Soaring to New Heights with an OHA Mālama Education Loan

Photo: Wailani Wong
Wailani Wong has achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a Hawaiian Airlines pilot. – Photo: Courtesy

Kawehi Napoleon beams with pride when talking about her son, Wailani Wong, who dreamed of becoming a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines since he was 2 years old; and she has been cheering for him every step of the way.

“He was the keiki no one thought would be successful. In my mind, I was going to do whatever it took to look for opportunities to build his confidence. I know if you have one person in your life that loves you and believes in you, then you can do anything. My grandma and mom were those people for me, and I wanted to be that person for Wailani.”

Wong attended Pūnana Leo O Kawaiahaʻo and continued his education at ʻĀnuenue School, where Napoleon worked as a secretary. He transferred to private school in ninth grade and began pursuing a private pilot’s license before he was old enough to get a driver’s license.

Wong recalls the time that a former high school teacher told him in front of the class that he would never become a pilot. “Luckily, him questioning my ability didn’t discourage me but motivated me,” said Wong. “I hope more Hawaiian youth know that if you really want to do something, don’t let anyone or anything stop you.”

After graduation, Wong went on to serve a 2-year church mission in Japan, where he learned how to speak Japanese in addition to ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and English. Upon returning home, he made plans to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“When I found out he wanted to go to Embry, I wasn’t sure how we were going to afford it,” said Napoleon. “Tuition is one thing [but] the cost to fly is totally separate. That’s when I turned to OHA Mālama Loans to see if they could help make his dream possible.”

Mālama Education Loans help Native Hawaiians meet school-related expenses from preschool through post-secondary education. Napoleon said the loan was crucial to help offset Wong’s education expenses.

“It was because of the Mālama Loan that he was able to go,” said Napoleon. “Our Hawaiian kids need that support from all around. They need to know they are a part of a larger ʻohana and that they belong.”

Photo: Wailani Wong

In 2014, Wong joined the Hawaiʻi Air National Guard enlisting in the 204th Airlift Squadron as a C-17 loadmaster. He has been in the Guard for 8 years and is now an instructor loadmaster and airdrop qualified. Wong also gained flight experience at Hawaiʻi Life Flight, helping to transport critical pediatric patients from the neighbor islands to Kapiʻolani Medical Center to receive urgent medical care.

After graduating from Embry-Riddle and earning enough flight experience, Wong was hired as a first officer for Skywest Airlines and later for Asia Pacific Airlines.

In late 2021, his childhood dream became reality when he was hired to fly for Hawaiian Airlines. In January, Wong began his formal training at Hawaiian Airlines flying the Airbus 330; he looks forward to eventually being assigned long-haul flights both domestically and internationally.

“I’ve been flying since 2010 with the goal to become a pilot at Hawaiian Airlines. When I think back to what helped motivate me, I’m grateful for the ones who have supported me, especially my mom and family,” said Wong. “The cost to become a pilot can be very discouraging. I’m thankful to OHA for supporting me.”

Wong also credits the Island Air Explorers Program that takes high school students through a specialized course to learn more about the aeronautic industry. Meeting pilots at ʻOhana Air, seeing where they work, and hearing their stories motivated the students in the program. Wong knows of at least three others in his cohort that have become pilots before the age of 30.

“I am so proud of him; he is my inspiration,” smiles Napoleon. “He was super resilient in his approach to achieving his goal. We need to keep teaching our children to value education, to be resilient and onipaʻa – never give up. To keiki: if you feel invisible, even if you fail, keep moving forward. You can fly!”

The mother and son duo are now pursuing their master’s degrees together – Napoleon in education and Wong in business aeronautic administration. For this ʻohana, the sky is the limit.