The sky's the limit for 32 students interested in aviation.
Thanks to a $60,000 grant procured by the South Florida Workforce Investment Board (SFWIB), the pupils, from the ninth through 11th grades, are prepping up to spend their March break participating in the National Flight Academy's Explore Ambition Program, located at Naval Air Station, Pensacola.
"Basically, they've built a simulated aircraft carrier inside of a hangar up there," said Key West High School Aviation Club member Caleb Hiller. "It's got a control tower, mess hall and all the other things a real carrier would have. We get to act as controllers and pilots, performing missions, and testing their new systems. One of the simulated planes we're going to be flying is still in the design stage, and hasn't been built yet, so that's going to be really interesting."
Hiller is an 11th grader, who is already certified as a solo pilot. He'd like to one day fly for the Navy or Air Force, and eventually become a commercial pilot, having developed a love of flying while hanging around the airport when he was a child, with his dad.
The other 31 students traveling to Pensacola with Hiller from March 24 to 29, all had to meet the same criteria, with at least a 2.5 Grade Point Average, fewer than five absences from school, (unless those pupils had been hospitalized,) as well as several other qualifications.
"First and foremost, the students have to have an interest in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] education," said Monroe County School District Secondary Education Supervisor Camilla Burton, who has helped area high school students apply to the program. "We wanted to open it up to a well-rounded group, and not just our high achievers. This is workforce training, after all. However, we did want the participants to be kids who showed responsibility."
The program, which is already in place in Miami-Dade County, was brought to the Keys by SFWIB Executive Director Rick Beasley, and his board member Don Lanman, who serves as a senior vice president and marketing director of First State Bank of the Florida Keys.
Thinking the program was a good idea, and one that could fly in Monroe County, the pair set about securing funding to bring it here. They pitched the idea to Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter, and District Director of Teaching and Learning, Theresa Axford, who alerted Burton to the project.
"When Rick and Don brought this to us, my biggest concern was that I didn't want it to be a one-time wonder, I wanted it to become a sustainable program," Burton said. "And that's what we're hoping to do. We've been searching for a while for ways to build STEM programs in our schools. I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to grab ahold of a sustainable program."
At press time, there were still openings for 18 students. Anyone wishing to take part in the program should call Camilla Burton at 305-293-1400, ext. 53365.