TUCSON, Ariz. - --
On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers made world history by putting together a wooden frame with some metal fittings and heavy cotton fabric, and giving it power to gain altitude for a controlled flight. It was an amazing feat, made possible with a can-do attitude and a drive to truly conquer new heights.
It's that same spirit that formed the basis for the tributary Wright Flight, a Tucson-based, non-profit organization that educates middle-school students about aviation, and provided that they meet certain academic requirements and personal goals, rewards them with flights in small-engine aircraft and visits to air base units like they did May 16 at the 162nd Wing.
The day started in the flight simulators, followed by learning life-support techniques when parachuting, visiting the engine shop, watching F-16 Fighting Falcons take off from a "Mobile" tower and touring the fire department.
"I could tell that they were really engaged and genuinely interested in what we do here," said Tech. Sgt. Orland Worcester, who took a break from his duties as an aircrew flight equipment technician to show future air aces the details of a cockpit trainer and steering techniques on a Parachute Simulator VRT (Virtual Reality Trainer).
Wright Flight is the brainchild of retired Lt. Col. Robin Stoddard - a former fighter pilot who flew for all three Air Force Components in four different aircraft - who envisioned a program that inspired children to tap into personal excellence by becoming aviation enthusiasts.
For Stoddard, justification for such a program was simple: "If you can take control of an airplane, you can take control of your life." But enjoying the privilege of experiencing the work-life of an Airman comes with commitments, too.
According to a memo from Jean Rhoades, a middle school teacher and coordinator for Wright Flight, student members "were required to set an academic goal for themselves. Next, the students committed to attending the Wright Flight history class which covered the milestones in aviation history and get at least an 85% on a final test. Finally, the students took a Drug Free pledge to say 'no' to drugs now and always."
Though failure is never an option in military circles and the world of aviation, it doesn't mean that second chances are not possible. "Just like the Wright Brothers, if students don't succeed the first time, they may try to achieve their goals again," said Rhoades.
Now in its 28th year in Tucson, Wright Flight has chapters in 9 states, including where the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright became household names - North Carolina. The ages of the children range from 9 to 11. Sponsorships, donations and volunteers help support the program, and according to retired Lt. Col. Robin Stoddard, the founder of Wright Flight, the organization is in the process of adding a donated Cessna 172 to its air inventory.
"I think the program really works because the reward is an experience, not a material item," said Rachel Stoddard, a Wright Flight volunteer with a pilot certificate who experienced the program firsthand as a child-student. "Someone could steal their iPod, but not the fact they were in an F-16 simulator or flown in a Cessna 172." For more information on Wright Flight, please visit its website at www.wrightflight.org