Ready for Take-Off: Teens Pilot Airplanes in New York City

Studio 360
Two students practice a take-off. Photo by Ariel Zych

“Now he has to try to land without hitting the GW Bridge; here comes the GW Bridge in front of him…Straighten out! Straighten out! Don’t hit the GW Bridge! Save the passengers!”

That’s what one 9th grader heard as he tried to pilot his passengers to safety aboard US Airways Flight 1549. It was a dramatic end to a January morning spent with Mr. Henry Rey’s aeronautics class at Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City.

For several hours, I had been watching teens like this one using flight simulation software to pilot commercial airliners over Manhattan and Queens. (If US Airways Flight 1549 rings a bell, that’s the one that Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed safely on the Hudson River after a flock of geese impaired its engines.) The students were divided into pairs: One monitored the radio, speed, and orientation of his or her aircraft, while the other provided guidance on how best to craft a descent into LaGuardia National Airport.

Each simulator setup consists of a large monitor display of a cockpit and a pilot’s chair seated in front of a radio console, alongside a throttle, yoke, and rudder. The simulators were running Prepar3D, an open flight simulation software package used to train commercial and military pilots and created by defense contractor giant Lockheed Martin. 

No part of this class is tied to the U.S. Military, or to commercial airlines like Delta, Southwest, or United Airlines. Instead, the students were completing flight missions as part of a unit on atmospheric layers and weather. Students had recently finished a study of how pressure and temperature change with altitude, and how those conditions relate to the ideal cruising altitudes and flight paths of various aircraft.

Most of the topics addressed in Mr. Rey’s class are routine in physical science and algebra classes, and could be taught without fancy flight simulators. But time spent on the devices reinforces certain lessons and also adds a fun incentive for completing assignments in a largely self-paced classroom. As students complete work and become more accomplished pilots, they get to design missions for novice peers and try their hand at piloting famously perilous flights of years past, like US Airways Flight 1549. Mr. Rey uses this innovative combination of STEM content and flight school to target students who are on track to graduate, but who haven’t been bitten by the STEM bug.

What really pulls students into classwork and gets them white-knuckling the simulator throttle is a much bigger prize—the promise of piloting a real plane. Class leaders are rewarded with logging actual flight time with Mr. Rey, who in addition to being a high school teacher is also a certified flight instructor. At the end of the school year, students who have distinguished themselves on the simulator are invited to fly a real plane under Mr. Rey’s instruction. “Any student here can tell you how many hours they’ve flown, or what they need to do in order to be able to fly,” Rey said. Warren, a sophomore who had been instructing a student in front of me, quickly volunteered his flight time from last school year: 6.2 hours. (He’s still got a long way to go: Federal aviation regulations require a minimum of 40 hours of flight time for a private pilot certificate.) 

Nadia, meanwhile, logged her first three hours of real flight in an experimental Lancer while sharing the cockpit with the man who built it. Describing the experience, Nadia, 18, was all smiles. “It was my first time being in an airplane and flying it, so I thought at first I would be scared, but I wasn’t,” she said. Nadia was first introduced to the simulators in the academy’s afterschool “flight club,” a not-for-credit option that gives students a chance to dip their toes into piloting. After taking Mr. Rey’s course and spending most of her free periods in the lab, her transition to the real deal was fairly effortless. “On the simulators, they have different types of aircraft, and they have the same type of aircraft that I was in,” she said. “It wasn’t all that different.” But there was one notable exception: sensitivity. “When I was actually turning [the plane], just a small adjustment would turn it more than I expected. At that point, I was a little more nervous,” she said. “Just a little.”

It’s unusual for a public school to offer a STEM program rolled into a flight course. Most schools don’t have teachers who moonlight as flight instructors, and finding administrative and financial support to train teachers in the simulation software poses a challenge. The cost of the simulators alone can present a significant barrier, with different models costing between $3,000 and $5,000 apiece.

At Frederick Douglass Academy, simulators were provided for free by HotSeat Chassis Inc., the company that makes them. Its CEO, Jay Leboff, has been marketing the simulators to other schools and districts for use as STEM labs or for afterschool flight clubs.

Rey and Leboff are collaboratively developing a curriculum that incorporates the simulators into instruction aligned with the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Rey, however, was quick to point out that the benefits of flight training in the classroom extend beyond pure STEM knowledge. “Basically, this is a confidence builder,” he said. “Many of the students say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ Then we say, ‘Yes, you can, and we’ll prove it to you.”

Related Links:

Frederick Douglass Academy School Webpage

HotSeat Chassis Inc. Flight Simulators

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)

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