FOLEY — When Corey Kirkwood visited Lightning Aviation in Foley for the first time in 2016, he was looking for a job moving airplanes. He had no idea that in just a few years, he would become a lead flight instructor. Now, his ventures have taken him and his students to a place where the sky is the limit.

Lightning Aviation, located at the Foley Municipal Airport, prides itself in being the number one flight school on the Gulf Coast. It offers discovery flights FAA online testing, aircraft rental and flight school.

For Kirkwood, the airport is a big part of his life. Although he had experience flying remote control airplanes, the thought of being a pilot never crossed his mind.

“I never considered at any point that I was going to be a pilot,” Kirkwood told 1819 News. “I didn't know that I could be a pilot.  I didn't grow up necessarily poor, but I didn't grow up with the privilege of aviation.”

Retired Army helicopter pilot Roger Watkins gave Kirkwood an opportunity he never knew was possible.

“When he came in, I just knew he would do something with this,” Watkins said. “You either have it or you don’t and he had it.”

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Corey Kirkwood. Photo: Erica Thomas.

While Kirkwood’s plan was to be a history teacher, his new job took him in a whole different direction.

“So at that point, I, uh, I knew I wanted to teach and I found these flight instructors and I started asking them questions about what is, what is flight instruction?” Kirkwood remembers. “I asked them, ‘What do you do? What do you make? What is the day-to-day? And I got to see their day-to-day life. And I realized that it was similar compensation and a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom teaching history.”

Kirkwood calls Watkins the “godfather of aviation.”

“So, he helped me everywhere that he could as much as anybody could ever help another person learn how to fly,” Kirkwood added. “Because his story is, you know, the military did it for him, but it's, it's similar. It's not like Roger grew up flying airplanes.  So, I began flying and I took to it fairly naturally.”

From there, Kirkwood learned from the best. He realized what kind of instructor he wanted to be and how he wanted to share what he had learned.

Along the way, Kirkwood has had opportunities to use his skills in other places. However, he said Lightning Aviation is home for him and teaching is his calling.

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“As far as aviation is concerned, being a flight instructor is the hardest way to make a living as a pilot,” Kirkwood said. “You work the longest hours and you get paid the least. It's the most dangerous flight. So I've been doing this dangerous, you know, grueling bottom-of-the-barrel type work but it’s very, very satisfying work.”

“And you get somebody from zero to solo and they fly with you the whole time,” he continued. “And when that person takes off for the first time, you can really feel the pride of them having only flown with you. I mean, that's your creation taking off into the air and then they come back and they're successful and you're like, ‘oh my goodness!”

Watkins believes Kirkwood is a bit modest in describing himself as a pilot. While some students struggle, he said Kirkwood was a natural pilot with a brilliant mind.

“I just wanted to promote him because he deserves it,” Watkins, who flew during the Vietnam and Gulf Wars said of his young protégé. “He is one of the most mechanical-minded people you will ever meet and his personality. He is one of the most congenial people I ever met.”

Learning to fly at Lightning Aviation is a unique experience, Watkins said.

“I love aviation; Roger loves aviation,” he said. “We all love flying so we want to share that and we do it in a way that we think is affordable for the pilot and still makes enough money that we can survive.”

“So, you know it is really when you come here to be a student it is really a family,” Watkins continued. “You come to be a part of the family, you get to spend time with everybody, you get all kinds of crazy experiences that you wouldn't get doing anything else being anywhere else. And we're in a great place for that because it's beautiful around here and the weather is good most of the time."

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Lightning Aviation. Photo: Erica Thomas.

“So we really have a unique experience that all the flight schools I've been to around the country, you know, this is the only place I've been to like this. All my instructors were trained by me they were all students.

After eight years of working together, Watkins said he is glad to know he has a young man who will continue his legacy when he is no longer able to.

“He’s like family to me,” Watkins said. “I won’t be able to do this much longer and he will keep it going.”

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