A Summer of Inspiration

University of North Dakota camp sparks imaginations

August 1, 1997

For most of us, the words summer camp bring back images of lazing around a lakeside dock, canoe and archery lessons, campfires, and nature crafts. But for teenagers who attend the University of North Dakota's version of summer camp, those words will bring back some distinctly different memories.

Instead of nature crafts, they will remember building and launching model rockets. Instead of hiking trips, they will recall their tours of airline and air traffic control facilities. They will have no idea how to paddle a canoe, but they will have flown three different airplanes and a helicopter. In short, they will have spent two weeks sampling a buffet banquet of aviation, from simulators and models to actual flight.

The University of North Dakota (UND), which has a strong aerospace sciences program, has been running an aviation summer camp at its campus in Grand Forks, North Dakota, for the past 14 years. Each summer the university runs two 10-day programs, with up to 32 campers in a session. The teenagers stay in residential dorms and are supervised by counselors picked from the university's undergraduate aviation program.

According to the current camp director, Ken Polovitz, the idea for the camp sprang from the general aviation slump of the early 1980s. "We looked at it as a way to generate interest in aviation among young people," he explains. The camp has evolved some over the past decade, but the need to inspire new pilots is still the same. "I am fearful for aviation," Polovitz admits, "because the romanticism of it is disappearing for many young people. I see this as my little corner where I can make a small difference."

Indeed, the number one goal of the camp organizers is to show campers that aviation can be not just a career, but an adventure — and a whole lot of fun. "About a third of our campers are teenagers who want to be airline pilots," Polovitz says, "but that's partly because they don't know about any other types of aviation. Part of what this camp is intended to do is to show them some other options."

UND accomplishes this goal by immersing its campers in an intense schedule of activities, both in classrooms and on the flightline. There are presentations on what makes an airplane or helicopter fly, obtaining and interpreting weather information, aerobatics, instrument flying, corporate aircraft operations, aviation history, and flight physiology. But the main focus of the camp is giving teenagers an opportunity to see and experience some of the many aspects of aviation firsthand.

On one day, for example, the campers travel to the Winnepeg International Airport in Canada. They go through the Air Canada base there, get an orientation to an Airbus A320 cockpit, and tour the airport facilities, including Customs, the crisis control room, and airport security. Following that, the campers visit the Western Canada Aviation Museum. On another day, they go to a U. S. Air Force base, where they might try out an F-16 procedural simulator or tour a KC-135 Stratotanker.

Back at UND, campers get the chance to try out being an air traffic controller with the university's "virtual controller" simulator. They also get time in a Frasca 241 single-engine airplane simulator, in addition to desktop practice with an Elite flight simulator program. There is nighttime stargazing through the university's space studies telescope and a chance for the campers to videotape their own A.M. Weather-type television show at the UND regional weather station.

But the undisputed highlight of the camp is the opportunity to fly. Over the course of 10 days campers sample four different types of flying: basic single-engine flying in a Piper Cadet, tailwheel flying in a Piper Cub, aerobatics in a Bellanca Decathlon, and helicopter flying in either an Aerospatiale AStar or a Bell JetRanger.

Prior to their dual instruction in the air, campers get classroom orientation to each aircraft and, in the case of the Cadet, practice time in a simulator, as well. The Cadet and the helicopter flights also allow two "observers" to fly along, so campers can learn from the experience of others before trying the controls themselves. Not counting observer flights, each camper logs about half an hour of flight time in each aircraft. It's not enough time for anything beyond basic familiarization, but it gives the campers a taste of what small airplane flying is all about.

Since the program accepts teenagers ages 14 to 16, some of the campers already have some flight time logged by the time they attend the camp. "If the CFIs know a kid has flown before, they'll adjust the lesson," says camp counselor Molly Boss. Boss was a camper in the program 5 years ago and is now an aviation student at UND. Polovitz estimates that 10 percent of the campers go on to pursue an aviation degree at the university.

"A third of our campers are already airplane crazy and are serious about pursuing an aviation career," Polovitz says. "Another third are testing the waters, and the rest are here because their parents wanted them to come." But Boss is quick to add that no matter how they feel when they arrive, all the campers leave having had a great time.

A quick survey of one group of campers supports Boss's statement. It also provides an interesting window on what inspires teenagers to want to fly. Laila Osgood, one of only three female campers in a group of 23, laughs as she admits that her interest in aviation came from a cartoon. "I saw Tailspin when I was 9 and decided that I wanted to be a pilot," she says. Erik Screeden got the bug from watching the movie Memphis Belle. "I liked airplanes before, but that movie made me obsessed with them," he says.

Not all the inspiration came from the media, of course. Numerous campers had relatives who were pilots or had wanted to fly since they first discovered what an airplane was. A couple were encouraged by parents who had wanted to fly but had never managed to pursue the dream for themselves. "My dad dreamed of being a pilot since he was little," explains 14-year-old Cheryl Dale, "but he didn't ever do it. My parents wanted me to come to this camp to learn more about flying and see if it's something I'd like to do. If I like it, they said I could look into it more."

Some campers, surprisingly, are already focused on a career goal. Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart says she decided she wanted to go into airport management when she was a kid. "My parents traveled around the world a lot, so I got to see a lot of airports," she explains. "I noticed how congested the airports were, and I decided I needed to do something about it. But I want to learn to fly, too, so I'll know what people are talking about when they're having trouble landing."

Yet no matter what their inspiration or background, the teenagers are unanimously enthusiastic about the camp — especially the flying. "My favorite part was the Decathlon flight," Dale says. "It was like riding a roller coaster through the sky." For 16-year-old Brad Dyrstad, the camp gave him his first opportunity to log flight time, despite the fact that his father is an airline captain and the family owns three airplanes. "My dad's not an instructor, so the big appeal of the camp to me was the chance to fly," he explains.

In the process, the teenagers found their eyes opened to aspects of aviation they had never considered before. "I've wanted to fly since I was 2," says 15-year-old Jeff Bradford. "But this has made me think of going a civilian route instead of going into the military."

The camp also gave the teenagers a glimpse into some of the side benefits of flying small airplanes. "We flew to Boscobel, Wisconsin, and they gave us a car to drive [when we got] there!" Dyrstad says with amazement. "It was a Yugo. But still, it was a car." Sometimes we forget some of the strongest selling points of general aviation — that beyond the machinery, there is a community among pilots that provides a kind of hospitality and support that is missing in many corners of our modern society. Dyrstad is not sure that he wants a career in aviation but says that the camp has made him "a lot more interested in learning to fly."

All these experiences come at a price, of course. The 10-day camp program costs $995, including room, board, and all activities. Not cheap, but as counselor Susan Bailey points out, "Aside from all the other activities, these kids leave camp having flown four different types of aircraft. That's more than I've done in 2 years of a college aviation program!"

The campers come from all over the country, and their interest and knowledge of aviation varies widely. But they all leave with a better understanding of what flying can be like and perhaps with a spark of inspiration that will stay with them. They will not all pursue aviation careers; not all will learn how to fly. But the camp gives teenagers an opportunity to funnel their restless energy and enthusiasm into sampling and exploring the world of flight.

At the very least, the camp offers a fun experience for teenagers who undoubtedly will be more supportive of aviation as adults. In some cases, it may show them career paths they might not have considered before. But the real payoff for the camp organizers is knowing that for at least a few teenagers each summer, the camp may open a door to a career, and fuel a passion that will inspire them for the rest of their lives.


To obtain a brochure and registration materials for the UND International Aerospace Camp, contact Ken Polovitz at 800/258-1525 or via e-mail at polovitz@aero.und.nodak.edu.