The Pilot's Lounge #118: Passing Along A Love For Aviation

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The Pilot's Lounge

I doubt a day goes by without someone here in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport expressing concern about the diminishing number of pilots in the U.S. and the seeming lack of interest on the part of young people in learning to fly. There are evenings when the subject is batted around endlessly, yet the thing that strikes me is that those same people who are doing the complaining about kids that would rather play video games than get involved with real airplanes don't seem to do anything about it other than talk.

A Teacher

John Schmidt and three Pietenpols

Thank goodness there are folks out there in some of the schools of the villages and cities across our land, most of them unheralded, who are acting rather than complaining, who are doing more than their share to instill a love of aviation and the excitement of flight in the next generation. This summer, at Oshkosh, I met one of those very special people and over the next few weeks had a chance to learn a lot from him. John Schmidt lives in the Minneapolis, Minn., area where, during the regular school year, he undertakes one of the most challenging assignments on the planet: teaching special-needs children. I've seen some special-needs classrooms. My hat is off to John and every single teacher who walks into those battle zones daily and reaches children who have so many strikes against them. John knows first-hand about the need to bring passion to education so that he may reach the students in his class, be effective and perhaps help even the most resistant young minds to grow and learn. Beyond his quest to bring light into the lives of kids who were not dealt a full hand in life, John's passion is flight. He did not come from an aviation-minded family, although he was taught at an early age that if he desired something he could learn how to do it or work to get it. After graduating from college he wanted to learn about airplanes so he went to aviation central: In 1985 he rode his motorcycle to EAA Oshkosh, camped out and set about absorbing all he could. He told me of asking numerous questions of complete strangers at Oshkosh and having them answered patiently, at length. He left Oshkosh pumped up about flying and ready to immerse himself in it.

Chilly Reception

Students examine a Cessna engine

John took his excitement and enthusiasm to the EAA chapter meeting in the town where he lived. He was ignored. Until the very end of the meeting, no one even said hello to him. (Unfortunately, I've found that his experience is not unique; the very people who complain about people not entering aviation turn their backs on those who come seeking to do just that.) Finally, one of the old guys deigned to speak with John and realized that this young man was serious about getting into aviation. John got deeply involved in his EAA chapter. He attended every work session, was Chapter Secretary for five years and learned of airplanes hands-on. He helped as the chapter built a Ford Flivver from scratch to a level of quality that it now rests at the Pioneer Airport at Oshkosh. He assisted other members with work on their projects and finally attended Private pilot ground school. Teaching at a parochial school on the corresponding pittance paid such teachers, John lived as cheaply as possible, renting just a bedroom in a house so that he could afford to get his private rating.

Inspecting cylinders at Bolduc Engines at Anoka County Airport (KANE)

As the years passed, John got a better-paying teaching job. He was able to buy a Stinson 108 and slowly build flying time and, as he could afford it, give Young Eagles rides to eager kids (96 to date). He looked around to see what aviation was being taught in the schools and found that classes of any sort were rare and becoming almost nonexistent as such specialty and "hands-on" classes were dumped due to the disastrous effects of the No Child Left Behind mandates. In a middle school where John taught there were but four books in the aviation section of the library. Rather than complain, John offered to teach an after-school class on aviation one day a week, without pay. The school was desperate for someone to teach after-school enrichment courses so it wasn't tough to get approval for the class. Kids signed up and John quickly found that there were kids out there who were eager to learn about this flying stuff and all he had to do was come up with a syllabus that would keep the attention of his class. In the course of teaching an hour-and-a-half course, one afternoon a week for eight weeks, John created and then constantly modified the curriculum as he watched how the kids reacted to what he was teaching. He learned that the excitement of flight is why kids want to learn about it. They weren't necessarily inspired by Daniel Bernoulli or Henri Pitot (inventor of the Pitot tube); they wanted to be Patty Wagstaff or Neil Armstrong. They wanted action and heroes. Fortunately, aviation has lots of those, and maybe, deep inside all of us, that's one of the biggest reasons we have always known that flying is so incredibly cool. At the middle-school level, kids aren't necessarily ready for a private pilot ground school; they want to bury themselves in the fun stuff about flying, how it works and the heroes who overcame huge odds to learn to fly or who flew through great danger to pioneer and explore or defend their country. That's what John gave them.

An Aviation Class for Middle Schoolers

World War II re-enactor (left) helps a student demonstrate a pilot outfit.

A consortium of 12 school districts in the Minneapolis area set up a four-week summer program for the gifted and talented 10 percent of middle school students in the area. Some 60 challenging and sometimes just plain weird subjects were offered to attract these star pupils. John proposed an Intro to Aviation class. It was instantly accepted. Thus, for the last four years, he has given a high-intensity class, four hours a day, to bright kids who wind up spending 60 hours drinking aviation from a fire hose. John sets a fast pace to keep the kids challenged and interested. Of course he explains why an airplane flies and the kids look at wing shapes and structures, but he touches the many corners of the aviation envelope; he has gotten the kids tours of an air traffic control facility; of Northwest Airlines' gigantic operation on the MSP airport; and a bus tour on the taxiways of MSP including watching the crash, fire, rescue crews torch the old airliner fuselage hulk for fire-fighting training. He teaches about the heroes of aviation, such as Jimmy Doolittle, and the fact that one of the reasons he was so successful as a racer, test pilot and military pilot was that he had a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering; about Lindbergh and Earhart and Cochrane and Bob Hoover; and he shows them about the incredible feat of the Berlin Airlift and of Gail Halversen, the candy bomber who parachuted candy out of his DC-4 to the Berlin kids standing and watching the airplanes from the perimeter of Templehof Airport. Of course the kids in John's class make parachutes for candy bars and toss them out of the school's second-story windows. When John teaches about aviation in World War II, he has a re-enactor come to the class, in period uniform, and talk with the kids.

Distinguished Visitor

Tuskegee Airman Kenneth O. Wofford (a member of the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame) and a fan

He spends class time over three days talking about the gigantic hurdles of ignorance, hate and prejudice the Tuskegee Airmen leaped just to use their skills to serve their country. As he is winding down, there comes a knock on the classroom door and a real Tuskegee Airman and member of the Minnesota Hall of Fame, Kenneth O. Wofford, asks if he might visit the class. Ken is invited in, introduced and then speaks with some very awe-struck students who worship him as a hero and ask for an autograph and to have their pictures taken with him. Mr. Wofford refuses any payment for this visit and directs donations to The Redtail Project, a Tuskegee Airmen educational outreach organization that also supports the P-51C Mustang fighter, Redtail, painted to match one of the fighters flown by the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.

Flying Models

Building Decathlon models

John located Promotion Models (8311 Easton Lane, Louisville, Kentucky, 40242), which makes paper models of Decathlons for about $4 each. He paid for a batch from his pocket and the kids go through the assembly procedures to put them together while learning what the ailerons, elevators and rudders do, because they work on the model. Even better, the model flies. They learn about adjusting the controls to get the airplane to fly where they desire and what it means to stall. One of the most popular parts of the class is the 45-minute book pass. Each kid is handed one of the books John has brought from his collection at home. He or she looks through it for four minutes and then passes it on. It's a fast-paced way to expand horizons radically and create an appetite for reading about the great, big world of aviation. Of course the phonetic alphabet is taught and the kids wind up spelling each others names using it. That segues into N numbers and how they are combinations of numbers and letters and that there cannot be an O or I on the end. Naturally the students come up with creative ones: N0SE, N1CE, N14ME, N01SE, N18U and N1KE, for starters. (I always liked the one on the governor of New York's airplane back in the '70s: N1NY. When a flight instructor told me about it, she laughed so hard she could hardly get the word "ninny" out.)

The Goal

Visiting Anoka Technical College, Air Traffic Control program

John Schmidt is very clear in his goal for the class: It is not to get to know all about aviation, but to come to love it. With love there is passion and with passion there is the desire to learn everything possible about the subject. The students develop the love, the passion and the desire to communicate with pilots and mechanics and to learn about and emulate the heroes of aviation. John also makes a guarantee the very first day of class: The students will always have the right to contact him at any time with any aviation question and John will get an answer. He provides his email address and absolutely requires that a parent see and acknowledge any communication a student sends to him. From this he gets tremendous feedback from the students as to what interests them and what they want to know. The class has been going on long enough that at least one of his first students is now old enough to begin to take flying lessons. Another tool John uses is short aviation movies -- seldom more than 20 minutes long -- so that the pace remains fast.

Real Airplane

Something that fascinated me was the "real airplane" part of the class. On the second day each Intro to Aviation student gets a copy of Trade-A-Plane and a randomly selected amount of "money," from $14,000 to $603,569. The students then "buy" an airplane with the money. Then the students find images to print out and tape to the front of their desks with their names on (great way for kids from different schools to learn each others names). Then, over the next several days, the students have to become experts on their airplanes, knowing size, weight and performance; and they learn what it costs to maintain constant-speed props and retractable gear and what an annual inspection is and how much insurance costs and what it costs for fuel to fly it. The class plans a short trip and each student figures out how much fuel will be burned and what it's going to cost, so the kid with $14,000 who bought the clapped-out Cub laughs all the way to the gas pump. John provides three-view drawings of airplanes and the kids create paint schemes ... some pretty wild. That artwork gets hung on the hallway walls of the school. As John says, there was something about the idea of learning about aviation that caused 24 kids to sign up for this class, so he realizes that these kids are already interested and ready to go hard and it's up to him to feed that interest at top speed. When the class is most intense, the kids thrive.

Two-Tenths of One Percent

Trying out a 747 simulator at Northwest Airlines

Early in the class, John has the kids work a fraction and turn it into a percentage. On the bottom is 300 million, roughly the population of the U.S. On the top is the number 600,000, about the number of certificated pilots in the U.S., recognizing that a fair number of those are no longer flying. Once the zeroes are tossed out and the division takes place, the kids calculate that pilots make up about two-tenths of one percent of the population of this country. John points out that these gifted and talented kids are in the top 10 percent of their schools. Then he challenges them to join that two tenths of one percent who are pilots. When I talked with John, he kept saying to me that we have a vast, untapped pool of knowledge in local EAA chapters. Those members know about aviation, they have lived it much of their lives and the majority who attend the chapter meetings are retired. They have the knowledge and the time to teach an after-school class once a week for 90 minutes for six or eight weeks. They can go to their local school and volunteer. The need is there and the talent is there. All the guys have to do is make the effort.

Find Five Kids

Intro to Aviation students

John went on to talk with me about the graying of the pilot population and the loss of pilots to old age and death being a challenge that we must meet. He said that each pilot should find five kids to replace him or her in aviation. If you reach out and teach five kids to love aviation, at least one will grow up to become a pilot or mechanic or air traffic controller who is passionate about the sky. And those who are passionate will stick with it and reach out to the next generation. So how does John wrap up the four weeks of intense class? With parent's night, of course. And what do the kids do? It's airshow time. After the kids saw films of Patty Wagstaff doing aerobatics, John taught them about the Aresti key system, the shorthand writing for aerobatic maneuvers. The kids use Aresti symbols and their Decathlons and create an airshow. They write out the maneuvers to be performed in Aresti and then they take the Decathlons they made and, simultaneously, they adjust the control surfaces and have their airplanes fly each maneuver there in the classroom. Someday I want to be there for that airshow. John Schmidt is right: Find five kids and pass on your love for aviation and the graying of aviation will end. He is doing his part. Now it's up to you. See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.