This 19-Year-Old is Diversifying Aviation With Aviate International

March 01, 2024

Rushil Johal is a first-year studying Computational and Data Science (B.S) in the College of Science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Outside founding Aviate, he is currently involved in many data science and advocacy projects, such as Deputy Director of Technology at Fidutam, Director of the Americas at the Global Initiative for Digital Rights, Director of Programs at GMU’s Insane Inventors, and formerly an Assistant Radiology (MRI) Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. He plans to pursue a career optimizing artificial intelligence to solve notorious problems in urban infrastructure, transportation, or the healthcare industry.

This story took place in United States

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(Aviate x MWAA Operations Tour at Washington Dulles International/Nov. 2nd, 2022)

Charred oxygen masks, melted safety cards, and the disfigured autothrottle scattered across the skeletal cabin. The fragmented body’s forward half starkly contrasted with its nearly pristine, red-striped belly. Burnt plastic infused the seatbacks.

Standing in the presence of the fifty-year-old carcass of a Boeing 747-100, once known as TWA Flight 800, I fought relentlessly for the opportunity to witness the reconstructed fuselage before its decommission in late 2022. As the doors of the desolate hangar in Ashburn, Virginia, swung open, the gasps of the aviation experts attending the accident investigation training with me shattered the thick silence. I, too, gasped in silent astonishment.

Having studied TWA 800’s infamous story since elementary school, my avgeek passion thrived on how the deadly crash sparked a shift in air safety standards. Encountering this relic of aviation history for myself, despite knowing what to expect, turned into a visceral experience.

Countless phone calls and emails with the National Transport Safety Board secured this last slot. However, immediately upon attending, excitement slowly crept into self-consciousness as I stood out as the sole avgeek of color and under forty in the briefing. This mismatch—between my passion for aviation and the industry’s inclusivity gap—pushed me to found Aviate International in August of 2022.

Through Aviate, I’ve cultivated a nurturing global community that welcomes everyone from aviation professionals with years of experience older than my age to plane-spotter dilettantes. My purpose is to offer fellow avgeeks opportunities to engage their intellectual curiosity and reconnect with the primal wonder of human flight.

What started as an amateur podcast covering the latest aviation news grew into a 501(c)3 providing career opportunities, from corporate partnerships to hosting local airport facility tours. Nearly all my high school memories revolve around Aviate, from recording a late-night podcast with the Board on “Recap of the 2023 Farnborough International Airshow” to assembling employment tools I wished I had in our “How to Dive Deep into Aerospace While in High School” series.

However, inevitably, chasing my passion presented challenges. Seeking internships and research opportunities in my senior year, I encountered countless “Nos!” Yet, as I write my story now inside the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington DC, I realize the extent of my journey.

I’ve learned to find joy in the struggle, beyond the successes. In early 2023, joining Civics Unplugged as a Civic Innovation Fellow shifted my outlook. Excited about redefining youth’s role in today’s noisy world, the collaboration with fellow entrepreneurial teens unexpectedly transformed me. Coming from diverse backgrounds, we hustled to address niche, unresolved problems within our local communities. The friends I made and the stories we shared sharpened my focus on solving issues of equity wherever I found them.

In the future, I aim to use my struggles in breaking into the aviation world to open doors for others. I take pride in how my inner geek has disciplined itself to turn this enthusiasm into an empowerment platform and now a career path in Computational and Data Science as I currently study as a first-year student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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