Closer Look

Taking to the skies

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Dan Finnerty

In six simulator cockpits, students can take off, fly, and land a plane within a realistic environment complete with gages, runways, and aeronautical settings. After a year and a half of hosting an extracurricular aviation “club,” Franklin High School (FHS) began its own formal curriculum this past September. The FHS Aviation Academy, as it is known to teachers and students, was made possible by Career and Technical Education (CTE) Director Colleen Strickland. She helped to create a partnership with Macon County Airport Authority and the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association (AOPA). 

The two primary instructors for the course are Kevin Strickland and Scott Hanna. Strickland brings many years of teaching experience to the new program, while Hanna previously taught a similar class in Hayesville before joining the team at FHS. Students are permitted to fly solo at 16 years old, assuming other prerequisites have been attained. Several of Hanna’s previous Hayesville students now have their personal pilot’s license.

Kevin Strickland and Scott Hanna are teaching the Franklin High School Aviation Academy.

Out of 32,000 U.S. high schools, there are less than 500 with the same or similar programs found in Franklin. FHS is only the second public school in North Carolina having the aviation course available to students. The course uses an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) strategic tools program for fully comprehending this tough and engaging curriculum. AVID is a worldwide program that is designed to prepare students for post-secondary education. It also teaches students proper organizational skills, efficient study habits, and how to collaborate in different group settings. 

FHS’ program includes a traditional classroom and a six-station simulator room, complete with state-of-the-art computer presentations that provide a near-real piloting experience. Using Google Earth (GE) overlays, the 26 students currently enrolled in the program can virtually take off, fly, and land a small engine aircraft. GE provides mapping that allows student pilots to view real area topology, including airports and even flying over their own homes with a view of where they live. 

Each state-of-the-art simulator offered at Franklin High School in its Aviation Academy costs about $5,000 and provides students a realistic flying environment.

The class recently took a field trip to the Franklin Airport, where according to Hanna, “We take some of the kids flying, as long as they have ‘earned’ the privilege.” In response to the attention the new simulator room has garnered, he also quipped, “Wish I had a dollar for every time I hear ‘we didn’t have this technology when I was in school.’”

In the classroom, Strickland teaches students computer science and aviation. Using AOPA-designed curriculum, he prepares students for time in a simulator chair. Students learn aviation and college preparation skills using interactive notebooks and study guides. With online resources, there are two study options students can utilize to prepare for final unit testing. 

Earlier this year, the Franklin High School Aviation program, with its own classrooms and six simulators, became a fully accredited course available to students.

Strickland pointed out, “One of the good things about the AOPA curriculum is unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones. I stress in Computer Science that simulators are great but they aren’t reality; there’s only so much you can do – that’s why we take [students] to the airport so they are prepared for simulations and projects.”

The students learn about how to deal with turbulence and airspeeds, along with many other aspects of aviation that pilots must encounter and overcome. “We have a point system, so students have to earn the right to fly actual planes at the airport by maintaining top-of-the-class status,” Strickland emphasized. The instructors periodically reset the point system to allow students another shot at achieving the opportunity to fly real planes. 

Macon County Airport Authority has supported the FHS program by permitting discovery flights, discounted rates for usage of aircraft, and facilities for field trips. 

“We currently have 26 students this semester and are on track to double that number next semester,” concluded Strickland. When students complete the program, they have the opportunity to take a written examination to obtain their Private Pilot Certificate.

This past July, Strickland and Hanna attended professional development training in Baltimore, Md., at the AOPA headquarters. During the training, they received access to curriculum consisting of two aviation science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) CTE pathways named Pilot and Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Each pathway is four years and both are currently being taught at FHS as part of its aviation academy. The curriculum is available at no cost to the district, courtesy of grant funding achieved by the CTE leadership team of Colleen Strickland and FHS teacher and coach, Josh Brooks. 

Aviation-focused college scholarships are often available to high school aviation students. “For girls, scholarships are more plentiful because colleges are really trying to get females involved [in aviation],” conveyed Hanna.”

At FHS, the overall aviation course consists of three semesters (Aviation 101, 201, and 301), using a syllabus developed by the AOPA. After successful completion of all three units, students are eligible to take a Federal Aviation Administration-written and recognized exam. 

“Hopefully they’ll be very proficient at flying simulators, which means they should be equally proficient at flying an airplane,” added Hanna. 

A highlight of Hanna’s tenure at Hayesville High School was his students taking first place in a General Aviation Manufacturers Association-sponsored contest in 2019. Students were tasked during an exercise with flying from Seattle-Tacoma, Wash., airport – where the Boeing Company is based – to a smaller one on the back side of Mount Ranier, using three main criteria: how fast they could do it; how much fuel was used (minimum); and, how much weight could be carried (maximum). With opportunities to manipulate all three in a realistic fashion, Hayesville’s high school team won – over a Boeing Field (in Seattle, Wash.) high school class. The prize was an all-expense paid trip to Seattle to spend two weeks building an airplane, alongside Boeing Company personnel.

Given the interest and investment in the FHS Aviation Academy, the sky’s the limit for their participating students.