By Diane Bos Schwarz
What do you get when you combine 49 6th-12th grade students, airplanes, drones, rockets, pilots, speakers, and classes? At the LaPorte Municipal Airport (KPPO) in Indiana, you get Aviation Camp.
Three years ago, the idea of a camp to inspire and educate students about aviation was launched as a test program. Within 10 days of handing out a few registration forms in the community, 17 students in 6th to 8th grades were registered.
That initial three-day camp included a flight, a “behind the scenes tour” and classes taught by the Kalamazoo Air Zoo.
It was an enormous success, and has now expanded to five days, includes both morning and afternoon sessions, and is open to high school students as well as middle school.
The flights are given by local pilots, who spend about 45 minutes with two to three students at a time, explaining their plane, showing them a pre-flight, answering their questions, and then they’re loaded in, buckled up, and off for a 15 to 20 minute flight.
For most students, this is their first flight in a small plane. Without fail, they are all smiles and excitement about their flight and usually consider this the highlight of their camp experience.
Camp has evolved from one class of 17 students, to four classes of 49 students. Classes are taught by local aviation experts and involve topics such as drones, powered parachutes, aerodynamics, and space exploration.
Experts such as a medical helicopter pilot, flight attendant, airline pilot, and Civil Air Patrol volunteer share their experiences. One speaker told about her 30-day race around the world. A pilot who races at Reno came and completely captivated the students with stories of his experiences.
And now, instead of the Kalamazoo Air Zoo coming here, the airport charters buses and brings students and chaperones to the Zoo for a day of tours and more classes.
In addition, a “Community Aviation Night” capped off camp on Friday night. The airport’s apron was full of airplanes and helicopters. Booths were set up from organizations such as the Army (who showed up with a Blackhawk), a flight school, 99’s, Civil Air Patrol, and more.
The highlight of the evening was a presentation by General Dan Cherry, a retired F-4 Phantom pilot who told his story, “My Enemy, My Friend,” which involves his 1972 dogfight with a MiG-21 during Vietnam, and his meeting and subsequent friendship with the MiG pilot 36 years later.
One might assume the cost for students to attend camp is expensive. However, through the generosity of private and corporate sponsors, and because the airport board is committed to making this camp affordable to all students, each student pays only $50.
It’s impossible to know how many of these students will become future aviators, but the excitement level is undeniable. Out of the 49 students enrolled this year, 17 were repeat students from prior years.
Nearly every student expressed the desire to come back next year. There is already a wait list of a dozen students whose registration forms arrived after camp was full.
Comments received from parents and students include: “My son says this is the best thing he did all summer,” “my daughter didn’t want to come to camp but now wants a career in aviation,” “how old do I have to be to take lessons,” “we were at the edge of our seats listening to General Cherry,” “my dental hygienist told me her son attended your aviation camp – how do I sign my child up?” and — the best of all — “when is adult aviation camp?”
The answer to that last question is still in the works.