Nineteen-year-old Andrew Lizarraga stands beside the Cessna 172 he used in September to perform his checkride at the Crossville Memorial Airport.

Andrew Lizarraga has wanted to be a pilot since he was seven years old.

Now 19, he is the proud owner of a private pilot certificate thanks to the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).

“Andrew is part of the Wings program, at which at the moment there are only 15 cadets in the United States … and only two in Tennessee,” said Chuck Clapper with CAP Senior Squadron TN-120 of Crossville.

CAP is a volunteer, non-profit organization that also serves as the civilian auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force. It’s tasked with performing inland search and rescue missions as well as homeland security, disaster relief and counter-drug missions at the request of government agencies.

“In addition to its other functions, cadets are a large portion of what the Civil Air Patrol does,” explained Clapper. “It takes young people like Andrew and teaches them about aviation.”

Adult volunteers help the air-minded youth learn about the fundamentals of aviation through classroom activities, self-study texts, orientation flights and formal flight training.

The program is developed around five elements: leadership, character development, aerospace education, physical fitness and activities. As cadets participate in these elements, they advance through a series of achievements, earning honors and increased responsibilities along the way. 

Lizarraga first learned about the cadet program from his mother, Rhianna, after some online research. 

“She thought it was an awesome program because it would teach leadership and search and rescue,” he said. “I liked the aerospace part the most.”

Youth ages 12-18 may join CAP as cadets. Lizarraga joined the program when he was 13 and quickly “got ranked up” into a squadron. He attended two flight academies in 2016 and 2017 and earned his student pilot certificate along the way.

“They helped me get an understanding of what I needed to do and also my starting hours … You get about 10 hours for each academy,” he explained.

Lizarraga decided to apply for the Wings program last fall. The new program provides training to select CAP cadets to earn their private pilot certificate, recognized by the industry as the first milestone for those who have a serious desire to pursue a flying career.

The Air Force has allocated funds for the flight training with the goal of fulfilling its mission of developing tomorrow’s aerospace leaders, but there is no requirement to join the Air Force after completion.

“It’s a very prestigious program… about $7,000 worth of instruction that the Air Force is doing,” explained Clapper.

Clapper also pointed out how selective the application process is, with only 15 cadets being selected out of thousands. He believed Lizarraga’s years of activity in the program and dedication helped earn him a spot in March.

“When you look at his records, he has a lot of accomplishments,” said Clapper. “He’s a lieutenant in the cadet program. There’s almost none that have been in the program enough to gain that much rank in there.”

Lizarraga’s father, Tavo, who once served as a senior member with CAP, is proud his son’s hard work paid off.

“One senior member said, ‘You will get as much of this program as you put in’ … I’ve seen that,” he said. “I’ve seen him study hard every day, forsaken sometimes fun … Sometimes you have to do that, forsake yourself and certain things, to get somewhere.”

Lizarraga’s private pilot certificate is now the pathway to advanced pilot certificates and getting paid to fly. The teen is still considering all his options.

“As far as the next step in my piloting, it would probably be to become a CAP pilot … so I’ll be able to transport aircraft from one place to another,” he said.

During authorized emergency services missions, CAP transport pilots may transport CAP members, ferry aircraft, fly “high bird” communication operations and transport parts or equipment needed for the missions. 

“I’m still figuring it out if I want to be … like a jet pilot for a chartered company,” he added. “If that’s the case, I will have to go to a school to get my jet license and my jet certificate to be able to go up to that, but that is one of my bigger goals I would like to go to.”

“He’s also thought about being a missionary pilot,” said Clapper.

“Yes … I’ve thought about being a missionary pilot and going out to different countries and taking like supplies, medical supplies,” said Lizarraga. “Ever since I was seven, I’ve had that and hopefully … this is the first step in achieving that as well.”

Lizarraga is not finished with the cadet program yet. He can remain a cadet until he’s 21.

He summed up his time so far as “an awesome experience” and offered this advice to others interested in joining the program:

“Try your hardest … Set goals, get to those and even go further.”

To learn more about the Civil Air Patrol and its cadet program, visit 

Missy Wattenbarger may be reached at

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