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Reach For The Skies

Featured Photo from Reach For The Skies

Local students take the (virtual) controls at the National Flight Academy.

Plenty of young kids dream of flying supersonic jet planes and exploring the wild, blue yonder. For those with career aspirations in the aeronautics and aerospace industry, they might even pretend to crew an aircraft carrier, with its thrilling barrage of airplanes launching and landing on the deck. For a few lucky local students this spring, though, they didn’t have to dream. They lived the experience, and it felt very, very real.

Students in the aeronautics programs at Sanford Middle School and the Galileo School for Gifted Learning have recently returned from an excursion to the National Flight Academy in Pensacola. The mornings there began with 7:00 a.m. reveille and just 15 minutes to get dressed before reporting to breakfast. Throughout the day, omnipresent speakers blasted the sounds of a rumbling ship and planes taking off. There were bells, whistles, and constant military-style announcements. At 10:00 p.m. sharp, it was lights out in rooms the size of a common cruise ship stateroom.

“You can get lost in the moment and believe you really are at sea,” says Paul Griffith, who heads the aeronautics program at Sanford Middle, describing the immersive experience his kids enjoyed.

The students also got a taste of flight as they sat in the cockpit of a Boeing 757 and other airplanes at the academy’s museum.

“The concept of flying is pretty cool,” says 13-year-old Jonas Estime, a Sanford Middle seventh-grader who comes from a military family and has been interested in aeronautics since he was six. “We were experimental pilots during our simulations.”

Throughout those simulated flights, students from both schools worked together, switching roles of pilots and aircraft controllers.

“They were proficient,” Paul says. “They picked it up really quickly.”

This is the sixth year Paul and his students have traveled to the Navy base that houses the National Flight Academy, and each year the program gets better and better, he says. He described the whole experience as “Disney quality.”

Paul is in a unique and qualified position to gauge the program’s authenticity. A former B-52 bomber pilot himself, Paul spent 29 years in the Air Force, including tours in Iraq and Serbia.

Sanford Middle sent 27 kids on the four-day trip in March, mostly eighth graders. The trip was made possible thanks to the sponsorship of Chick and Lisa Gregg from Longwood and the coordination of Dr. Lee Siudzinski from the Blue Sky Foundation.

“It doesn’t cost these kids anything,” says Paul. “It doesn’t cost the school anything.”

The Galileo School, meanwhile, sent 20 students, with most expenses covered by Delta Airlines and a generous donor who prefers to stay anonymous, says principal secretary Lisa Bengel. This was the second year Galileo took part.

For many of the kids, it was their first extended time away from home. After the eight-hour bus ride, they were allowed to text their parents to say they had arrived safe and sound. But after that, the students forfeited all electronic devices for the duration of the trip.

“They had to be on their own and be responsible for themselves, all while learning new things that were challenging,” Lisa says.

But in the end, the trip proved exciting and rewarding to all.

“They returned knowing more about themselves than when they left,” says Lisa.

After they graduate middle school, interested students don’t have to go far if they want to continue studying aeronautics.Seminole High School is home to a dynamic aviation program, now in its second year. With the help of state-of-the-art equipment, students at Seminole High can prepare for careers as pilots, mechanics, and air-traffic controllers. They learn the fundamentals of flight, meteorology, navigation systems, flight planning, and other aspects of aviation.

With more than six years of aeronautics study under their belts by the time they finish high school, these young high flyers will have no trouble finding excellent jobs.

The industry has been dealing with pilot shortages as far back as the early 1990s. Aviation experts estimate that 1.3 million new pilots will be needed in the next 20 years.

“There is a huge demand,” Paul says.

Paul estimates that about two-thirds of his students who pursue aviation careers will end up on the commercial side, with the remaining third going into the military.

But, he adds, middle school is a little too early to start nailing down career paths.

“I just want to give them an appreciation for things that fly,” says Paul.

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