Program turns Olympic skiers into pilots

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SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah Olympians looking for a thrill outside of their sport are turning to the skies and becoming pilots.

The love of speed is a natural obsession for Olympic skiers. Combine that with a passion for aircraft and it's a perfect blend for an aviation career.

This can be a costly venture, however, but a company has teamed up with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team to make it more affordable.

"When you're standing on the snow at the top of the end run, which is like right up there, looking down at this 16-foot-tall jump, it's just one of the coolest feelings I think ever," Justin Schoenfeld, U.S. Freestyle Team aerials athlete, said.

The 2022 Olympic Gold Medalist is seeking that same adrenaline rush as a pilot.

"Flying is also an intense thing, and coming into landing your first couple of times is definitely a little, like you're a little shaky, a little nervous," he said. The freestyle skier is hoping to land a career in aviation after retiring from the slopes.

This hope is taking off, thanks to a partnership between Textron Aviation and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team.

"Yeah, I mean, to get your private pilot's license, 12 to 15 grand," Schoenfeld said. "They've helped fund like, my flight training, commercial training. I'm super close to getting my commercial license right now."

Since 2021, more than a dozen athletes have earned scholarships. The airplane manufacturer plans to keep offering more for another five years.

"As they decide to transition off the team and retire at typically a really young age, they have something else to look to and to focus on," Trisha Worthington, chief revenue and philanthropy officer at U.S. Ski and Snowboard, said.

Team USA may be training for the next Winter Olympics, but long-term Athletes like Connor Curran are pursuing the pilot route now.

"The goal is to be an airline pilot. Mom was a flight attendant. Dad was a pilot, grandfather was a bomber in World War Two," Curran said. "Obviously, flight school's not cheap nowadays especially, and Textron is helping out a lot more than they even know."

With no financial obstacles, Schoenfeld is enjoying his new adventure out of the water.

"You can make it down and back to Moab in three hours in a small plane. And it's just pretty sweet. You can explore all around here."

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