Devon Skerry carries on mentor’s passion for flying

  • After completing his requirements for a private pilot's license, Devon Skerry has his wings pinned on by Paul Schlieben, the founder of Take Off and Grow.

    After completing his requirements for a private pilot's license, Devon Skerry has his wings pinned on by Paul Schlieben, the founder of Take Off and Grow. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Devon Skerry stands in front of Air Force One at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth in September. Skerry spends one weekend a month at Pease as part of his commitments to the NH Air National Guard.

    Devon Skerry stands in front of Air Force One at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth in September. Skerry spends one weekend a month at Pease as part of his commitments to the NH Air National Guard. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • After completing his requirements for a private pilot's license, Devon Skerry has his wings pinned on by Paul Schlieben, the founder of Take Off and Grow.
  • Devon Skerry stands in front of Air Force One at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth in September. Skerry spends one weekend a month at Pease as part of his commitments to the NH Air National Guard.

Devon Skerry looked up to Paul Schlieben.

That’s because Schlieben was his mentor, friend and the one who got his career in aviation off the ground.

Skerry first met Schlieben when he applied for entry into Take Off and Grow, a program designed to mentor ConVal High School students interested in flying. Skerry joined the program when he was a sophomore at ConVal High School and his bond with Schlieben was almost instantaneous. The enthusiasm both shared for flying made the connection so much stronger.

“Everyone has that hero other than their father and Paul would be that man for me,” said Skerry in a recent interview.

Skerry had always wanted to fly and Take Off and Grow gave him that opportunity. As a child, Skerry was interested in flying. He initially thought his career path would lead to a life as a search and rescue helicopter pilot, but that all changed once he joined Schlieben’s program.

“It was the start of my professional life,” said Skerry. “It’s when I started building character.”

In February 2012, a little over six months after graduating from ConVal, Skerry took his love for aviation to Air Force basic training in San Antonio, Texas. That was followed by an almost four-month stint in Wichita Falls, Texas, for Air Force Tech School, where he focused on aircraft hydraulics. Now, Skerry works one weekend a month for the N.H. Air National Guard and recently completed his required 15 days for the year at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth. He is working towards becoming a level five aircraft hydraulics technician, which means he could eventually be deployed overseas.

But throughout his time at basic training, Skerry couldn’t wait to get home.

“I was always looking forward to coming home, showing up at Paul’s house in uniform, shaking hands and thanking him,” Skerry said.

Unfortunately, he never had the chance. Just a few days after Skerry left for basic training, , Schlieben died in a plane crash on Feb. 9 just a couple hundred feet from the Lebanon Municipal Airport. Schlieben had flown to Lebanon from Keene to have work done to the front landing gear of his Cessna single engine aircraft and, shortly after take off for his return flight home, he radioed back to the tower for an emergency landing. Schlieben never made it back to the runway.

But Skerry didn’t know about his mentor’s passing for a few months. His family decided not to tell him. They wanted to protect him while he was away at basic training. And it was only by chance that he found out on his graduation day from basic training in April. The news was difficult to take and being so far away made it even harder.

“It was rough not being able to make the funeral,” said Skerry.

Skerry didn’t arrive back in New Hampshire until July and that was when he had planned to visit with Schlieben. After finding out about the accident, Skerry thought many times about going to see Schlieben’s wife upon his return. That meeting finally came in mid-October and it helped in the healing process, Skerry said.

It is still hard for Skerry to believe his mentor is gone. The two had shared so many great moments together.

Just a few months before Schlieben’s accident, the two spent an afternoon together and of course flying was involved. Schlieben volunteered with Angel Flight, a national charitable organization that provides free flights for patients in need of medical care outside of their area. On that afternoon, Skerry and Schlieben flew a patient from Manchester to Rochester, NY. The two went to lunch during the patient’s appointment and talked about anything and everything.

“I got to learn a lot about his life,” said Skerry about his time with Schlieben. “And that’s just one of the rewarding and amazing things that Paul did for others. He was just one of the nicest guys you could know.”

Legacy of caring

If not for Take Off and Grow, a program that Schlieben founded in 2008, Skerry said he would never have obtained his pilot’s license. The cost associated with all the ground training and flying lessons would have been too much for him as a high school student. Flight training can cost as much as $7,000-8,000, but Skerry didn’t have to pay a penny.

“It was an amazing experience that I have never heard of elsewhere,” Skerry said.

The way he and all the other students paid their way through the program was through community service. Before Skerry even spent a minute in Take Off and Grow, he had to fulfill roughly 40 hours of community service. It was a prerequisite for the program, so Skerry videotaped town meetings in Peterborough, called Bingo at Pheasant Wood Care and Rehabilitation Center in Peterborough and volunteered for the Canine Alert Search Teams based in Peterborough.

“I loved working with the community,” said Skerry. “It brings its own benefits [aside] from the flying. But to do all this work and have it transfer into flight training that I don’t have to pay for was amazing. What you were getting back was priceless.”

The idea behind the community service aspect of the program was Schlieben’s. Even though that meant Schlieben would be footing the bill for almost everything, Skerry said he wanted members of the program to gain the valuable experience of helping others. And throughout his time with Take Off and Grow, Skerry continued to do community service. The more he did, the more flight time he earned. Five hours of volunteer work translated into an hour in the air.

“Generally we did more to be able to fly more,” Skerry said. “It was a really well thought out idea.”

And he still continues his work with the Canine Alert Search Team, something he may never have done if not for Take Off and Grow.

Skerry first joined the aviation program when he was 15 years old, but had to wait six month before he was eligible to fly. A pilot in training must be 16 years old to take his or her first flight and 17 before obtaining a private pilot’s license, according to the Federal Aviation Administration rules. And Skerry still remembers his first time in the air.

“I had a lot of moments that I couldn’t believe what I was doing. I was flying a plane all by myself,” said Skerry. “I can’t really explain the feeling of it, but as soon as we landed I wanted to go right back up.”

On July 5, 2010, Skerry flew to Augusta, Maine, for his pilot’s license. It was a big day for the then 17 year old, and Schlieben, as he did for all of his students, flew behind Skerry to show his support. Schlieben also flew Skerry’s father, David Skerry, to witness his son finally earn the pilot’s license he had wanted for most of his life. When it came time to have the wings pinned to Skerry’s shirt, Schlieben was the one to do it.

“For Paul to fly my dad up there for him to be a part of that experience was so great,” Skerry said.

A bright future

Skerry’s end goal is to become a pilot in the Air National Guard, but in January Skerry will begin his tenure at Lakes Region Community College in Laconia. Because of his service in the N.H. Guard, Skerry will receive free tuition to the school and he plans to make the most of it. He will be going for two degrees, one in aerospace science and the other in fire science.

He wants to have the balance of flying and helping others, something Take Off and Grow taught him.

While the high school aviation program taught him the ins and outs of flying, it did so much more than that. Skerry learned a lot about being a good person, which he credits Schlieben for in showing him the way.

Skerry said he owes a lot of who is today to Schlieben and Take Off and Grow. His future was mapped out for him through the life lessons he learned in the program, he said, and he plans to honor his mentor’s life by carrying on Schlieben’s passion for flying every single day.

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