Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull offered a straightforward description of his first experience as a pilot.
"Spectacular; Unbelievable," Bull said simply after emerging from the cockpit of a 1947 Boeing Stearman PT 17 Biplane that had just landed on a runway at Centennial Airport on July 9.
Bull had just taken a 20-minute flight in the restored aircraft, a model originally used as a trainer for U.S. Air Force pilots during World War 2. An experienced pilot from the Wings Over the Rockies Teacher Flight Program handled the main duties of piloting the flight, performing a perfect takeoff and landing as well as executing a few trick moves in the air.
Even so, Bull had a chance to test his skills as a pilot from his front seat in one of the small plane's two cockpits. He grinned broadly as he spoke about the simple manoeuvers he executed as the bright yellow aircraft from another era soared over the southern stretches of the metro area.
"I will admit, I drove the plane, he flew the plane," Bull said. "I was waving at the kids and my wife. It could be the topic of conversation at the dinner table tonight."
Bull joined the ranks of about 50 teachers and administrators from the Cherry Creek School District who have taken part in the Wings Over the Rockies Teacher Flight Program, an initiative that seeks to connect educators with real-world aviation experience and insights they can in turn pass along to students. Launched in 2011, the program is available to one teacher from every school along the Front Range.
"We really want to give them this amazing experience in an open-cockpit biplane," said Hetty Carlson, a coordinator for the Teacher Flight Program. "We record their flight and upload it to the website, so all the students in that teacher's school can watch their flight whenever they want. Basically, it's meant to inspire those teachers who are already self-motivated."
More importantly, Carlson said, the program is designed to inspire and educate the students in classrooms and schools across the state.
"So many kids have no idea what aerospace is about. They think, 'I can either be a pilot or an astronaut,'" Carlson said. "There's so much more than that. There are so many different careers – it's anything from the medical field to law enforcement. You can work out of the airport, there's management, there's so much you can do. A lot of kids don't have the exposure to that."
Some of the other veterans of the Teacher Flight Program were on hand on the tarmac to show their moral support as Bull took his first flight. CCSD Assistant Superintendent Judy Skupa, who took a flight in the PT 17 in April, watched as the propellers started spinning and the small plane began its journey down the runway. Dakota Valley Elementary STEM teacher Beth Cohen was also on hand. Cohen got involved in the program in 2011 and has since become one of its most vocal advocates, speaking at Wings Over the Rockies special events and spreading the word to other teachers in the district.
That enthusiasm has had a direct impact in Cohen's classroom. Last year, one of her fifth-grade students showed off a hand-crafted cardboard airplane she helped design and build for a special event at the Wings Over the Rockies Museum. The craft was a cardboard tribute to aerobatic pilot Sean D. Tucker, and featured carefully constructed pair of wings, cockpit and jet of smoke emanating from the back of the plane.
Students in the Cherry Creek School District already have opportunities to explore the diverse possibilities of the aerospace industry long before they graduate high school. For example, the Institute of Science and Technology on the Overland High School campus offers a rigorous aviation curriculum that benefits from flight simulators as well as an academic partnership with the Metropolitan State University of Denver's aviation program.
Still, Bull was insistent that those existing resources are only the first steps in a robust and wide-ranging aviation program that could eventually offer students viable pathways to all of the different jobs connected to flight. His trip in the PT 17 offered a firsthand view of the magic of flight, and he's eager to find ways to spread that joy to all of the students in the district.
"In the end, what we've got to recognize is that there are great opportunities for kids in the aviation industry, from flying the planes to keeping them running to being up in the tower," Bull said. "We have programs in our schools currently – we have a couple of settings where kids can get their initial license, but I think there are so many more opportunities that we could explore. This is really just the beginning."