By Taylor Smiley and Doriel Gale-Corley
University of North Florida student athlete Raff Libunao has a lot on his plate. Between studying for classes within his finance major, to participating in every baseball practice, game and film session, he has little time for anything else. This past June, he realized he wanted to chase another dream of his, this time as a pilot.
Libunao was born in the Philippines in 1998 and moved to the United States in 2005 with his family.
“Since I was born in the Philippines it’s been my dream come true to become a pilot, I always wanted to leave the Philippines,” he said. “I wanted to come to the United States because that’s where royalty was back home because it was a third world country,” Libunao said.
The Philippines native started playing baseball at the age of 13, and began focusing his talents on high school baseball, where he played for Trinity Catholic high school in Ocala, Florida.
“My first sport was actually ice hockey,” he said. Originally, he didn’t want to play baseball in college nor did he have aspirations to be a professional baseball player. He felt overwhelming support after trying out for the Scorpions travel team in his hometown and eventually his high school baseball team, where he earned recognition and became sought-after by different Florida schools. He committed to the UNF baseball team for his freshman year in 2018, after sparking interest in the school’s coaching staff.
His childhood obsession with researching how to be a pilot and flying planes took over in June 2019 when he swiped his mom’s credit card for an intro flight course to pursue his lifelong dream.
“I’ve always looked up Youtube videos on it. I read little kid books on it, and it didn’t really spark to me until last summer when I was like, my dad was talking to me about it because he shared a link to me, and I just sent it and just, and I fell in love with it ever since,” he said.
Within three months, Libunao acquired his private pilot license.
“The planes I get are single engine, basically any single engine land airplanes, with just a single prop,” said Libunao. “How I get it is through my flight school, because you basically have to know that you’re able to fly the plane. So I’m able to rent through them all the time whenever I want it.”
Once you get your licenses and certifications, they don’t expire as long as the pilot stays proficient within their hours. Libunao’s personal goal is to reach 1500 hours, and he has bout 150 currently. He plans on getting his ratings during school and applying to air charters after graduation, where he can become a first officer to fly citation jets while he works toward his hours toward the major airlines.
Telling his friends, family and girlfriend about wanting to become a pilot drew a lot of mixed emotions at first. “To be honest with you, the only person that supported me was my dad,” he said. His mom and dad have gone on numerous flights with him and are confident in him now, despite their initial safety concerns. “It’s just the start that scares all of them,” he says, “since you have to start small to work your way up.”
Libunao even took two of his teammates up to Atlanta for a Braves game, and they got to see just how dynamic the pilot really is.
“At first you know Raff’s like a cool and funny guy to be around, so then it’s a lot different when you’re on the plane. He’s very serious, it’s kind of a whole different side of Raff. We actually flew to Atlanta for the Braves game, and that was just a cool experience; we got to fly in the day, in the night,” said Ryan Jean, a pitcher for the UNF baseball team.
He says that despite the anxiety he feels at times while flying, he knows he’s the one in command and enjoys communicating with other pilots in the air. “It still gives me an adrenaline rush that I’m flying the plane down the runway at 100 knots taking off,” said Libunao.
Despite taking 16 credits this semester and continuously studying for his future career as a pilot, Libunao makes it happen. “If you’re not passionate, then its not for you,” he said.
After graduation, Libuano plans to work as a pilot for a baseball team or work as a commercial pilot. He says that flying planes will allow him flexibility, excitement and the ability to travel, something he wanted to incorporate in his future career. He enjoys the opportunities of flying, even if that leads to another position with the same benefits, like a dispatcher.
“I want to be one of the young pilots coming out of college, to become a commercial pilot, especially playing division 1 baseball,” he said.
His dreams are already coming true.