Local residents help make Ugandan man’s dream of becoming a pilot come true

By Kristina Houck

Although losing luggage can be a nightmare, it was lost luggage that helped make one man’s dream come true.

“I had no idea that my life was going to change for good,” said Gidongo Armstrong, a 26-year-old Ugandan, who is currently training to be a pilot at San Diego Flight Training International, which is owned by Carmel Valley resident Phil Thalheimer.

Born in a rural village in eastern Uganda, Armstrong dreamed of becoming the first pilot from his community. But as one of 10 children in a large family on a small farm, he didn’t have the means to obtain a license.

Until a chance encounter with Carlsbad businessman Larry Kesslin.

In July 2012, Kesslin, his wife and two children traveled to Uganda with U-TOUCH, an organization that creates technology centers throughout the East African country. Having met Armstrong when she visited the village of Abayudaya the previous year, the organization’s founder, Deb Plotkin, hired him to network the computers during the trip.

Plotkin introduced Armstrong to Kesslin and his family, who learned about his dreams of becoming a pilot, along with his goals of bringing opportunity to his community. But Armstrong needed $1,000 to continue his flight training in Nairobi. Kesslin, who had just received $1,200 in cash from Turkish Airlines for the inconvenience of losing the family’s bags for a week, gave Armstrong the money he needed.

Long after the trip ended, Kesslin continued to help fund Armstrong’s schooling, but because Armstrong couldn’t get the commercial certification he needed in Africa, Kesslin decided to find a way to bring him to San Diego.

“It’s been a lot of work to get to here, but I think Armstrong is on an amazing path,” said Kesslin, president and CEO of 4-Profit.

Kesslin connected with Thalheimer and the pair sponsored Armstrong’s visas and training.

“Here was somebody who was going to take his career and not only benefit himself, but also benefit his community,” said Thalheimer, who opened the school in October 1989. “It all came together. We’ve been doing this a long time, and this was an opportunity to really make a difference in a way that we had never tried before.”

Armstrong arrived to the U.S. in early March and immediately began his training. The program takes 12-14 months to complete.

“Armstrong’s been excellent,” Thalheimer said. “He’s diligent. He’s here all the time. He takes direction. But more than that, he’s passionate about it.”

Once Armstrong completes the program and earns his license, he hopes to work as a flight instructor at the school for a short time to gain even more experience before returning home.

In the meantime, Kesslin and Thalheimer are raising money through The Global Good Fund to support their efforts and cover the cost of the training program, which is $60,000-$70,000.

“This is not about helping one kid,” Kesslin said. “This is about changing a culture. Armstrong is committed.”

“The help is very important to me,” said Armstrong, who is currently living with Plotkin in Scripps Ranch. “Back home, I’m trying to change lives.”

By investing their money and time in Armstrong, Kesslin said the soon-to-be licensed pilot would earn 20 to 30 times more than the average person in his village.

Armstrong plans to invest the extra money in his community. He has talked with Kesslin and Thalheimer about using the funds to help children get an education or even open his own pilot school.

“I’ve been told by others that you can’t invest in individuals. I disagree. I believe you can invest in the right individuals,” Kesslin said. “It’s going to lead to a change in his culture. Armstrong didn’t come here to get trained to become an American. He came here to get trained to go back and change his country.

“By helping people around the world, we help ourselves. We need to be part of something greater than ourselves — that’s what brings us joy. The only way to find joy and happiness is to help others.”

To learn more about Armstrong and donate to his schooling, visit