As Van Villanueva went up in the sky in a Cessna 172, a popular single-engine aircraft, he made a promise to himself – to become a pilot before graduating high school. Several years later, with more than 80 hours of flight time, the 17-year-old Bronxville High School senior has realized his childhood dream of earning a private pilot’s license.
“Through all the hoops and hurdles that I had to jump through to get my license, I finally did it,” Villanueva said. “I set my mind on this goal and worked hard over a long period of time to achieve it. The countless hours and long nights that I sacrificed over the years to achieve such an accomplishment makes it the greatest feeling in the world.”
Villanueva – who is an accomplished student academically, the senior class president, the varsity football captain and a member of the jazz band – said his greatest achievement is obtaining his pilot’s license by 17 years old, which is the minimum age. His passion for aviation was sparked during a visit to the Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York City when he was 8 years old. A few years later, at the age of 12, he joined the Civil Air Patrol, the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force that teaches children about aerospace education. That’s when he flew in a Cessna 172 during an orientation flight with a Civil Air Patrol pilot.
“I was fascinated by every aspect of the pilot’s knowledge, professionalism, and his ability to fly an aircraft,” he said. “I knew right then that I wanted to become a pilot.”
By the time he was 14, he was accepted into the Vreeland Institute Aero-Grant in his Civil Air Patrol Squadron and began preparing for the Federal Aviation Administration knowledge test. After studying hundreds of pages of material about aircraft, he passed his written knowledge exam in July of 2021 and received his student pilot license later that summer. He started taking flying lessons, which were interrupted due to COVID-19 restrictions, weather delays, and plane and instructor availability. By June of 2022, he completed his first solo flight as a student pilot, making several maneuvers, such as take-offs and landings, to demonstrate his proficiency.
Villanueva was accepted into the highly competitive nationwide Civil Air Patrol Cadet Wings Program in December of his junior year, and by May of 2023, he completed his first solo cross-country flight when he flew over 100 nautical miles alone. In order to earn his private pilot’s license, he was also tested for several hours on his aviation knowledge and demonstrated mastery of all aspects of the aircraft by performing numerous flight maneuvers.
Upon graduating from high school, Villanueva said he hopes to attend the United States Air Force with the goal of serving, leading and flying for his country. He’s currently taking several Advanced Placement courses, including English Literature, Calculus, Spanish, Computer Science Principles and Chemistry, to prepare for the United States Air Force Academy.
Throughout his high school career, Villanueva has consistently shown leadership skills serving as freshmen and sophomore vice president and junior class president before becoming the senior class president. He also plays the electric bass and acoustic double bass with the high school jazz band and is a member of the varsity football and lacrosse teams. Prior to being a varsity football captain, he was also captain of the JV football team and captain of the JV lacrosse team.
“To use a football analogy, it has been a constant moving of the chains for new first downs to march down the field to achieve my goals,” Villanueva said. “When you are in the air at 3,000 feet it gives me a new meaning of perspective. I now know a little bit more of what it means to not sweat the small stuff.”