Not your average math, science camp

Not your average math, science camp

May 20, 2014


It’s like living inside a video game.

The National Flight Academy opened in May 2012 and has served 2,000 students from 40 states and three foreign countries with their six-day deployment for students in grades 7-12 each summer. Participants, called AMBITION Experimental Pilots or AXPs, live in the 102,000-square-foot facility while experiencing hands-on virtual reality gaming using advanced technology including flight simulators.

Called the USS AMBITION and located on NAS Pensacola, the building is designed to simulate a modern aircraft carrier. View it through a virtual tour.

Sleeping quarters include rooms for either six boys or girls where they each have a bunk, closet space and a desk.

Students immediately notice the environment is different from anything they have ever experienced, says Lt. Gen. Duane D. Thiessen, CEO and president. “Everything — the looks, the sounds, even the smells — are like you are on a ship.” Vision outside the building is restricted, so it appears that you are at sea.

The AXPs are given challenges to overcome, as well as the tools and knowledge to meet those tasks, he says. They’re also provided technology that can only be described as amazing.

“There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world,” Thiessen says. “We have interactive planning and charting tables that are 6.3-feet by 4-feet; there are only three of them in the world and we have all three.”

Students have access to dedicated internet-enabled workstations, large-screen static and digitally interactive status boards, the latest in Smart Technologies whiteboards and more.

Students wear squadron shirts and instructors are dressed in flight suits.  “When they board the carrier, they become the actors … and plan, control and execute missions in real time,” Thiessen says. “It’s like living in a video game.”

Their average day goes from 6:30 a.m. to lights out at 11 p.m., says Karen Sindel, vice president of NFA development. All activities are done in their pre-determined squadrons of 12, and throughout the day, the AXPs could be doing briefings or debriefings, flying humanitarian or reconnaissance missions, researching and more.

A mission, for example, could include how their squadron would get water to a disabled cruise ship with 2,300 people onboard, she says. The AXPs would need to do research and determine how much water one person needs per day, how much the water would weigh, how much fuel they need to take the water to the cruise ship and return to AMBITION, how weather would impact their trip, etc.

When first arriving at AMBITION, campers are immediately immersed in the experience of boarding an actual aircraft carrier.

Squadrons are divided by age, and work together as teams, Sindel says. Juniors and seniors in high school can earn college credit for completing the program. Full scholarships are also available.

While parents may like the fact that their children are learning, the students look at it another way. “It’s like they are living in a high-energy video game,” Thiessen says. “They are in charge, and can orchestrate and control what happens. They create their own destiny and every single time it is different.”

Students are given the opportunity to take charge as the Watch Captain and Tactical Coordinator, helping their fellow squadron-mates command and control virtual aircraft flown by their peers in up to 30 networked flight simulators.