By Gina V. Ramsey
Famed aviator, veteran, and writer Len Morgan once said: “The way I see it, you can either work for a living or you can fly airplanes.”
And, for those passionate enough like Long Beach resident Tom Sutfin, you can make flying airplanes your life’s work.
As a young boy in New York, Tom developed a fascination with airplanes, partly because a school friend’s father worked as a plane mechanic, and partly due to a teacher.
“My 4th grade teacher, Mr. Smith, was a pilot, and he encouraged my interest by telling us about his experiences,” Tom said. “So, the seeds were planted early.”
Finding His Wings
However, being a pilot was simply a faraway dream, as he couldn’t connect the aspiration with reality.
“My father worked in construction. We were a working-class family,” Tom said. “As a kid, I couldn’t see a career path into flying and aviation.”
Once he was in college, Tom focused on his studies, although aviation was never too far from his mind. He studied science and math at State University New York, Brockport. Encouraged by a college roommate who was studying to become a teacher, Tom decided to give tutoring middle school students a try and discovered he loved teaching as well.
“I had these parallel interests: science and teaching,” he said. “So maybe during my sophomore, junior year, I decided I wanted to teach. Teaching is strong inside me.”
Eventually, armed with a degree in Biology, Tom made his way to Long Beach for a teaching job.
“LBUSD is an amazing school district,” he said. “It manages the challenges of a large system and implements strategies like [high school] pathways to educate all students.”
For 29 years, he taught technology classes at several LBUSD high schools and is currently a professor at Cypress College.
A few years after moving into Long Beach, Tom met a neighbor who had a plane, and it reawakened his aviation dreams.
“He kept bugging me to go fly,” he said.
During this time, Tom, ever the lifelong learner, was busy working on a master’s degree from Pepperdine.
“So, after the master’s, I decided to get my [pilot’s] license at Long Beach airport. I’ve been a licensed pilot for almost 20 years now. It was one thing that led to another, like serendipity,” Tom said.
“In it for the Students”
Throughout his teaching career, Tom taught technology and computer sciences classes, but as budget cuts forced high school CTE (Career & Technical Education) electives to shut down, Tom began to see a need to keep kids interested in more than just the usual subjects.
“I didn’t get into teaching for the money,” he chuckled. “I got in it for the students.”
The proximity to an airport, within the city in which he worked and lived, inspired him to combine his loves of flying, teaching, and science. He concluded that the best way to keep his passion of aviation in his life was to turn it into a business that incorporated teaching as well.
So in late 2007, he established the Aviation Summer Camps which operate out of the Long Beach airport, offering youth that path into aviation that he didn’t have growing up. Kids as young as 9-years-old who are interested in aviation are immersed in the world of flight through simulators, learning about Newton’s laws, traffic patterns and control, plane design, and even robotics. Since 2007, the camp has grown to include a flight school called Flight Test Prep Academy where Tom continues to teach.
“[Through this work] I go out flying almost daily,” Tom said.
The Sky’s the Limit
Aside from being an educator, pilot, flight instructor, lacrosse coach, and family man, Tom adds business owner to his roster. The summer camps and flight school operate under the umbrella of his company Unique Educational Experiences, which keep him busy almost round-the-clock.
“Doing all this is not easy nor is it without some stress,” he admits. “It’s a tremendous amount of work, there are always challenges, and days can be very long. But I’ve always been pretty good at adapting to adversity and overcoming it.”
Living, working, and flying in sunny Long Beach provides Tom with the unique opportunity of being able to train year-round.
“[The airport] is a 10 billion dollar economic engine supporting more than 10,000 employees for the area, as well,” he said. “People from all spectrums pass through here; from artists, to Presidents, to everyday community members. [Airports] are the gateway to the world.”
To any student who may have ever wondered about life in the clouds, Tom encourages to ‘get involved.’
“Swim in the pool, put yourself in that environment, volunteer, take lessons.”
And, as someone who is now exploring his Ph.D. in aviation field and management, Tom can’t emphasize it enough: “Continue your education. Keep growing, keep learning.”