Aviation goes to school


Sputnik 2 on display at the Moscow Polytechnical Museum in Russian. (Photo by Mikhail (Vokabre) Shcherbakov via Wikimedia.org)

I have three children. One boy and two girls. They range in age from 20 to 35 years old. All of them have flown. None of them are pilots. None of them work in the aviation industry. They’re all aviation enthusiasts, however. I count that as a big win.

My youngest is a hairdresser, if that’s still the proper term. She cuts and colors and generally tweaks the tresses of women in our region. She enjoys it. She’s good at it. Yet she will occasionally engage me in conversation about aviation or aerospace, especially in the historic sense. She’s particularly intrigued by Sputnik 2, which sent Laika the space dog where no living thing had been before. That fascinates my daughter.

My girl is unusual in her friend group in that she knows a fair amount about aviation and space flight. That is almost certainly because she is the granddaughter of an airline pilot, the daughter of a general aviation pilot, and a native of Florida. She’s been watching spacecraft blast into orbit since before she can remember.

She’s not a pilot, but she knows how to fly, and she’s an avid enthusiast. She’s pro-aviation. In that respect she’s very similar to her older sister and brother.

Here in my part of the world, public schools are about to begin filling up with students again. My local high school begins classes next week. Teachers reported for work this week to prep the classrooms, gather supplies, check their lesson plans, and generally brace themselves for the onslaught of teenagers who will stream through their doors in just a matter of days.

The halls are empty now, but will soon be filled with high school students learning about aviation.

This year is different than previous years, however. At least that’s true for my local high school. For the first time ever, Winter Haven Senior High School will be providing students with an elective STEM course that uses aviation as a tool and a motivator to improve outcomes. Yes, high school students will now be exposed to aviation in a positive light through their full four years of high school.

Maybe the reason I find this so exciting and encouraging is my own experience getting into aviation. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t quick. And it sure wasn’t cheap. But it could have been all of those things if I’d had more support and less resistance in my younger years.

My interest in aviation began young, but I had been led to believe that all pilots were military or former military. That made sense to me since all the pilots I knew were either flying for the National Guard or the airlines after finishing their time with the U.S. Air Force or Navy.

When ultralights came along in the early 1970s, I was fascinated. I bought books and magazines featuring those wonderful, simple machines. There was a hang-glider company in my town. They taught fledgling pilots to fly on a hill not far from my home. I was in, ready to go. I couldn’t wait to get airborne. Then my dad made it clear I wasn’t going to be flying anything so flimsy as a hang-glider.

In retrospect, I understand his reticence. He’d flown fighters for the Air Force and freighters for the Guard. At that point he was flying B-747s in a Pan Am uniform. Hang-gliders looked awfully shaky to him.  I get it.

When the U.S. Navy recruiter came to my high school, I asked to be excused from class to sit in on his presentation. The idea of being a Navy pilot appealed to me. Unfortunately, as a long-haired hippy kid with a profound fascination with rock music, my geometry teacher didn’t see me as a viable candidate for flight school and said so.

“You’re never going to be a pilot,” she said as she denied my hall pass.

I didn’t get into a cockpit until 10 years later. While going through the process of learning to fly, I saw the drop-out rate up close. I saw what happens to people who are discouraged by family and friends rather than supported and encouraged. Of the dozen students in my ground school class, I was the only one to actually book a flight. The result was one pilot and 11 discouraged wannabes. That’s not a promising ratio.

Today, there’s real hope. When the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) first began offering the high school STEM curriculum, a handful of schools were chosen to put the program into a real-world testing environment. Having a curriculum is one thing. Verifying that it works is something else entirely. Thankfully, it did.

Last year there were more than 70 high schools using the program. This year that number nearly doubled. And these are early days.

The number of school administrations who see these successes, recognize the value of aviation-related STEM education, adopt the curriculum, and begin exposing their students to a field of study that can lead to high value employment opportunities will certainly grow from here on out.

What the kids do is participate. The exact thing my peers and I were prevented from doing when we were in school, today’s kids will be encouraged to do. They’ll learn more about piloting than most adults know. They’ll be exposed to drone technology and develop insight into what the future of aviation might look like. They’ll be ready to go on to the next step — and isn’t that what education is really about — getting students prepped to continue climbing the ladder that will lead them to their own personal version of success.

I’m stoked. This school year is going to be amazing. That’s not quite how I felt about school during the last week of summer when I was a teenager. But maybe if I knew I was going to be in classes that were going to teach me to fly and operate drones, my whole attitude might have changed for the better. Yeah, I think that’s probably true.