Set to become the first Florida student in 70 years to earn an FAA Commercial Pilot's license while still in high school

Pilot’s license. Check. 250 hours of flight time. Check. At least 18 years old. Check. Check ride and final testing. Coming soon.

A local high school senior is poised to make history in a few weeks when he takes his final tests, including an in-flight check ride observation, to earn his commercial pilot’s license.

Once he passes the final test, Trinity Catholic High School senior Camp Clifford will become the second high school student in Florida (and the first in 70 years) to earn an FAA Commercial Pilot’s license while still attending high school. Clifford graduates in May. The first was also a local student: Gid Townsend of Ocala.

Clifford attends the school’s Aerospace Career Academy, where he is dual enrolled at Trinity Catholic and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Earlier this week, Clifford held a 70-year-old photograph of Townsend, who stood on a plane and waved at the Star-Banner photographer back in 1948 in celebration of his accomplishment.

“I don’t think many teenagers get this type of exposure,” said Clifford, adding that most teenagers do not have the access to planes to accomplish the goal.

Clifford started flying when he was 7. Since he received his basic pilot’s license at 17 (the age requirement), he has been flying his mother, uncle and grandfather in a Cessna 182 across the Southeastern United States on business. Clifford’s family owns many Burger King restaurants.

That is how he was able to reach the 250 hours of flying (the requirement for a commercial pilot’s license) in about a year. A certificated commercial pilot can fly aircraft for compensation or hire. The commercial pilots can also carry persons or property for compensation.

“I actually have more than 300 hours,” he noted.

Once Clifford receives his commercial license, his family will create a charter flight arm to the business, though his only charter customers will be for his family business. The family plans to purchase a Piper turboprop plane in the near future to get the family from A to B at speeds of 300 mph.

A commercial pilot’s license is one notch below the requirements to work for a major airline. To fly large airliners, the FAA requires an Air Transport Pilot rating, which requires 1,500 hours of flight time and additional study.

A commercial pilot’s license does not include an instrument rating, which is required to fly in weather in which the pilot must rely on instruments.

The rating requires additional studying, testing and a check ride. In September, Clifford also passed his instrument rating test, which allows him to fly in such conditions. Once he gets the license, he can also pilot sea planes.

Once he gets his commercial license, Clifford will move on to complete his Certified Flight Instructor rating before he graduates in May.

Clifford would also become the first high school student in the United States to earn the license in 2018, according to Trinity Catholic High’s Aerospace Career Academy instructor John Edsall.

Edsall contacted the FAA to research how many high school students have earned a commercial pilot’s license. Since 1996, 73 18-year-olds have earned a commercial license, most after they graduated high school. And there are fewer 18-year-olds earning the certification each year since 1996.

From 1996 to 2000, 29 18-year-olds earned commercial licenses in the United States. From 2015 to 2018, only eight 18-year-olds nationwide have reached the goal.

Edsall is amazed that Clifford will be the first of several Trinity Catholic students to likely earn their commercial pilot’s licenses in the next few years before graduating high school.

“Here we have the opportunity for high school students to get their commercial licenses and go on to a university,” Edsall said of the program. “They get to set up an opportunity for themselves where they might be able to finish in five years not only a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree, then move on to a commercial airline, where they will have a much broader future.”

According to numerous past studies, the industry will need at least 10,000 new airline pilots by 2022 because of the forced retirement age of 65.

Edsall said that when he found the Star-Banner story from 1948 about Townsend, who died in 2005 at the age 75, he did not ever think he would have a student who would earn a commercial pilot’s license.

“I though he (Townsend) would be the last student in Florida to earn a commercial pilot’s license while in high school,” he noted.

Townsend was a native and lifelong resident of Ocala. He was a member of First Presbyterian Church and the Ocala Elks Lodge. Townsend restored and rebuilt antique aircraft and was developer of Shady International Airport. Townsend served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

Trinity Catholic students enrolled in the Aerospace Career Academy may receive up to 21 college credits. All college credits earned through Embry-Riddle while at Trinity Catholic will be transferable to any college or university.

The program has evolved quickly, considering the aerospace concept first lifted off the ground in June 2015.

Edsall, who taught at Francis Marion Military Academy until June 2014, had planned to launch the program at the military charter school. When that didn’t work out, he spoke with the officials with the public school district and Trinity Catholic.

“Trinity Catholic jumped on the idea,” Edsall said in a previous interview, adding that students also can get industry certification in addition to college credits.

Embry-Riddle’s Aerospace and Engineering Program is the largest in the nation and is consistently ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report.

Contact Joe Callahan at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews