A California educator and pilot wants to transform traditional high school curriculum by making “aviation as commonplace as algebra and history.” The idea of combining principles of aviation with conventional classroom learning occurred to Santa Barbara-based social studies teacher Dan Mikkelsen during a field trip to a general aviation airport.
The look of awe and inspiration on his students’ faces as they experienced their first flight in a GA aircraft motivated Mikkelsen to found Giving Kids Wings Flight Academy. The program began in 2009 and is a seven- to nine-day residential aviation camp that covers the basics of aviation. The academy’s missions are to alert minority groups to aerospace careers they might not normally consider, and to help fulfill a shortage of professional pilots and aircraft mechanics.
In July, Boeing predicted a strong demand for aviation industry jobs during the next 20 years; the aerospace giant forecast the need for 637,000 commercial aircraft pilots and 648,000 technicians.
In Giving Kids Wings classrooms, students first learn about principles of flight, how to read aeronautical charts, and aviation regulations. The next step of the academy places students in the cockpit of sailplanes where they augment book knowledge with practical flight experience while building hours toward a soaring certificate at substantially reduced costs compared to motorized flight. Santa Barbara Soaring provides staff and aircraft resources for the glider-based training initiative.
“All of our kids get a first flight lesson for free,” Mikkelsen explained. “For kids that come from families of lesser means, renting a glider for $30 or $40 an hour goes a lot further than a powered aircraft at $100 to $150 an hour. We typically start kids on gliders at age 14 and it’s a very beneficial learning experience.” He noted that glider time “counts as ATP [airline transport pilot certificate] minimums” and can further reduce the costs for families that are financially strapped.
The program began with one student and quickly expanded to three, then six, and now 44 students in various stages of the flight program. Campers “literally live, eat, and drink aviation,” said Mikkelsen. “They fly five or more flights per day, then go home to sleep, and do it all over again.” Some parents carpool to share expenses while others “sort of combine it as a family vacation.” Parents typically meet their children at the airport for lunch and then go their separate ways until the day’s flying is finished.
Emma Hall, one of the program’s first two female students, wrote on a blog that she “finally discovered my passion for flight, and desperately wanted to know more.” She soloed a glider in 2016 and now has her sights set on entering the U.S. Air Force Academy. Hall said the youth aviation program changed her life forever. “The feeling when you are up in the air is a great one and I want to experience it again,” she wrote. Giving Kids Wings student Melvin Mateo completed the glider program, went on to earn his private pilot certificate, and recently added an instrument rating. He is currently enrolled at Santa Monica College.
The public-school teacher began his own flying lessons about nine years ago and worked through multiengine, commercial, and advanced ground instructor ratings and certificates.
“My goal is to build the hub of a wheel connecting its spokes to the public-school community and the professional aviation community in such a way that the money donated to this program will go as far as possible,” he explained. Mikkelsen said he hopes to one day “have hundreds of kids enroll” in the California academy so he can demonstrate how the program could be expanded across the United States.
Da Vinci Science High School Principal Steve Walls, in El Segundo, said the flight academy was a “fantastic program” and praised “its tremendous leader Dan, and the awesome kids who participate in it.”
Mikkelsen admitted that “getting school districts on board has been the biggest challenge to date.” His said his vision for incorporating aviation concepts into topics covered by a “typical earth science teacher” has far-reaching potential.
“The scale of future opportunities is mind boggling” when one considers the scope of aviation careers on the horizon combined with a projected shortfall of qualified applicants, explained Mikkelsen. “Even running at peak capacity, we’re just not going to keep up. The numbers that we are dealing with—it’s clear that we need a lower cost, broader reach program,” to sustain expected openings in the aviation sector. “Glider training is just the start.”