Flight to Excellence


By Ashley Peterson

All hands on deck. Welcome aboard Ambition, a landlocked, simulated aircraft carrier that is home to an educational adventure camp at the National Flight Academy (NFA), in Pensacola, FL. The installation combines the culture and thrill of aviation with cutting-edge technology and a challenging curriculum.

Located adjacent to the National Naval Aviation Museum, the National Flight Academy is a 102,000 sq. ft., four-story structure designed for at-sea immersion. The instructors dress in flight suits. The campers are assigned to squadrons and given missions in briefing rooms. They sleep in berths and eat in a mess hall.

Crew members are alerted by bells and an intercom system. When planes "take off," loud jet noises sound throughout the vessel, causing the rooms to vibrate.

A project over 20 years in the making, the National Flight Academy opened its doors in May 2012 to high school students, with the hopes that the innovative instruction can foster a passion for math and science and encourage more students to pursue science and engineering degrees.

Prepare for Takeoff

At the grand opening of the Academy, Captain Mark Kelly, who commanded the final mission of the shuttle Endeavor, lamented that the United States today produces three times as many lawyers as engineers. According to national statistics, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills of American students are in decline. If this trend continues, the current generation will lack the talent and skills necessary to lead in the technology-driven 21st century world. Says Kelly: "When Neil (Armstrong) and Gene (Cernan) flew to the moon in the 1960s and early 70s — by any metric of education, the United States of America was number one on the list. And today that's not true anymore. In some measures we're not even in the top ten."

Offering three- to seven-day camp programs for 7th thru 12th graders, the National Flight Academy hopes to inspire enrolled students to return to school seeking more challenging STEM courses. The program curriculum features aerodynamics, propulsion, navigation, aviation physiology and meteorology, with an emphasis on core values, leadership development, teamwork, effective communication and public speaking. The NFA also houses a high-tech broadcasting studio where the curriculum taught to the on-campus student aviators can be shared via on demand webcasts with thousands of secondary classrooms across the country.

According to Ambition's commander and President of the National Flight Academy, retired Vice Adm. Gerald L. Hoewing, "This is an opportunity to give back in an area that is important. High-tech and engineering are what have made this country different, and we need to regenerate that enthusiasm if we are going to lead the world like we have done for so many years."

Classroom Discussion

  • What may explain why the STEM skills of American students have been falling behind students in other industrialized countries?
  • What skills and/or learning can a simulated flight mission provide that a book or video cannot?