Inspiring Educators and the Next Generation of Aerospace Professionals

By Mike Straka

Among the numerous programs designed to encourage young people into aviation and aerospace careers, one stands out as innovative and exciting – the Teacher Flight Program at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver, Colorado. This article briefly recaps the history of how the program was developed and where it is today.

While family-, youth-, or child-oriented programs such as school field trips, airport days, career days, and flying club events are all popular and effective ways of getting young people out to the airport, perhaps none is more well-known nor has had as significant a nationwide impact on awakening a desire for aviation careers than the Young Eagles program, sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). And as it turns out, the Teacher Flight Program is a direct outgrowth of Young Eagles. In fact, the visionary person at EAA who came up with Young Eagles is the same one who initiated Teacher Flight: Greg Anderson.

Initially hired as the EAA’s Director of Development in 1983 just as it was about to move to Oshkosh, Mr. Anderson held several positions and eventually became Executive Vice President, a post he held for 12 years. During his twenty-plus years at EAA, Anderson helped to build its first museum and the other world-class facilities presently at Oshkosh. Perhaps his most significant achievement, and the one he’s most proud of, is establishing in 1992 the Young Eagles, which gives youth ages 8-17 their first free ride in an airplane. As a measure of its success, it was announced during EAA AirVenture 2016 that Young Eagles surpassed two million rides given in just over 25 years – an average of about 80,000 per year!

In December 2003, Anderson was appointed president and CEO of the Aviation & Space Center of the Rockies, the governing body of the Wings Over the Rockies. He served in that role until December 2016 and continues his active involvement as executive director of the capital campaign for the Exploration of Flight, the Wings’ expansion which recently broke ground on its hangar at Centennial Airport (APA).

While leading the museum and carrying out its mission to promote aviation and education, as well as satisfying his keen interest in encouraging young people toward aviation careers, Anderson thought of a new way to have an even greater impact. Reasoning that since teachers – educators – are in continuous contact with students throughout the school year, why not bring educators to the airport and give them free rides? They would then be able to serve as classroom ambassadors, generating excitement as they shared their flight through photos and videos. Teachers could also embed their experiences into lesson plans in science, math, and other subjects, making those subjects – and aviation – relevant in a very real way.

Wings launched this new strategy by taking aviation directly to the public through its “Spreading Wings Barnstorming Tour” in 2006. From August to October of that year, four aircraft flew together to 17 airports around Colorado, and at every one brought together community leaders, pilots, teachers, and elementary school students who participated in numerous aviation-related activities. Students and teachers alike benefited from talking directly with pilots about their flying careers and experiences, touring the aircraft, getting hands-on ground school classes, flying simulators, getting free rides, and attending airport open houses and film screenings. Young Eagles volunteers were also present to register new members on the spot. Community leaders learned first-hand about the value of their airports and the positive impact of not only aviation but also the education programs given.

More importantly, the tour was also the first step in generating a database of educators and volunteers who would then be supplied by Wings with an array of tools, resources, and training to provide supplemental aviation and aerospace education programs around the state.

Financial support for the tour and its follow-on education programs was provided by The Boeing Corporation, Jeppesen, and the Emil Buehler Trust. Logistical support came from the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics and the Colorado Airport Operators Association, along with volunteers from the Colorado Pilots Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and EAA.

The success of the tour, which involved four aircraft from a Boeing Stearman to an Adam A-500, was so impressive that in 2011 Wings rolled out a pilot program called the Teacher Flight Experience. Free rides were given to educators in an open-cockpit Boeing PT-17 Stearman, which the museum had acquired in 2010. The Stearman, donated by Wings member Michael Baldwin, had been restored in 1991 and was flown on the tour. During the restoration its 200-hp Continental engine was replaced with a 450-hp Pratt & Whitney R985 Wasp Junior engine, which makes the ride much more exciting for passengers, not to mention more challenging for ground handling by pilots.

The response of educators to the pilot program was so enthusiastic that it encouraged further development of the program, and in 2012 fifty rides were given to educators. In 2013 the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum Teacher Flight Program was officially launched as a stand-alone program of the Wings museum. It is funded by the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust, assuring its ongoing impact on aviation and education in Colorado.

As one of the most significant educational outreach initiatives ever undertaken, the program’s goal is to provide a free personal flight experience to one STEM teacher from every school along Colorado’s Front Range by 2020. That area encompasses 17 counties with 66 school districts and about 1,600 schools. Flights are conducted nearly every day during June and July, when educators are free from classroom duties. During the school year, flights are limited to weekends and of course are always dependent upon the weather, as well as scheduling of pilots and teachers. The program primarily uses the Stearman for its exhilarating open-cockpit flying, but also has a 2016 Cessna 182T currently on loan at no cost from Textron. Flights originate from a number of airports along the Front Range, including but not limited to Pueblo (PUB), Colorado Springs (COS), Centennial (APA), Fort Collins (FNL), and Greeley-Weld (GXY).