Fly High

On November 8, 2006, Dick DeVos woke up with nothing to do. The day before, he had lost the election for Governor of Michigan. “If you’re not elected, you’ve basically cleared your entire schedule for the foreseeable future,” he chuckles. “You’ve got time on your hands to reflect on, ‘What should I be doing?’”

It wasn’t a feeling DeVos was used to. The former CEO of the multi-billion-dollar direct-selling firm Amway and head of the Orlando Magic NBA team, DeVos had also been involved in civic activities, including serving on the State Board of Education and on numerous non-profit boards. He was a mentor with Kids Hope, a charitable group in his native Grand Rapids.

So DeVos’s wife Betsy—herself a formidable education philanthropist (interviewed in the Spring 2013 issue of Philanthropy)—made a suggestion. “You’re a pilot,” she told him. “You’re interested in aviation, and you’re interested in giving more kids more choices for education. Is there an intersection between those two passions that you should be pursuing at this time?”

Dick DeVos is in fact a jet-rated pilot. He took up flying as a hobby 12 years ago, when Betsy “surprised me with a little single-engine airplane…for my 45th birthday.” DeVos quickly racked up his qualifications— single-engine, multi-engine, instrument rating, jet rating—and currently flies a Cessna Citation CJ4, which operates at up to 45,000 feet and 500 miles per hour. He also flies an EC-130 seven-passenger turbine helicopter. He has seen commercial benefits as well as personal pleasures. “The direct-selling business is very much a people business,” he explains. “The company used aircraft very effectively to make sure that people could stay in touch and be face-to-face, attend events together, and speak directly. There’s a relationship argument that was very powerful.”

At some point, DeVos thought about connecting aviation with education, and how it might expand the view of some students. He reflects on the boy he was then mentoring through Kids Hope, a Hispanic third-grader living in Grand Rapids’ relatively impoverished inner city: “I remember one time I asked him toward the spring, ‘Are you going to go out to the lake this summer?’ I was referring to Lake Michigan, which is only 30 miles away and where people from Grand Rapids go frequently.

“He said, ‘What lake?’ I said, ‘Lake Michigan.’ He said, ‘Where is it?’ I realized how small his world was, compared to my world. As a pilot I fly at 45,000 feet—and the horizon is just enormous.”

Resolving to bring those wide horizons to young men and women, DeVos founded the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a public charter school. WMAA opened in 2010 with 80 freshmen in a once-abandoned office building on the grounds of Grand Rapids’ Gerald Ford International Airport. This fall, the school will have its first senior class. There are 400 students enrolled, and it still has room to grow.

“We try to introduce an aviation concept or aviation theme into everything that we teach,” DeVos says. “So reading assignments for English class or writing assignments may well involve historic references or stories that relate or connect to aviation. In mathematics, it’s the same thing—we try to relay to them the practical realities of flying.”

In addition to its college-prep curriculum, WMAA offers several aviation-related tracks: flight, engineering, aviation maintenance, and aviation business. “You can choose those electives depending upon your interest level,” DeVos explains. “We already have a young man who secured his private pilot’s license on his 17th birthday. We have others who are looking toward training. We’re in the process of acquiring a plane, now that our kids are getting a bit older, and offering full flight capabilities so that individuals could graduate with their pilot’s license if that’s their interest.”

The students—three-quarters of whom are boys—have a wide array of aviation-related extracurriculars. The school offers a gliding program during the summer. A number of retired pilots in Grand Rapids volunteer as flight instructors. There is a radio-controlled aircraft club. “In Michigan winters, it’s a little awkward to fly RC,” DeVos laughs, “so on Saturdays we have all sorts of aircraft buzzing around in our gymnasium.”

As president of the board, DeVos is involved with the school on a daily basis. He estimates that he and Betsy have given it nearly $5 million. “We’ve been able to help them with building a facility and then also providing operating financial support for the early years.” Once the school is enrolled at full capacity, DeVos reports, it will be on track for independence from large philanthropic funding.

DeVos’s passion for flight has produced something unique in America. Its combination of a rigorous college prep program, strong emphasis on character, multi-faceted technical training, and unparalleled hands-on opportunities in aviation exist in no other public (or private) school. “I think we’ve created a school that not only provides a great education but, I hope, alters their perspective of the world, and every child’s potential,” states DeVos. “The world looks different when you’re 5,000 feet in the air.”

This article originally appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Philanthropy magazine.