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Wright Flight helps students stay on course

Tech. Sgt. Victoria Lacey shows a fourth-grade student the parachute simulator at the 162nd Operations Group. The tour, organized for the Wright Flight program, showed local school kids several examples of jobs found in the Air National Guard. (Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

Tech. Sgt. Victoria Lacey shows a fourth-grade student the parachute simulator at the 162nd Operations Group. The tour, organized for the Wright Flight program, showed local school kids several examples of jobs found in the Air National Guard. (Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

Wright Flight students watch a fire truck demonstration at the 162nd Fighter Wing firehouse. The tour showed local school kids several examples of jobs found in the Air National Guard. (Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

Wright Flight students watch a fire truck demonstration at the 162nd Fighter Wing firehouse. The tour showed local school kids several examples of jobs found in the Air National Guard. (Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- "What's that thing? Is it a bomb?" asked a fourth-grader pointing to an aircraft fuel tank in the air park here. More than 60 curious elementary school students recently had all their questions answered during an all-access tour of the Air National Guard Base at Tucson International Airport.

This wasn't an ordinary tour. Tucson's Reynolds Elementary School was reaping its reward for participating in Wright Flight, a program designed to educate fourth-grade through 10th-grade students about aviation and the role of the Air National Guard. April 24 was their opportunity to experience a day in the life of a 162nd Fighter Wing Guardsman.

Nine- and 10-year-olds took turns flying an F-16 simulator, experimented with night vision equipment, practiced simulated ejection seat procedures, toured an engine test facility and topped off the day with a visit to the base fire station. It's all in a day's work for wing volunteers who've racked up several "Wright Flight" hours.

One day each month, wing members set aside time to inspire young minds to reach new heights; harnessing the power of aviation to encourage students to succeed in the classroom.

"The program, and the 162nd's participation, really does a lot to motivate students to do well in school," said Mark Hollinger, Wright Flight program director. "The students, teachers and parents don't know what to expect at first, but they always come away grateful for the impact it has on the kids' school work, and they have a greater appreciation for the Guard and all of the career paths it offers."

"At Reynolds we set goals for the kids to increase their reading comprehension," said Martina Dickinson, fourth-grade teacher. "We also give them a six-week course and test them on aviation history, women in aviation and the NASA programs. If they meet those goals, then they get to participate in this field trip. About 95 percent of our students in Wright Flight reached their goals this year."

According to Dickenson the biggest event for students when they tour the Air Guard is the flight simulator. "When they're able to take off and land in the simulator they really feel like they really can fly," she said.

Wright Flight is a non-profit organization founded in 1986 by retired Lt. Col. Robin Stoddard, a former 162nd Fighter Wing pilot. His concept was to use children's fascination with aircraft to motivate them to do better in school. He developed the program and organized a group of volunteers and pilots to teach the program and ultimately fly the graduating students in private aircraft.

Today, the program partially funded by the Southern Arizona Minuteman Committee graduates 950 Tucson students per year; with a total of 13,400 graduates since inception.

New chapters are springing up across the country. In addition to the Tucson headquarters and the Phoenix branch, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Kansas, Missouri, Massachusetts and Florida have launched successful chapters.

The tremendous growth of the program across the country is due to volunteers who began working with the program in Tucson and have taken it to new communities as they move about the country to new assignments, said Hollinger

"Wright flight enjoys so much success because of volunteers like the ones at the 162nd," he said.

"I enjoy working with these kids," said Lt. Col. Mark Harting, F-16 pilot and Wright Flight coordinator for the 162nd. "Wright Flight is a great opportunity for me to depart what I've learned as a pilot since I joined the Air Force."

In addition to organizing several demonstrations around base, Colonel Harting gives students an adapted unit briefing for their level of understanding. "I tell them the things they need to do to be successful in life," he said. "They are coming into an environment that I didn't have to deal with at their age. It's a chance to teach them to stay away from drugs, and to respect their parents, teachers and friends."