Launching futures: Greenwood aeronautical center, course opens the door to future careers

Within minutes the students were high in the sky above Greenwood.

Two groups of middle school students were able to see central Johnson County from above Wednesday in a small, fixed-wing, single-engine Cessna plane piloted by Greg Hill, a rocketry and propulsion teacher at the Aeronautical Center of Technology. Heading south, they flew toward Whiteland Community High School and then headed east past Interstate 65 before flying north to return to Indy South Greenwood Airport.

As they returned to the ground and disembarked the plane, the students smiled as they greeted their waiting parents. For the students, the short flights marked the end of this year’s Introduction to Aeronautical Science course, the aviation center’s eight-week class for middle school-aged students to learn the basics of aviation and aerodynamics through a variety of activities.

Introduction to aviation

This year’s secondary school course, which began in mid-January, was smaller than normal. It normally has 15-20 students, but this year it only had five, said Melissa Vaught, the course’s instructor.

During the course, students constructed and tested various aircraft designs, used aviation tools to plan flights, and interacted with aviation professionals.

“We talk a lot about airplanes, but then we also talk about the other airliners — the hot air balloons, the hot air balloons,” Vaught said. “… Then we also get a lot into aircraft design and why we design things in a certain way.”

The Aviation Center has held the class for a while. The class was started by Aeronautical Center of Technology Director Roger Tomey, who recruited Vaught to teach it, she said.

“When I started flying 13 years ago, Roger Tomey was at the airport and started recruiting me because I’m a woman, as there aren’t that many women in aviation, and when he found out I’m also a teacher, he reckoned that I was the perfect candidate,” Vaught said. “He already had a good thing going, so I’ve just tweaked it a little bit and we’ve tried to expand on it.”

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The students have been very enthusiastic about the class. Because it’s not a class they’re required to take at school, they’re there because they want to be there, she said.

Center Grove Middle School Central student Mason Ransdell joined the class because he really likes aviation and airplanes. His parents paid for his registration as a Christmas present, he said.

“I just like airplanes and aviation and learning about the different parts of airplanes,” Ransdell said.

Ransdell, who wants to pursue a career in aviation, has enjoyed meeting new people, building models and taking part in a parachute project, he said.

“We had to design a parachute where it wouldn’t crush an egg that was put on a costume. I really enjoyed it, he said.

Other classes are offered

The aviation center doesn’t just offer a middle school class, they offer a wide range of classes, including a high school program and a ground school class. Roncalli High School Student Angel Hudspeth joined the ground school class because she wants to become a pilot, and first learned about the center as part of a career class.

Hudspeth immediately loved the environment and how they wanted to make sure she knew everything she needed to know, she said.

“They want me to be a safe pilot and have all the previous background training and everything so that I know what to do if something goes wrong, that I know how to handle it,” Hudspeth said. “Then I just fell in love with downtown and the people.”

When she learned about the center, she was told about a scholarship opportunity. However, she had to get the written exam submitted very quickly. Aeronautical center officials worked with Hudspeth so that she could take courses and get the exam delivered on time.

Hudspeth did, completing the test four weeks into what is supposed to be an 8-to-9-week ground course, she said.

“I have worked so hard for this, along with my school work and taking all my classes at Roncalli,” she said. “It makes me feel accomplished and happy.”

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From terminal to centre

The aviation center was previously located at a terminal at the city’s airport, which limited them in terms of space and how many classes they could do in the future. Now the center has its own building located in the far north-west of the airport property.

However, this was not without challenges. The building began construction in 2019, but COVID-19 soon put things on hold, Tomey said.

“We were fortunate enough to have enough volunteers and corporate help to come in here and finish it,” he said.

Tomey has always believed there should be an education center at the airport for years. While still inside a terminal conference room, they offered to bring their science, technology, engineering and math-based programs to school businesses.

But they said no and said they wanted it at the airport, he said.

“The plan then was, ‘OK, let’s have an education center out here,’ and the mayor supported that idea,” Tomey said.

The opportunity came to fruition when Mayor Mark Myers told Tomey that two builders were willing to build it while they were working on building company trailers, he said.

With the larger centre, pupils can learn about and try out aeronautical engineering, 3D printing, drones and rockets. They will also have an opportunity to build an airplane, Tomey said.

Many advantages

The goal of the introductory class is not only to have future pilots, but also to make students think about other areas of technology. It also makes them think, Vaught said.

“This year I asked a lot of questions and forced them to really think things through and develop it: ‘But why, but why, but why analysis,'” she said. “They were very good at that and answered me and tried.”

Having students exposed to the world of aviation, even if they don’t become pilots, is always an advantage.

“It’s great if they go ahead and do that, but I’m also looking at future engineers, future scientists,” Vaught said. “They can be the person who designs the airplane. They can be the person who designs rockets.”

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The future of education is getting students exposed to facilities like the aviation center, said Kevin Banich, principal of Roncalli High School. This fall, Roncalli will work with the center to start an internship program where students attend school for part of the day and then go to the airport to gain experience in aviation.

“The future of education is getting our kids exposure in the classroom, and then experience in the field,” Banich said. “It is the future of education. That’s what the state of Indiana runs.”

Exact details of the program are still being worked out between Banich, Tomey and the airport, including the number of students. Roncalli is grateful for the opportunity, he said.

“We need our communities, we need our local businesses to commit to these kinds of programs where we can start with the kids in high school and get them experience and exposure in occupations that we have a shortage of labor and that are going to fire up the kids to go into those fields,” Banich said.

The students give advice

If students sign up for classes at the centre, they will have a lot of support behind them.

“Even after you finish (the classes), you always want that continued support,” Hudspeth said. “If I ever had a question, I had five different people I could text because I had five different knowledgeable instructors.”

Hudspeth instructors are even helping her consider buying an airplane so she can continue her journey to become a pilot, she said.

“You’re not just done with the class, and you’re done with the technology center and the people,” she said. “It continues, and you’ll still have that support.”

Ransdell also offered advice to students interested in taking the middle school class next year.

“This is a good starting point, where it kind of introduces you to the basics,” Ransdell said. “If you’re really passionate about it, you should at least consider it.”

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