AFA Helps Expose Youth to Flight
The Legacy Flight Academy (LFA), in a first-time partnership with Virginia Air Force Association, on Sept. 25th held the Eyes Above the Horizon event in Chesterfield County. The single-day outreach program is aimed at fostering interest in aerospace careers by engaging youth in underserved communities. More than 40 students participated.
“All of our programs at LFA are bound to the heroic legacy of the Tuskegee Airman,” Kenneth “KT” Thomas, President and co-founder of The Legacy Flight Academy, said. “Our Eyes Above the Horizon program enables students to get real experience in an airplane, see beyond their normal circumstances, and realize the opportunities around them.”
The Eyes Above the Horizon program was first launched in 2015, but their most recent event in Richmond was the first time an Air Force Association State level organization was involved. Their budding partnership began late last year, when AFA President Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, USAF (Ret.) connected Linda McMahon, President of Virginia AFA, with the Legacy Flight Academy.
“At first, I thought this [event] could easily overwhelm a local chapter, but I figured the state organization can pull together all the State’s chapters to really make this a show-class event,” McMahon said.
“AFA is a well-known organization within the Air Force for connecting and helping people.” Thomas, a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, said. “It only seemed right once the opportunity came for us to connect with AFA.”
The program relies on both monetary donations and on organizations committing resources to support the program. In Richmond, Williamsburg Aviation Scholarship Program (WASP), GT Aviation, and Dominion Aviation Services provided planes and pilots. The Virginia Wing CAP, Virginia State Police Aviation Division, the Army National Guard, Hampton University Aviation Department, Virginia Space Grant Consortium, United Airlines, and other organizations provided hangars, static displays, speakers, booths and more.
“It’s not easy to get pilots to want to come spend their own fuel, Thomas said. “But when you get people to really buy in on what we’re trying to do, it made it an easy sell. … The volunteers end up having as much fun as the students and are just in awe of everything that goes on.”
Team-building exercises and STEM education are built into the program as well.
“It’s not just about flying airplanes, because for our future leaders of the Air and Space Force, it’s about leading people, building a team, and having wingmen,” Thomas said. “Then by introducing underserved communities, minorities, and females to fields that are heavy in STEM. … Now, they’re wanting to learn about science and engineering, so that when it comes time to go to college and beyond, they’re already prepared.”
“Without diversity you would lose half of our nation’s youth,” McMahon said. “If it’s not diverse, you’re going to lose, because each one of us brings a different piece to the equation that’s going to solve whatever tomorrow’s problem is. China is already a big threat, so we need to start investing now in the STEM education of our nation’s youth.”
Additionally, students are able to envision greater possibilities for their future.
“When you take them flying in a plane at a young age, then flying a plane becomes very normal,” Thomas said. “We are normalizing these extraordinary things … that they don’t look at it as some far-off and unreachable thing. Flying suddenly becomes an attainable goal for them.”
“Students were smiling very nervously as they crawled into the cockpit, but as they came out, they had the biggest smile on their face,” McMahon noted. “I don’t think I saw anybody coming out of the cockpit that wasn’t excited, and that’s exactly what this was all about.”
After hosting Eyes Above the Horizon in different locations across the country over the years, Thomas has learned to appreciate the different elements each locale brings to each event. In Richmond, retired Col. Alvin Drew, a former United States Air Force officer and NASA astronaut, spoke to the students.
“There’s a uniqueness that every area brings and makes it different,” Thomas said. “Colonel Drew was talking about moving through space and how we were going to travel to Mars, so having an astronaut there helped them see that he’s a normal person that has actually been to space, that makes it normal for them. It really makes them realize all of the things they can do.”
With the success of the Eyes Above the Horizon event in Richmond, Thomas and McMahon believe they have created a foundation for a sustainable and working partnership to continue building the program in the Central East Region of AFA together.
“[Virginia AFA’s involvement] was the most significant difference that made this event so successful,” Thomas said. “This is the foundation of a long-term relationship that is going to continue to produce the outcomes we’re looking for in at least one location of Virginia. But the biggest success that I see is that this is not just a one-off event, this is going to be a continuing event that’s going to have huge impacts on the local community there.”
Consequently, they believe the success of the Richmond event can also become a blueprint for other AFA chapters/States and the Legacy Flight Academy to work together toward their common mission.
“We’re already planning our next partnership deal with our next iteration in Maryland,” McMahon, who is also the Executive Vice President of the Central-East AFA Chapter, said. “By honing this craft a little bit more, we can make organizing the event slicker, smoother, better, faster and cheaper. Once we do that in a second iteration, I think we’ll be ready to talk to the rest of AFA and say, ‘Here’s what you need to do. Here’s the OP plan, create it in your own image, and base it on your locality.’ I want to give them the benefit of what we’ve learned.”
AFA’s National Teacher of the Year Megan Tucker
Megan Tucker earned the 2021 AFA National Teacher of the Year Award, presented by Rolls-Royce, for her unflagging enthusiasm for for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Now 17 years into her teaching career, Tucker is now a specialist in teaching STEM and the arts and an Instructional Facilitator of Technology at Hillsboro Charter Academy (Elementary School) in Virginia.
First, congratulations on being AFA’s 2021 National Teacher of the Year! What was your experience like having the opportunity to be recognized at the Air, Space & Cyber Conference?
I wish I could bottle up that experience and send it to every teacher, because the appreciation that I felt was extremely humbling. I had four-star generals and all these high military officials thanking me everywhere I went.They were even yelling, ‘To infinity and beyond!’ at the conference, because I had said it in my speech. I really don’t even have any words for the appreciation that I felt, and I wish other teachers could feel it too.
What did it mean to you to get this recognition?
When I first started my career, I had a mentor that got me really excited about using space and aviation in my curriculum and aerospace became my platform for teaching STEAM and STEM. Then being an Air Force spouse, it makes this award even more special.
But the most meaningful thing was that in the audience of over 2,000 people, there was a mom of a former student from my very first class who came over to thank me. Then at the reception, there was a dad who had a thank you note from his daughter, who I taught two years ago. When you find out that you’ve had that impact, it’s a feeling like no other, and it’s the reason that I teach.
You mentioned STEAM. Is that different from STEM?
Yes, so I’m a STEAM Specialist. The A stands for the Arts—not just visual arts, but also performing arts—because if you engineer something you need to have that visual sense to it and you’ve got to market your product. STEAM is really about a lot of the soft skills and having that creative flair built into STEM.
What makes the aerospace component so valuable as a backbone in your approach to STEM education?
It helps get kids starting to ask questions about things that you’re bringing in: like airplanes or rockets. My kindergarteners know the Four Forces of Flight—thrust,gravity, drag, and lift—and then we can talk about why this happened or how we can make it go higher or farther, and it just opens the door to so many questions.
Why do you teach, as opposed to practice science?
With teaching, I felt I could impact more people and inspire and encourage them. I try to spread my coined phrase, “Aviation Fascination,” to give kids the power to see that there are all these different careers in STEM.
What is it about science that engages and inspires youth?
I think it’s the ability to question and to experiment to get the answers. It’s a bigger purpose than just themselves. It’s having the ability to ask questions like why things work, how they work, and then proving different science concepts to see the reason.
In 17 years of teaching, have any of your former students gone on to pursue STEM-related fields and studies?
A fourth-grader I had my first year of teaching in Florida got a job at the Daytona Police Department as a drone pilot. Recently, she was able to video chat into my Girls Club as a guest speaker—that was the highlight of my teaching career! To have somebody I had in fourth grade on the screen teaching my current fourth-graders about how important STEM and STEAM is, and having gone through what they’re experiencing, was like a full circle moment. I have industrial engineers, electrical engineers—so many people that will come back and say, ‘It’s because you turned on that love, you turned on that passion, and I wanted more!’ It’s just amazing.