Six years ago, when she was assistant superintendent at Ada Public Schools, Paula Kedy went to a conference and decided to field test a new curriculum for high school students: Aviation.
Hers was the first school in Oklahoma to jump into the four-year course – but not the last. Today, Kedy is the aviation education program coordinator for the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission and she’s a gung-ho advocate of teaching kids all aspects of flying, whether traditional aircraft or drones. These days, 57 high schools in Oklahoma are teaching aviation – more than any other state in the country – and double the number Oklahoma had last year.
In Ada, which has the longest record in Oklahoma, at least three former students are on path to become commercial pilots and a fourth is at the U.S. Air Force Academy – pursuing careers that likely would have escaped notice had it not been for “You Can Fly” program designed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA.
The program is offered at schools both large and small, and this year it is being offered in Pawhuska. For the Osage Nation, the class fits in nicely with Skyway36, the droneport the tribe is developing at the former Tulsa Downtown Airpark. It also complements the city of Pawhuska’s plans to expand its municipal airport, extending the runway from 3,200 feet to 4,000 and ultimately to 5,000, said Hank Benson, the chair of the airport advisory committee.
Among the plans that are forming as the airport and classes expand: To have a hangar at the airport for use by students from participating Osage County schools for learning aircraft maintenance.
Last month, Kedy, Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission Director Grayson Ardies, Osage Nation Education Director Mary Wildcat and representatives from several schools, the Charles W. Harris Foundation – which is helping install a fueling system at the airport and whose founder grew up in Pawhuska – and others met in Pawhuska to discuss the expansion of both the airport and educational opportunities in the Osage.
Benson said that schools are key to cultivating a new generation of aviators, drone pilots and mechanics. While the class at Pawhuska High School is a start, he sees a larger campaign, starting in elementary school with paper airplanes, visits to the airport to learn about the crop dusters that base their operations there, and field trips to the Cessna Aircraft factory in Independence, Kan.
Teacher needed for next year
For now, the aviation curriculum is being spearheaded by Micah Hall, an adventurous Pawhuska native who has been at the cutting edge of robotics and other Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education in Senegal and the Dominican Republic.
In his class, students learn every day about aviation basics but on Fridays, they engage in hands-on learning. On one recent Friday, the task was to use the downdraft from a drone’s rotors to guide a ball like a ping-pong ball from one end of the classroom into a dustpan at the other end. Drone golf, essentially.
“This,” said Wyatt Bayro (Osage) as he sent the ball to no-man’s land behind a stack of lumber, “is a lot harder than it seems.”
“Round 2, no score,” retorted Hall, the son of former District Attorney Bill Hall of Bartlesville and Patricia Jordan of Nelagoney, who leads the first STEM program at the school and also teaches Spanish.
Hall wasn’t planning on returning to his alma mater to teach but wound up there for a year; he intended on teaching in Bamako, Mali, but discovered he had cancer during physical exams for that school and decided to stay in the United States for treatment, which he has now successfully completed. (Which means he’s taking off for far-flung places again, perhaps for Mozambique, Jamaica or Switzerland.)
The first year of the aviation class can be a wee heavy on PowerPoint presentations, Hall said, but he tries to lighten those days up with the hands-on fly-day Fridays.
Kedy said that the first-year concentrates on the foundation of flight: History, weather, safey, forces of flight. “They do learn a little bit about parts of the plane and that kind of thing,” she added.
“But they also have 19 hands-on labs in Year One. One of them is building a hot-air balloon. Using big foam boards to design an airport laying, and stuff with aerodynamics.”
“I could do it all day long.”
The aviation class isn’t for everybody, but for students like Bayro, a sophomore, it’s life-changing. He, like other students, flew over Osage County with Hervé Merchadier, a local pilot. Asked if he wanted to be a firefighter like his dad Mike Bayro, Wyatt was steadfast. “Noooooo!” he said. After high school, he wants to pursue aviation in some form, he’s just not sure exactly what. He does know that when he takes to the skies in the $10,000 flight simulator that the Osage Nation helped to buy for Pawhuska schools, or in a real airplane, he’s in his element.
“When I was in the air, we were up for over an hour, but it felt like 20 minutes,” Bayro said. “I could do it all day long.”
Hall noted that times have changed: In the past, pilots were expected to have a college degree and amass 1,500 hours of flight time. At $150 an hour, flight time gets expensive, which explains why many commercial pilots came out of the military.
These days, thanks in part to pilot shortages, high school graduates can bypass college and become pilots in about two years, some as cadets interning with airlines. Pilot pay is good: The median for an airline pilot is about $200,000 a year, but cargo pilots are also well paid: A UPS pilot, for instance, might make just $50,0000 in his or her first year but that rate shoots up to $312,000 the following year, according to several pilot forums and websites.