A fighter pilot, call sign Christopher, is streaking across the sky on a desperate mission to save mankind. What had started as a routine training flight in his jet quickly became much more when an unidentified flying object suddenly appeared ahead.
Christopher, whom we should probably describe as a “low-time” fighter pilot, gave chase.
“It took over CA. Oops! But at least I knew how to fly,” he wrote in his report of the incident.
If things didn’t turn out too well for California, the chase flight was a highlight of a week Christopher, a New York City middle schooler, spent immersed in flight and related activities at an AOPA Foundation-funded aviation camp held during the mid-winter school recess in February. During five days in camp Christopher designed and flew a rocket; experienced the spatially disorienting effects of inversion goggles; and piloted a glider, a helicopter, an Airbus—and yes, the fighter—on a variety of simulator missions.
Each weekday of the winter recess, 36 students from a middle school in the southeast Bronx and another in lower Manhattan passed through their portal into the world of aviation at the New York City Center for Space Science Education, a six-year-old education destination that provides hands-on space and aviation science lessons that apply concepts learned in the classroom.
The opportunity for the students to try out aviation from a pilot’s perspective was provided by a new Aviation and Space Camp run by Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth, an organization founded in 2013 to promote healthy lifestyles, advance leadership and life skills, and uphold diversity among young adults.
The winter aviation camp proposal was a recipient of $10,000 from a 2015 grant under the AOPA Foundation’s Giving Back program. Each day’s aviation activities were followed by a session of physical activity in a fully equipped school gym and yard.
Many of the campers selected by their schools to participate would not have been able to afford a private aviation camp without the AOPA Foundation’s financial assistance. The camp experience is designed to send the message that “the world of aviation is within their grasp too,” says the Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth organization in its description of the camp program. Middle school is “the perfect time to inspire, bring out, and nurture their piloting dreams,” it adds.
The aviation camp presented computer-based projects along with lessons using the center’s flight simulators and wind tunnel demonstrations—all striving to “infuse the students with the understanding that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math education) is not something that is beyond their capacity,” said Zohar Ris, a NYCCSSE flight director and astronomy and astrophysics educator who worked with the students.
The overview of what it takes for the students to become pilots is intended to “spark them to keep motivated throughout the high school years, which is when they will really choose most of their direction,” he said.
If essays written by the students at the completion of their camp week are any indication, the camp produced the desired spark.
“As a result of the camp my interest may change to do something involved with space,” wrote a student named Daniel, who found inspiration when his team’s rocket “went the furthest” on the first launch.
Earning a pilot certificate with an instrument rating some day doesn’t seem out of the question for a student named Casandra. She wrote that the simulator confirmed ideas she already held about what flying was like. Casandra recalled keeping her cool when the tricky inversion goggles turned her world around.
“For the first few seconds it was confusing but I figured out quickly which directions were switched and got used to it,” she wrote.
Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth expressed the hope in its grant application that AOPA’s support of the inaugural aviation and space camp might help establish a model program for the city’s Department of Education to “perpetuate and replicate” with additional private-sector support.
“This experiment of our first aerospace camp for this cohort of middle school students, including students from very low income, impoverished families was a smashing success,” said Alan J. Gerson, the organization’s president and the son of Sophie Gerson, in an email. “They learned and over the course of the week demonstrated improvement in both individual initiative and team work. Many said that they might want to grow up to become a pilot—and all left with knowledge of what the aerospace field has to offer and a deeper understanding of that part of our world.”
Sophie Gerson was an educator who dedicated a 36-year career to teaching physical education and health in New York City public junior high schools and “pioneering increased physical education; equality for girls in athletics; expanded school based health services; anti-smoking efforts; anti-drug abuse efforts and the City’s first Family Living (sex education) curriculum,” her son wrote in a retrospective that appears on the organization’s website.