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Aviation dreams take flight for Highland Lakes Squadron Cadets

Highland Lakes Squadron Cadets

Highland Lakes Squadron Cadets program leader Jen Banton (center) shakes hands with daughter Kaycie during the young cadet’s pinning ceremony in October 2021. The cadets are part of a newly launched youth program from the Highland Lakes Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force, which is located at 2402 S. Water St. in Burnet. Photo by Martelle Luedecke/Luedecke Photography

For Burnet High School sophomore Kaycie Banton, being a member of the Highland Lakes Squadron Cadets is an opportunity to soar that much closer to her goal of joining the Air Force Academy and becoming an aerospace engineer and astronaut. 

“I think I’ve always wanted to do something with space,” Kaycie explained. “I figured if I studied aviation (with the Cadets program), it would be a good start and give me some base knowledge.”

The Highland Lakes Squadron Cadets formed in 2021 as a youth program offered by the Highland Lakes Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force. It is the passion project of Burnet resident Jen Banton, who is also Kaycie’s mom. 

As a former aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps, Banton recognized the immense value the squadron offers the community and jumped at the chance to bring educational programs to local youngsters like her son and daughter. 

“Burnet has an amazing squadron, and the guys have so much knowledge and experience,” Banton said. “It’s so important for that to be passed on to kids. If I had a resource like this when I was a kid, I would have done anything to be a part of it.” 

The program is run out of the Commemorative Air Force hanger and museum at 2402 S. Water St. in Burnet. It aims to involve Highland Lakes kids ages 12-18 in both the squadron’s museum and aircraft hangar.

Currently, seven cadets have enrolled, most of them ranging from late middle school to early high school age. The group was sworn in during a pinning ceremony hosted at the squadron’s Pumpkins and Paratroopers event in October. 

Participating cadets are involved in hands-on activities, such as helping maintain the squadron’s collection of vintage aircrafts, which include a PT-19 plane and a Bell 47 helicopter. They also learn piloting in an authentic Link Trainer, a wooden flight simulator used to train pilots in the 1930s through the ’50s.  

Kaycie even assisted with a plane inspection during one of her visits to the hangar.

“The (engineers) were trying to see where some of the wires were going (in one of the planes),” she explained excitedly. “I would hold one of the wires and they would tug on it, and I would tell them if that was the right one. It was a super-simple task, but it meant a lot to me because I had never worked on a plane before.” 

The part of the program to which Kaycie is most looking forward is the guaranteed supervised flight for eligible cadets. 

“The opportunity to fly is usually what gets the kids the most excited,” her mom said.

To be eligible to fly, a cadet’s parent or guardian must sign a hold-harmless contract with the squadron. 

The cadets are currently embarking on their first in-depth project, which involves learning the ins and outs of five different museum artifacts. Once they know each item like the back of their hand, cadets can serve as volunteer museum docents during operating hours. 

“They’re going to add a little bit more to the docent program,” museum director Jeff Copsetta said. “We don’t have tour guides or anything like that, but if you could have middle school- and high school-aged kids coming in here teaching people about history, visitors are going to be amazed.”

The Cadets program is open to residents across the Highland Lakes. Meetings are once a month. While there is a $75 fee to join, financial aid opportunities are available.

Those interested in joining the program may email Jen Blanton at jen98gv@gmail.com for more information.

For Kaycie, being a cadet doubles as a way to learn about her passion while also creating long-lasting friendships. 

“A lot of the cadets in there, I’m already pretty good friends with,” Kaycie said. “I can strengthen those relationships, and since it’s something I’m really passionate about, it makes the bond greater. I would tell kids interested in joining just to do it. Even if you don’t want to go into aviation or the military, it’s worth it.”

brigid@thepicayune.com