A&M-Central Texas Grad Making His Aviation Dreams Real

By Karen Clos
June 5, 2023

A&M-Central Texas Grad Making His Aviation Dreams Real

In the year of his birth, Sang Woo Han, 29, was one of many thousand babies born in Seoul, South Korea. The youngest of two children raised by his father, Il-Soo Han, and grandmother, Soojin Kim, he grew up in the Gwanak-gu District on the southern border of Anyang and Gyeonggi Province.

He smiles as he shares photos of his neighborhood, known as Silim-dong, adding that it was an idyllic place for families. Nestled in the middle of a mountain, it was a sprawling juxtaposition of modern high-rise buildings, business and industry, art museums, schools, hospitals, and acres of nature trails, forestry, streams, and wildlife.

And then, almost as if he had momentarily overlooked the most important thing, he quickly adds, “Oh, yes. Airplanes. Lots of airplanes.”

A&M-Central Texas Grad Making His Aviation Dreams RealA&M-Central Texas Graduate Sang Woo Han.

He and his wife, Emily, a special education teacher, are newlyweds and residents of Pflugerville. And he remembers his own childhood and how it was that something as simple as an elementary school field trip to an aviation hangar filled him with awe and became the inspiration for his future.

Han says he was a “tiny kid” back then, standing alongside a behemoth of a Boeing 747, his little head fully tilted back in benevolent awe, taking in its majestic proportions: 66.5 feet high, 232 feet long, and 224.4 from one wingtip to the other.

“I remember being shocked that anything that enormous was capable of flying,” he laughed. “And right away, I was intoxicated with questions. I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, ‘I want that.’”

If there is a force in the universe that hears and delivers upon the innocent and wondrously inspired aspirations of youth, it may well be that his words secured his fate that day because from then on, his love of aviation was never far from his mind.

“My family lived near the international airport,” he confessed. “And my eyes were always searching the sky no matter what else I was doing.”

When he wasn’t either in school or incessantly gazing overhead, he says, he did have other interests. Both he and his neighborhood friends, he says, were avid baseball fanatics.

His favorite player, he said, was Shin-Soo Choo, a fellow Korean citizen, who had begun his career in Korea before eventually becoming an outfielder with the Texas Rangers. To this day, he says, he admires Choo and knows his statistics by heart – including a 2015 game against the Colorado Rockies where Choo “hit for the cycle”– only the ninth Texas Ranger and first Asian American to accomplish that feat: hitting a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game.

While certainly not obvious to most, maybe it is true that his two great loves – aviation and baseball – have commonalities that began to mold him into his own future. Both require a respect for and a simultaneous will to seem to defy natural laws. Both are only possible as the result of dogged preparation, incredible talent, and experience – and, on occasion, a small dose of luck.

Han had completed high school and his mandatory service in the Korean Army where he had been assigned, entirely by chance, to an aviation brigade, serving two years in a support role to pilots, flight crews, and maintenance staff. He was, he says, both closer than he had ever been to a long-cherished dream, and still, never further away from being a pilot. But not for long.

It was New Year’s Eve 2016, he said, when his aunt and uncle, Marty and Sukyong Martinez, both Killeen residents, invited him to the U.S. His sister, Song Hee, then a nursing student, was with them already and, before he knew it, he was taking English as a Second Language courses at Central Texas College.

“I received my visa and status as an international student before I knew enough English to order a hamburger from McDonalds,” he laughed. “But I was determined to remedy that as quickly as I could.”

And remedy it he must have – because literally out of the blue, on a day he would have thought was uneventful, his learning eye landed on a brochure advertising the college’s aviation program.

There is no hubris to his words when he remembers that moment. And he remembers it well. In fact, his gaze shifts slightly, as if his quietly folded hands have somehow become the most fascinating part of the turning point he is describing.

His high school grades were substandard, he explains – not even good enough to get him into a Korean university with the major of his choice. Yet here he was – at exactly the right place and exactly the right time – with a brochure in his hands that made the impossible seem possible, except for one thing: flight instruction and certification is expensive. Like six-figures expensive.

Little did he know that something as simple as a father’s faith and wisdom would make even the biggest obstacle seem surmountable.

“My father had gotten a great job while I was in the military,” he said, his deep midnight black eyes glistening with evidence of emotion. “I didn’t even know about it until the moment we were talking about the program and how difficult it was to give up on that dream when it was right there in front of me.”

What he could not have known, in either that moment or any beforehand, was that his father had – for two years now – taken on a new position, living frugally, and saving relentlessly before he could have ever suspected how much his son would need his help.

Perhaps it was a father’s intuition or perhaps he had noticed his sons’ growing fascination turning into a future. But he assured his son that he would provide the funds he needed to complete his training without a moment’s hesitation.

Han leapt at the chance, enrolling in the CTC aviation program, earning his associate degree, and transferring to A&M-Central Texas where he completed his undergraduate degree in aviation in December 2022.

He still remembers his first solo flight, he says, in a Cessna 152 two-seater where he could feel every unexpected divot of wind, every cautious adjustment to the wings, every random tickle of space, and all of the sounds and sights from above and below.

“I was completely speechless that first day,” he remembered. “I went home and studied because it was like my basic questions were answered, but those answers created hundreds of new questions that I wanted to understand.”

Today, having mastered his flight training, certification, and degrees, Han has returned to where he began, teaching flight in the Central Texas College aviation program. His days, he says, are filled with a certain appreciation for symmetry, as he – once the aspiring pilot – now takes new aspiring pilots under his wing, teaching them how to fly, and, he hopes, instilling in them the same sense of professionalism, safety, and wonder that he still harbors so close to his heart.

The one thing he will not do, he says, is forget the father who helped him make it to this point.

“Last semester when the course schedules were put online, I saw my name there as the flight instructor, and I just had to take a screenshot of it, and send it to my dad,” he laughed.

His dad’s response – from more than 7,000 miles away – was as simple and elegant as the sound of applause from the stands when, in baseball, fans hear the crack of the bat when it has hit an impressive run.

“He texted back to me and said, ‘Wow,’” Han smiled, the obvious impact of how much just one word can mean between a father and a son. “I am certain that whatever I send him is circulated through the community faster than it took to get from me to him.”

“You can bet that he is making dinner plans with everyone,” he laughed. “With whatever the latest news of aviation is. And it makes me so happy that I have made him so proud. I just hope he knows that because of him, I know that the sky is the limit.”

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