VISTA (KGTV) - The Vista High School Air Force Junior ROTC has been honored as one of the best units in the nation, getting the "Distinguished Unit" Award.
Only 276 of the nearly 1,000 units across the country got the honor.
"I'm proud of them like they're my own kids," says Colonel Vinny Lostetter, the advisor for the program. "They were a distinguished unit before the Air Force ever awarded it to them. They earned that."
According to the Air Force, the award honors programs that have, "performed well above and beyond normal expectations, and that have distinguished themselves through outstanding service to school and community."
A hands-on program helps the Vista High Unit stand out. In addition to their military-style training, the ROTC program offers aviation classes, giving students 70 hours of FAA approved ground training.
This past year, the cadets also spent time rebuilding a Cessna, turning it into a flight simulator.
"Knowing that, as a high school kid, I helped build this, it's something else," says Cadet Reed O'Donoghue.
The Civil Air Patrol donated the plane after it had crashed. Initially, the group was planning to take it apart and rebuild it as a way to learn how planes work. But the cadets thought it could serve a greater purpose as a simulator.
They say having the simulator in an actual cockpit instead of at a computer desk makes it feel like they're really flying.
The flight simulator has been on display for the past month at the San Diego County Fair. It was awarded a Blue Ribbon in the Student Showcase General Tech competition.
Not wanting to rest on their laurels, the ROTC at Vista High will expand their flight training curriculum next fall, when they start offering drone training. They have a fleet of 13 drones, ranging from a small hobby-style drone to a high tech one that can be used commercially.
"This program has really changed my life," says Diana Perez, who graduated from Vista last year and is now studying at Palomar College. "If not for them, I don't know what I'd be doing right now. This really opened my eyes and let me know if you put your mind to it, you can really do anything."
"I feel like it's the reason why I go to school," says Betzy Vargas, who will be a Senior this fall. "It just excites me. It brings out a whole other person in me."