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Wed, Jul 28, 2004

Defying Gravity: Part Three

The Remarkable Story Of Jamail Larkins

By ANN Correspondent Aleta Vinas

(This is the third and final installment of Aleta Vinas' story on one of the rising stars in aviation: Jamail Larkins. Links to the previous two stories are below -- ed.)

After being turned down by the FAA on his request for permission to solo before his 16th birthday, Jamail Larkins' wild ride was just starting. He went to Canada for his first solo flight. There, a child can solo at the age of fourteen. Upon returning to the States, He was offered an internship at Cessna by the Cessna Vice-Chairman. He gave a testimonial used in the King video series.

Once he returned home, as his lessons continued, his parents agreed to cover two hours a month. But that was a totally inadequate flying fix for Jamail. With his participation in the Young Eagles and by hanging out at the airport, he was up to about fifteen hours a month. Still not good enough.  So in the American spirit of entrepreneurship, at the age of fifteen, Jamail began Larkins Enterprises, Inc. to make flying money. He used a website he'd initially started after his Canada trip in order to thank his sponsors and tell of his Canada adventure. His first year, before he even began selling products he had over 150,000 hits.

He started selling Rod Machado's books and tapes, soon after he added King products. The revenue now being generated through Larkins Enterprises, Inc. allowed for more flying time but still not enough to suit Jamail. After meeting Rick Garcia of Gulf Coast Avionics, Garcia extended Jamail the opportunity to sell Gulf Coast Avionics products on his web site. Finally the income was sufficient and Jamail was adding another two to five hours a month to his logbook.

He was also flying over twenty to thirty additional hours as a passenger, gaining experience, through the generosity of the airport pilots. With Jamail's persistence website sdales gradually evolved into some sponsorships. He hooked up with Shell (one of the sponsors of his Canada trip) and other companies promoting aviation to mainstream America. Since the speech at the Cessna booth, Jamail also started working more with the EAA when they needed a Young Eagles program speaker. In 2000 he became the official spokesperson for EAA Vision of Eagles Program, just prior to his US solo.

Jamail had his solo planned to perfection; it would, of course, take place on his sixteenth birthday, January 30, 2000. It would be in the newly certified Cirrus SR20. Jamail had met some of the Cirrus folks prior and he'd sent them a proposal for his flight, with the SR20 playing a starring role, which they accepted. On January 30th the SR20 waited and waited at the Augusta airport for Jamail since Mother Nature had other plans.

"I had seen snow in Augusta maybe twice since I was born. (That day) We had snow, we had ice, I mean it was just unbelievable. How often does it snow in Augusta? And it happens to snow on this day," Jamail said.

He soloed on January 31st, complete with the American tradition of shirt-tail cutting, much less traumatic than a bucket of water (unless they find something on your shirt tail…).

Jamail took the delay in stride, uncharacteristic of someone so young. "No matter how well you plan, you're not in control of everything. Worry about things you have control over and not the things that you can't. Life is a whole lot more productive that way." He flew straight into aerobatics from here, flying off and on as much as he could over the next two years under the watchful eye of Ellen Dean. She knew Jamail's limits even if he didn't. 

From Dean, Jamail was reminded of the timeless adage "know your limits and don't exceed them", especially when you're inside an airplane. "That was a very big lesson because I was a young teenager, having a blast. I'm rolling, hanging from the straps pulling eight positive G's. I just want to keep going and she says "no" you need to build up your G tolerance and build your body up."

Jamail could not really pinpoint the most difficult maneuver he's had to learn. "Every single maneuver there's something that makes it difficult to do. They take a certain amount of effort to do correctly, the way that ICAS, International Council of Airshows expects you to be able to do, for safety reasons and reasons along those lines. They're all unique and hard maneuvers to perfect." 

His favorite maneuver is the tail slide. "It's very hard to keep a tail slide to keep coming back without falling off. You get to fly backwards; you get to do something you're not meant to do!" He achieved his level 4 (800 foot floor) Aerobatic Competency in August 2002 and became one of the youngest aerobatic pilots in the US. He now has a level 3 (500 foot floor) done in his Christian Eagle II.

Jamail purchased his Eagle from Red Eagle Airshow Team pilot Buck Roetman at his hometown airport just before his 18th birthday. Jamail attributes everything he knows about airshows to Roetman and Dan McClung another member of the Red Eagle Aerobatic Team. While most youngsters Jamail's age were asking mom and dad for their first car, through Larkins Enterprises, the sponsorships and the product revenue he was able to purchase his own airplane. During this time Jamail was also traveling to 15 – 20 events a year as a spokesperson for aviation with the EAA and Young Eagles.


Jamail earned his Private Certificate on February 23rd 2001 and now the sky was the limit. It did however take two tries to earn his ticket.

His first attempt was any applicant's nightmare but Jamail bears no negativity on the experience. His Designated Examiner needed his FAA recertification, so there was an FAA Rep shadowing the proceedings. The oral was four and a half hours long. Prior to the flight, a plane had crashed nearby and the FAA Rep was needed on the scene. Jamail preflighted and waited in the plane, running through his checklist all the while. He set his directional gyro with the gyros not running and because he'd gone through the motion already, once the plane was started and the check ride continued he skipped that vital step as he started on the cross country portion of the exam in hazy weather. As a result his DG was over 30 degrees off from the compass and because of the poor visibility Jamail thought he was over his check points.

His DE let him know he had failed the cross country portion and he could choose to continue with the flight or head back to the airport. Giving up is not a phrase in Jamail's vocabulary. He elected to continue the ride and performed the remainder just fine. His recheck was just the cross country and deviation portion which went without incident.

Upon landing and hearing the news that he had passed, instead of going out with his friends to celebrate, this devoted pilot took up six Young Eagles! Over the years Jamail has flown many Young Eagles and though he's not sure, he believes he's flown as many girls as guys. The one female that hasn't flown with him is his mother. Jamail's father has flown with him many times since Jamail received his certificate but his mother, not being fond of the small cockpit of the Eagle has not flown with her son. She's waiting for him to own something a bit roomier such as a Citation. Jamail compares earning his driver's license to earning his pilot license "In reality the door to real freedom is only cracked open with a driver's license; a pilot's license tears the hinges off."

You may wonder what happened to school while he was learning to fly. Nothing, Jamail was an honor student at his high school in Augusta (GA). He received a number of academic awards. He was student body president in his senior year. He was a member of the track team, student council, the Aerospace club and the Future Business Leader's of America.

Oh, and he managed to squeeze in earning a black belt in Taekwondo. He is also active in the First Shiloh Baptist Church in his parent's neighborhood whenever his schedule allows.

In September 2002 he began his first semester at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona Beach campus in order to pursue a BS in Aviation Management. He scheduled his classes for Tuesdays and Thursdays to allow for his speaking engagements and flying. "I'd be here Tuesday and Thursday and then every other day it's fair game to be in a different city." Jamail gets no special treatment from his instructors and only two even knew about his DreamLaunch Tour. Throughout the whole tour he only missed two classes. "I made it to more classes than the majority of my friends who are down here all the time." This is Daytona Beach, after all and local distractions prevail. Only missing two classes and having a 3.8 grade point average does not mean Jamail sits in his apartment and studies all the time. While, at the moment, there is no special lady in his life due to his travel schedule, he does go out with friends, male and female, in Augusta and Daytona.

One key to catching this gentleman's attention is to have a passion of your own so you can understand why he chose to attend Lakeland Sun n Fun rather than his senior prom (ok, he did make his junior prom the prior year). It doesn't matter if the passion is aviation or not. People with their own passion understand where Jamail is coming from. In fact, a non-aviation oriented female allows Jamail to "start off with a clean slate" since they would know little to nothing about his adventures.

Jamail recently closed out DreamLaunch, an almost eighteen city tour with Jamail flying a Cirrus SR20 and speaking to over 18,000 of America's young people at more than 70 public and private schools. The topic: the opportunities available in aviation. Millions more learned of Jamail's ambassadorial efforts in the media. He even got a spot on Letterman.

Several lucky students in each of the cities received a Young Eagles flight with Jamail. The winners were chosen based on their winning essays about aviation into the next century of flight. The tour was made while Jamail was attending ERAU full time, running his business and preparing for the airshow season.

One of his most memorable rides was in Denver, one of the winners was very nervous, "he's not sure if he really wants to get inside the airplane. I convinced him to get inside the airplane. He comes down with this HUGE smile on his face and he's telling his parents I'm gonna become a pilot, it was so much fun. That's what it's all about!" It was a sentiment echoed by many other Young Eagle pilots.

"You never know if they are or if they're not going to go the extra mile to become a pilot but at least they've had a positive experience with aviation. So in the future when there are problems about airports being closed to build housing developments, they're going to have a positive experience and they're not going to be one of those people that think ‘flying is dangerous and that airport shouldn't be there, it's unsafe' and things along those lines."

At an interview during the Orlando stop Jamail was asked what motivates him to do this. "I didn't know how to answer this question right off the top of my head. Why would I prefer to be on the road 80 percent of the time instead of flying my Christen Eagle II, or hanging out with my friends? Why would I prefer to set my alarm clock for 4 or 5 a.m. the majority of the week? This question puzzled me for a couple of days. Granted, there is great satisfaction I receive from hopefully inspiring others to think about aviation. I also get to fly a very nice, state-of-the-art aircraft, the Cirrus SR20, talk with others about something I truly care about, and have the opportunity to see different parts of the country (even if it is only for a few hours). But none of those examples answered the question."

As I was brushing my teeth one morning, the light bulb magically turned on," he continued. "During some point in our lives, we all develop a passion for something. It may be business, music, art, dance, or reading. If channeled correctly, that passion can motivate us to accomplish the impossible. Whether that impossibility is creating a vehicle that flies through the air and defies gravity; or sending a man to the moon; or landing an airplane on a moving ship; or allowing a college sophomore to set his alarm clock for 0400, a passion for something can motivate us to do things we never dreamed of. Luckily, for me, my passion was discovered while I was fairly young and it involved flying. I've collected some fantastic memories in a very short time, and I always enjoyed sharing my flying experiences with others, whether inside of an airplane during a Young Eagles flight, during an airshow performance, or on the ground during a presentation talking to my peers about careers in aviation. Sharing the gift of flight with others has driven me to accomplish things I never dreamed of."

His biggest disappointment was having to return the SR20 at the end of the tour. Jamail will have another opportunity to spread the aviation gospel. A fall DreamLaunch Tour is in the works. Already on board with sponsorships so far are Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Careers in Aviation, AeroShell, Cox Communications, Air Shares Elite, Lift Flight Training and Michelin.

As if his schedule wasn't full enough, Jamail and Careers in Aviation crossed paths in 2000, at an airshow in Augusta (GA). Careers in Aviation is a volunteer, non-profit organization designed to help America's young people achieve their dreams and invest in their future in aviation.  Phil Bellury of Careers in Aviation asked Jamail to assist on their aviation career video. Jamail's role was co-host of the video. The video, which was made using sponsorship funds was to explore all areas of aviation as a career and was to be shown at middle and high schools. Unfortunately, after much work was done, the quality of the product was not where Careers in Aviation expected and the video was put on hold.

Some may mumble at Jamail's somewhat "backward" approach to airshow flying. Many of the airshow performers started out in aerobatic competition and then made their way into airshows. Jamail's funds were enough for one venue, he chose airshows because he wants to share flying with people.

"Competition really didn't give me that outlet," he said. Airshows are where he can give back and share with the general public through Young Eagles and as a performer. "Competition is something that I'm looking forward to once I get a little bit more time. I'm still going to do the airshow stuff."

Wayne Handley is one of the aerobatic pilots Jamail admires most. Handley flew the Oracle Turbo Raven and is one of the premier aerobatic coaches on the west coast, having worked with Sean D. Tucker for one. Jamail originally wanted to study under Handley; however living in Daytona Beach, Florida to attend Embry-Riddle presented a difficult commute. Handley did help Jamail overcome some low spots in his career. Says Handley "He is definitely goal oriented and appears to be on track, despite some set backs and unjust criticism."

In one instance, CNN presented an interview with Jamail about six months after 9-11 and managed to twist some events and present Jamail as reckless. The CNN piece played during Oshkosh and several friends in the airshow community saw the piece minus sound at a local "establishment" and were a bit taken aback when they saw clips of F-16s and the police. Jamail received some calls of concern and some calls giving him grief from the airshow community.

Handley was "very disappointed to learn how much discrimination still exists in America and especially aviation. Jamail has taken his lumps and even though it hurt, he has never wavered. All in all I'm very impressed with Jamail and look forward to working with him." 

Jamail takes full responsibility for the misunderstanding. With advice from Handley and other aerobatic pilots he greatly admires (including the likes of Patty Wagstaff and Steve and Suzanne Oliver of the Pepsi Team) he has turned taken this event as well as some other negative incidents and made them learning experiences. Jamail tries not to let 'stuff' get to him. When you ask Wagstaff about Jamail, she says, "He has a true gift for presentation and speaking. This talent can be used to great effect for whatever he chooses to use it for and we're very happy he has chosen aviation. Jamail's focus, dedication, sense of mission and innate talents make a very powerful combination that will benefit aviation for years to come."

Jamail will attend AirVenture and helping out with the Young Eagles, he'll also be spending time at the AeroShell booth, so stop by and say hello to this young, charming, rising star. Jamail says, through his work with Young Eagles and Careers in Aviation, he's meeting his goals: To "educate" the non-flying public about aviation opportunities and dispel some of the myths about aviation safety. To inspire a "few" people to enter the world of aviation. To assist those who don't have the same kind of opportunities he had and to keep finances from being a roadblock to someone's hopes of entering aviation.

Jamail sees a future with more to come than flying airshows. "I want flying to continue to be an integral part of my career." He sees a business component, flying component and a positive impact component. "I definitely want to leave a positive mark in this industry."  He already has.

FMI: www.jamaillarkins.com, www.youngeagles.org, www.careersinaviation.org

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