James Cook, a junior at Liberty High School

James Cook, a junior at Liberty High School and member of Air Force Junior ROTC at Cactus High School, received a scholarship to an accredited aviation university where he will participate in an eight-week private pilot license training program this summer.

At the age of 16, most teenagers are worried about getting their driver’s license. However, 16-year-old James Cook of Peoria is taking it a step further and is on his way to becoming a licensed pilot. 

Cook, a Liberty High School junior and a member of Cactus High School’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), was granted a scholarship from Headquarters Air Force Junior ROTC, Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

This scholarship will allow Cook to attend an accredited aviation university where he will participate in an eight-week private pilot license program this summer. The announcement was made Jan. 11. 

“I can’t believe that they would choose me,” Cook said. “It’s not that often that someone receives this. I’m just lucky to have it. It just gives me a feeling of gratitude.”

Cook has been a member of ROTC for three years and is one of 230 cadets worldwide who were chosen to receive the scholarship from a pool of over 1,340 Air Force Junior ROTC applicants. 

“We’ve had cadets try it for years, and we’ve never had anyone selected until this year,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Roel Zamora, who has been an Air Force Junior ROTC instructor at Cactus High School for seven years. “It was exciting for us to see one of our best get recognized for it.”

Cook’s scholarship has encouraged other ROTC members at Cactus High School to apply as well, he said. 

The scholarship is valued at approximately $22,500 and covers room and board, academics, transportation and flight hours that are required to earn a private pilot license. 

When the announcement was made, Cook said his friends were “stunned” and his parents were “just blown out of the water.” 

As for college, Cook will make a “wish list” of schools he would potentially like to attend, Zamora said. He will be placed at one of the partnering universities based on how it matches and how many slots are open.  

“This is probably the first of many great things that are going to happen to James,” Zamora said. “He’s interested in going into the Air Force Academy and doing some other military service, and this is a good indicator that he’s going to be competitive for those kinds of things. 

While Cook is already interested in joining the Air Force Academy, participants of this summer program do not incur a military commitment to the Air Force or any other branch of service, the university department states. Completing the program does not guarantee acceptance to military commissioning programs. 

But it does provide participants with a college transcript, according to the university. 

“I’m just excited to be free — like ‘free’ free,” Cook said. “I’m going cross country in the air and I’m not even in college yet. It’s just — it’s a totally interesting feeling.”

The thing Cook is most excited for about his scholarship is gaining “deep experience” as well as leadership skills so he can help teach other people the knowledge he learned. 

The scholarship program is an “Air Force-level initiative” in partnership with the commercial aviation industry to combat the national shortage of military and civilian pilots.

The process of applying to this scholarship program started in September, Zamora said. The Air University headquarters sends announcements to ROTC instructors with details on eligibility requirements. 

When applications opened, however, students were still attending virtual school, Zamora said. This required extra efforts from ROTC instructors to get cadets to apply once classes resumed in person, he added.

Cadets had until the middle of November to complete online applications, Zamora said. ROTC instructors screen cadets to ensure they meet age, fitness, GPA and all other requirements, also ensuring that they meet all deadlines, he added.

Cadets must also take a timed Aviation Qualification Test, which is similar to the SAT but also quizzes students on specific aviation knowledge, Zamora said. It includes instrument panels, diagrams of an airplane as well as chart readings. 

Cook was born and raised in the North Valley and is also signed up for the National Honor Society at Liberty High School. He is on the track and field team. 

Cook’s defining quality is his strong work ethic, Zamora said. 

When Cook joined Cactus High School’s competitive air rifle shooting team, he didn’t have a lot of experience, Zamora said. Over time, he’s made significant progress and is now “probably the most dedicated team member that we’ve had,” he said. 

“He’s a hard-working kid; and everything he does, he does to the best of his ability — and it’s starting to pay off for him,” he said. 

Cook’s desire to join the Air Force started when he was in the eighth grade. He traveled to Colorado Springs for a hockey tournament and realized he was playing on the Air Force Academy rink, he said. 

This sparked his desire to try ROTC, he said, adding, “I just never looked back.”

The biggest lesson ROTC taught Cook is teamwork and collaboration, he said. “It motivates you to work hard and have fun.”  


Staff writer Sarah Donahue can be reached at sdonahue@timespublications.com.