Aviation program opens new doors for high schoolers

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

There’s a moment that sticks with you when you fly a small airplane for the first time.

Clamoring over the wing into that left seat, you’re nervous. That’s understandable. You are, after all, preparing to climb thousands of feet into the air protected by nothing more than a few inches of metal. Getting a sense for the rudder pedals, you taxi the aircraft to the end of the runway, your instructor guiding you along the way. It’s time to take off, and when you pull back the throttle to accelerate, your heart jumps into your throat. Then, pulling back on the stick, you feel yourself lift away from the ground, and you can’t suppress a laugh of pure exhilaration. This is freedom. This is a feeling unlike any other.

Talk to enough pilots about flying, and the one commonality is a similar sense of joy. It’s an energy local aviators are harnessing for the benefit of local teens. The hope is to share the excitement of aviation with high school students, potentially paving the way to careers within the field. Now known as the North Idaho High School Aerospace Program, the outreach has proven remarkably successful in its few years of operation.

“My personal feeling is that students introduced to and who are active in aviation develop confidence, an awareness of opportunities that are open locally as well as world-wide and a spirit of team work,” aviator and pilot trainer Ken Larson, who heads up student teaching.

The program got its start in 2013 when met with Julie Williams of Forrest M. Bird Charter School to set up an aviation class for high schoolers. The class brought in students from both the charter school and Sandpoint High School. It quickly grew.

“The second year, we moved it to Sandpoint High because of the larger demand there,” Larson said. “The program was and still is open to all area students, including home school.”

From the beginning, the program was structured around two branches of aviation education. The first semester course illustrates the many careers within the field of aviation, including professional piloting, aircraft mechanics, aeronautical engineering and air traffic control. Guest speakers within aviation industries help bring this lesson alive by sharing their work and stories.

The second semester is something of a prep course for ground school, covering the topics any pilot-in-training will need to pass the Federal Aviation Administration knowledge exam required for private pilot or sports pilot licenses. Since a knowledge of basic aerodynamics, weather, navigation and regulations are all essential, the class is a valuable head-start for any student hoping to advance directly from high school into pilot training.

For students who opt to participate in the ACES high school club, the options broaden even more. The club features opportunities for flight training, and participants gain a deeper familiarity with the mechanics of small aircraft. Indeed, club members are doing nothing less than building their own airplane, a Zenith Zodiac CH610XL. Already more than 80 percent complete, the airplane needs a few more parts before it’s functional. Larson and club members hope money for the remaining parts will be raised during Idaho Gives fundraising, which takes place Thursday, May 5. Another long-term means of assisting the program and club is set up through Amazon Smile. Simply find the organization—North Idaho High School Aerospace Program, Inc.—on smile.amazon.com and choose it as your beneficiary. This will give the organization a portion of every Amazon purchase you make.

Another natural expansion for Sandpoint aviation students is PTECH. Designed as a educational pathway to integrate high school students directly into jobs, PTECH offers professional training into aviation-related fields.

“I think we’ll be working more closely with them, as well as local industry businesses such as Aerocet, Quest and Tamarack,” Larson said.

It’s hard to overstate the motivation and drive that the aviation program has inspired in many of its students. For former student Sam Stocking, who moved to Sandpoint High School in his senior year largely because of the aviation program, it helped define his educational goals.

“If a student is interested in aviation or just doesn’t know what they want to do, the aviation program is a great stepping stone,” said Stocking.

Maggie Kirscher similarly benefited from the generosity of the aviation community after discovering her love of flying. While official aviation classes and flight clubs had not yet been set up when she was in school, she decided to  job-shadow Larson on her own. The experience in part demonstrated a need for a complete high school aviation program.

“To have this at the high school—it’s going to change lives,” she said.

It’s easy to see why the joy of flight, born at the first thrilling take-off, provides young men and women with the motivation to learn. There’s something special about the experience, and for those natural-born pilots who don’t know it yet, it could be just the answer they’re seeking.

“My experience with most students has been tremendously rewarding for me as we see them maturing and focusing on positive things in life,” Larson said. “A great moment, as well, is when a mother thanks us for what we have been able to show her son or daughter.”

For more information, check out www.highschoolaerospace.org.

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