Airport Kids: The Next Generation

Lane watches middle-school students compete in the EAA-sponsored, "Wild Blue Wonders" program.

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Color_LaneF

Neither the acting nor the writing would win an Academy Award.

"Well gosh, Wilbur, how come you get to be interviewed? I'm the one who flew it!" pouts a blond middle-school student with magic-marker facial hair.

"Hey. Orville. Who's older?" retorts his "brother," a lanky, brown-haired 13-year-old.

"You are."

"So who do you think is smarter?"

Orville shuffles his feet and looks downcast.

"You. I guess," he mumbles.

Wilbur goes on to report on the wing warping characteristics and engine performance of the original Wright Flyer aircraft to a local "newspaperman," played by another self-conscious 13-year-old.

So, okay. It's not Shakespeare. Or even historically accurate, aside from the airplane facts. But I laugh anyway. Not only because it offers such a clear window to a 13-year-old's reality of sibling interaction, but because it's just so wonderful to see kids enthusiastic enough about airplanes to actually write and perform a skit like this.

The actors in front of me are part of a middle-school team from Seattle, Washington, competing for the regional title in the Experimental Aircraft Association-sponsored "Wild Blue Wonders" program. Wild Blue Wonders is a year-long school program, available around the country, that's designed to teach young people about airplanes and flying and help them get more involved in the aviation community.

Over the course of several months, the kids learn basic facts and information about aeronautics, airplanes and aviation history. They learn how to flight plan and fly flights on Microsoft's Flight Simulator software. They build and fly balsa wood and paper gliders, and they compile logbooks that outline their activities, team mission statements, and goals. They visit local airports and air museums, and sometimes even get rides in actual airplanes. And each team also writes a short skit designed to educate the audience about aeronautics and some important event in aviation history.

At the end of the school year, teams from each area gather for day-long competitions to determine the regional champions. There are no fewer than 11 five-person teams competing at Seattle's Museum of Flight today, and if the tension in the room is so thick it's palpable, it's because there's a lot at stake. For the prize here is more than just a trophy. The winning team receives an all-expense-paid trip to compete in the national Wild Blue Wonders competition-at the EAA's AirVenture fly-in convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

But winning that prize is tough work. The teams have to pass a Jeopardy-style quiz of their aviation knowledge, have their logbooks judged and perform their five-minute skits in front of a panel of judges. They have to demonstrate the flight abilities of the rubber-band balsa gliders they've built. And in arguably the toughest portion of the competition, each team is given latitude and longitude coordinates of two airports and a metar weather report for the area, including winds aloft. The team then has 30 minutes to flight plan a VFR trip between the two and then fly the flight in a Cessna 172, using Microsoft's Flight Simulator software.

And for anyone following along at home who doesn't recall how hard flight planning was in their student pilot days, before GPS, let me offer a refresher of what this task entails. The teams first have to find the airports on a sectional using hour and minute marks on the coordinate grid. Then they have to use a plotter to figure out a course between the two, including two checkpoints, while accurately figuring fuel burn, time and heading for each leg (which means calculating wind correction angles and magnetic heading adjustments). And all these calculations have to be done in less than 15 minutes, because the flights themselves take about half the allotted time. I'm not sure I could do it easily-and these kids are only 11, 12 or 13 years old. Oh, yeah. And then, of course, the teams have to actually fly the route on the computer, keeping heading within 10 degrees and altitude within 100 feet.

My heart goes out to these kids as I watch them struggle through each step of the competition. One team, crushed at their third place finish in last year's event, which they attributed to not having a good enough logbook record of their activities, has put together a PowerPoint presentation to accompany their scrapbook this year. Another group of boys answers my questions about what they learned this year so honestly that it takes me aback. "Well, I had to learn not to be so controlling," one of them tells me. "I was bad at that to start with." The other boys on the team nod. "But he got much better," one adds brightly. "Yeah, we learned a lot about being a team," another says. There's a pause. Then, very seriously, "And you know, we realized that there's no "I" in the word team. We thought that was important."

I try to keep a straight face, thinking that I know a lot of adults who are still struggling to learn that lesson.

And anyone who thinks 13-year-olds don't know the meaning of hard work or effort these days should have seen these kids attack the flight planning portion of the contest. I watch several teams struggling through their calculations, their focus so intent and their desire to do well so fiercely evident that it's all I can do to refrain from reaching over to help. One team flies their flight plan flawlessly-only to discover that they misread the location of their starting airport, making all their other data incorrect. Another team just can't get the calculations right and doesn't even make it to the computer to get their 172 off the ground. My heart cracks open at their crestfallen faces as they see their dreams and a year's effort possibly slipping out of their grasp. And I wonder how hard it would be to give every single one of these kids a trip to Oshkosh or a ride in my Cheetah. Funny, what a kid's disappointed face can make you contemplate.

But that's the magic of this day, as well … that there are still kids out there who care so much about going to Oshkosh that they're crestfallen at losing the opportunity.

Many of us, myself included, have bemoaned the dwindling numbers of classic, mythical airport kids-those enthusiastic youngsters who used to ride their bikes out to the airport fence, so entranced with flight that they'd sweep a floor, clean a plane or do just about anything for the chance at a ride. How would aviation survive, we wondered, with the increasingly tall and barbed-wire nature of our airport fences? And where, we wondered, had all those airport kids gone?

A single day can't present an all-encompassing answer to a question that big, of course. But watching almost 60 kids compete their hearts out for the chance to go to the Mecca of all airshows certainly gave me a new perspective on the issue. Maybe, just maybe, those airport kids of old rode their bikes out to the airport fences because that was the only way they had of getting close to aviation. And maybe, just maybe, they're not all gone. Maybe they just have other methods and options at their disposal now that can help them learn and get excited about flight.

At least a third of the team members at the Seattle competition were girls-a good number of whom now want to become pilots. And two boys with only a vague interest in aviation before this year have even figured out how and where to get glider licenses this summer, because, as one earnestly explained to me, "I can't get my powered plane rating for three more years, you know." Perhaps we think the airport kids have disappeared because we've been looking for them where they used to be, not realizing that they, like life and technology itself, have moved on.

We undoubtedly have lost some of the easy access to airports that previous generations had. One of the most depressing aviation statistics I know is that Sporty's best-selling metal airport sign is not "Learn to Fly Here," but "Airport: No Trespassing." And it would be a determined kid, indeed, who could persevere past all the security systems and intimidating barriers that have sprung up around many airports since the attacks of 9/11.

But while the airport fences may be higher, aviation is now a mature enough industry to have more established museums, with a greater focus on community and school education programs. There are more than 220 air and space museums across the country, and many of them are strengthening their school outreach programs. Targeted and sustained well, those programs can help bring airports to the kids, instead of waiting for the kids to find their way to the airport gate.

The same holds true for advances in computer technology. Say what you will about desktop flight being different from the real thing-that desktop software has enabled these 13-year-old kids to know far more about flying an airplane than the vast majority of their 1960 counterparts would have. The internet and networking technology have also made it much easier for museums and other educational institutions to bring valuable aviation resources and experiences from around the world into local museum and school locations.

If the mountain can't come to Mohammed, as the saying goes, then perhaps Mohammed can find a way to go to the mountain.

But even with organized programs and improved technology, one thing still hasn't changed. Behind every airport kid is still a caring adult who reached out to help him or her over the real or virtual fence. The little town of Quincy, Washington-population 3,738-had no fewer than five teams entered in the Seattle region's Wild Blue Wonders competition this year. Why so many from such a little place? Because Quincy is blessed with a sixth grade teacher named Tricia Donaldson. Donaldson isn't a pilot, but she cares about having her students excited about learning and wants to encourage them to pursue their dreams. So after finding out about the Wild Blue Wonders program, she went to the Quincy school board and got funding and support to expand the number of kids who could participate in the program and competition this year.

If we want more towns and success stories like Quincy, we need more Tricia Donaldsons. We need more local pilots to hook up with museum and educational programs like Wild Blue Wonders, to mentor kids and help them take yet another step toward joining the world and family of aviation. Our involvement is even more important today because funding for these programs is becoming more shaky with the downturn in the nation's economy. The Ford Motor Company has been a major sponsor of the Wild Blue Wonders program, for example, but that funding is uncertain for next year. Without that kind of sponsorship, or individual donations, the regional winners in the competition would have to pay their own way to go to AirVenture. And if they had to pay for the trip themselves, some of these kids might not be able to go.

Can a program like Wild Blue Wonders, or the efforts of a single air museum or sixth grade teacher, create and insure a healthy pilot population for the future? Maybe not single-handedly. But my mom always told me that the way to change the world was to start where you were and do something, no matter how small. Because the ripples from even something so simple as a pebble dropped into a pond can reach farther than we might imagine.

Problems are always overwhelming, on a grand scale. But as the final glider competition concludes and the kids begin to let their hair down, a contagious kind of spontaneity takes over the event. And as I watch 60 high-energy kids careening around a huge airport hangar, flying their balsa wood gliders for the pure fun of it and dreaming of airplanes and flight, I find hope in my heart and a smile on my face. They may not have ridden their bikes here, but they're here, nonetheless … at an airport, immersed in the joy of flying, and full of hopes, dreams and plans of how they intend to make those dreams come true.

As I watch the competition come to a close, I decide that I, for one, am ready to bring out my checkbook or calendar and make a commitment to make more of these moments happen. Because in the hopes and dreams of these young people lie the hopes and dreams of all of us who care about the continued health of the family, community and world of flying. And one thing is for sure. If we want these modern-day airport kids to become the pilots of tomorrow, we need to give them all the encouragement, help, and support we can muster.

Ed note: To learn more about the Wild Blue Wonders program or to make a contribution, contact Fred Nauer at 920/426-6116 or e-mail fnauer@eaa.org. Or contact your local aviation or aerospace museum to see what educational or school programs they may offer in your community.