Space Camp is an internationally-recognized program that immerses students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through experiences and simulators based on space exploration. But, did you know that Naval Aviation has a similar STEM-oriented program? It makes sense given that many astronauts first flew as Naval Aviators. Located aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, the National Flight Academy offers students an immersive, hands-on learning environment like no other.
The National Flight Academy has three programs of differing lengths. At six days long, the flagship "Deployment" summer program offers students the most extensive and immersive experience. Available for 7th-12th graders, students will live aboard the simulated aircraft carrier AMBITION. The multi-story, 102,000-square-foot facility replicates the interior of a ship with a galley, simulator bays and berthing in state rooms. Students are divided into squadrons of 12 and led by counselor, called a flight lead. It's so immersive that only the addition of knee-knockers or a Filipino food night could make it more realistic.
Aboard the AMBITION, students become AMBITION eXperimental Pilots (AXPs). After checking in, their phones are taken away and AXPs partake in a man-overboard drill to kick off their time aboard the ship. "All those things really sell the immersive story," NFA Executive Director and retired Naval Aviator Pat Everly told WATM. "All of our employees...they're in a flight suit, they're in a uniform, trying to sell the story that we're on board the aircraft carrier AMBITION." The mock ship becomes the ultimate immersive learning environment for AXPs to learn STEM subjects and put them to use.
AXPs are quickly familiarized with the ship and the simulator aircraft that they will fly during their deployment. Learning things like latitude and longitude and fuel burn rates, AXPs will plan and fly missions like real Naval Aviators do. Keeping the camp school-friendly, all missions are of a humanitarian nature. "We're trying to get [students] excited about STEM and non-technical skills like team-building, collaboration, and communication," Everly said. With multiple aircraft and mission controllers working together in concert, AXPs quickly learn the importance of communication and teamwork.
In addition to classroom instruction and mission briefing, planning and flying, students will leave the AMBITION to tour the world-class Naval Aviation Museum next door. Another advantage of being aboard NAS Pensacola, the National Flight Academy brings students to the aircraft restoration hangar, the Naval Air Technical Training Center and even Blue Angels practice shows. "It's an opportunity to show kids that there are an incredible array of opportunities that are available to them that they may not even know about yet," Everly noted. The National Flight Academy inspires, engages and educates students with aviation-inspired STEM experiences, not just Naval Aviation.
A condensed three-day program, called a "Cruise," is also available for students down to 5th grade. AXPs on a Cruise will still have classroom instruction on subjects like meteorology and aerodynamics and put these lessons to use in simulated missions. One-day "Adventures" are open for students beginning at 4th grade. They introduce STEM topics in a hands-on setting and are perfect for school classes or youth organizations. Adventures can also be turned into overnight stays aboard AMBITION. Both Cruises and Adventures are available throughout the academic year.
While the National Flight Academy is located aboard NAS Pensacola and authorized by the U.S. Navy, it is a program of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and not funded by the Navy or U.S. government. However, being co-located with the Navy's flight school allows the National Flight Academy to employ active duty sailors waiting on a flight class and college students to serve as volunteer instructors for its programs. Everly recounted the story of one National Flight Academy alumni who was inspired to become a Naval Aviator and is now a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who volunteers with the program.
Since it started in 2012, roughly 17,000 students from across the United States, its territories and 39 other countries have attended the National Flight Academy. Companies like Delta Airlines and FedEx have sponsored students to attend Deployments in past years along with local chapters of the American Legion and Order of Daedalians. If a student has even the slightest interest in aviation, there's nothing quite like the National Flight Academy to show them what's possible.