone had told me I would have had the opportunities that I had; getting a chance to start up my own company, purchase my own plane before I graduated high school and become the FAA ambassador before I turned 22, I would have never believed it," Larkins said.
"But it happened. I had a lot of people who helped me make it become a reality, but I worked hard. You can make any of your wildest dreams happen if you work for it."
The Federal Aviation Administration recently hired Larkins as the first official Ambassador for Aviation and Aerospace Education. For the past three years, Larkins has traveled the country encouraging students to stay in school, pursue their career goals and achieve their dreams.
At the age of 12, with no connections to the aviation industry, Larkins heard about a free program called the Young Eagles, designed to get young people involved in aviation and flying.
"I had the chance to take my very first flight with the program at age 12 and fell in love with it," Larkins said. "Unfortunately our industry is not very diverse; the last statistic that I heard from the FAA was that out of 600,000 licensed pilots, only 2 percent were minorities, including women.
"But what I try to do is go out there and talk to students and as many people as I can and let them know it is a realistic possibility to get involved in, whether it's just a hobby or a career," Larkins said. "The growth of the industry is phenomenal for those who are interested."
Larkins became one of the youngest certified pilots in the country when he soloed a powered aircraft in Canada at the age of 14. He wanted to fly solo before his 16th birthday and petitioned the FAA to do it legally in the United States. While in the petition process, he discovered he only had to be 14 to fly solo in Canada. Larkins completed his U.S. solo flight after his 16th birthday in a Cirrus SR20.
When he was just 15 years old, Larkins established Larkins Enterprises, an aviation and advertising company. The company buys and sells commercial aircraft and corporate aircraft to clients, is a distributor for several different companies and buys and sells pilot supplies across the country.
In 2003, after getting to know some of the pilots while flying on the air show circuit, the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels invited Larkins to fly with them.
"You kinda don't wanna turn down that opportunity," Larkins said, chuckling.
Larkins said he looked up to the Tuskegee Airmen growing up "because of what they had to overcome during their lifetime and their experience in the aviation industry as well as a variety of pilots I've had the opportunity to meet."
"Air shows are a creative outlet for me," Larkins said. "It's an amazing feeling to get a chance to get inside an airplane doing aerobatic maneuvers, hammerhead spins, V-rolls and all sorts of different maneuvers in front of 70,000 people sometimes."
Larkins has been featured at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and is part of a permanent aviation exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia along with famous pilots such as Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager and the Wright Brothers.
Out of the 36 different types of aircraft he has piloted in his career, Larkins' favorite is the plane he owns now and flies on the air show circuit: a high-performance Christen Eagle II aerobatic aircraft.
Larkins tries to describe the feeling of pulling seven G's, going 200 miles per hour.
"It's the ultimate coaster ride. It's a huge rush. Literally, it's one of the most exhilarating opportunities I get a chance to do on a regular basis," Larkins said. Larkins attends school at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. on full scholarship as an aviation business student and will graduate at the end of December.