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Students at Mountain Home Junior High School are “flying high” thanks to Mountain Home Public Schools’ new Aviation program.
Students, teachers, and members of the Mountain Home Public Schools’ Board of Education gathered in the David and Jeanne Corson Aviation Education Room last Monday to receive updates from MHJH Principal Kyle McCarn and Mr. Douglas Meurer on how the program’s first year is going.
Meurer is a former member of the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office and is officially certified by the FAA through the State of Arkansas to teach aviation to students. Both Meurer’s father and grandfather were Naval aviators, who went on to work for companies like Boeing in the aviation industry.
Students also showed off their flight skills by demonstrating the district’s new flight simulators.
“So, we are in here today, because I thought…. there’s plenty of things we want to show off here at the Junior High, but of course, one of the biggest things we have going is the aviation program that you all have been gracious enough to let us do,” said McCarn. “I thought we would take the opportunity to let you all kind of see what it looks like.”
The MHPS Aviation program got its start in 2022, after members of the Leading Edge Aviation Foundation approached the district over creating an AOPA aviation stem curriculum that would see interested students navigate through a three-year study program that would result in either an FAA drone operator license or a private pilot knowledge test certificate.
The goal of the program was to help introduce interested students to the aviation industry which is currently in need of pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers. Boeing, the multi-billion-dollar aircraft production company, estimates that the industry will need as many as 900,000 new commercial and business aviation pilots by 2037.
Roughly 50,000 pilots a year would need to become qualified to fill industry needs. Even more pressing is the need for air traffic controllers. In June of last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General discovered that 77% of air traffic control facilities in the U.S. were understaffed.
The proposed program was quickly approved by the MHPS Board of Education, which has pushed to open up more learning opportunities to students over the past few years.
Aviation 1, MHJH’s first class, started with 48 students at the beginning of the school year last year. All 48 are expected to roll into Aviation 2 next fall, with a new batch of 50 students showing interest in signing up for next school year’s Aviation 1 class.
“I think it will be huge next year,” said Ethan Parracq, an Aviation 1 student who has his sights set on becoming a Marine Corps pilot. “Just see the numbers from ROTC for example. We went from like 70 kids to 105 this year and I hear there’s a bunch that really want to do aviation. Because I know there’s a lot of kids at the high school that just came into ROTC and didn’t know it was here.”
In their first year of studies, students with the MHJH Aviation program spend much of their time learning about the basics of aviation, including things like how to calculate air density and how to safely distribute weight through a plane so that it can take off and land safely.
Students also get some practical aviation tests by having to create working paper airplanes and rockets.
Much of the class is math-focused, with students learning the calculations needed to determine how much fuel they need to reach a destination and how high they can fly in certain atmospheres.
Principal McCarn took a brief moment to highlight some of the student’s math grades before diving into the specifics of the aviation program.
“I really want to brag on our math, folks,” said McCarn when speaking about NWEA MAP testing. “At the beginning of the year in eighth grade, our students were testing about 2.6 points above the national average. Now, at the end of the year, they are about 4.4 points above the national average. In ninth grade, we were about six points above the average in math testing and now we’re nine points above.”
While the program’s first year is wrapping up, Aviation 2 will offer students a split path to take in the program.
The first path will see students putting their time and attention into drone flying, with the goal of earning a drone pilot license by the end of the course.
Drone flying has become extremely popular within the school district after ROTC Chief Jason Williams, a former drone pilot in the U.S. Navy himself, began introducing drone competitions to the district’s ROTC program.
The competitions took off, with other ROTC programs around the country joining in the fun. Williams also began offering students the opportunity to earn their FAA drone license while participating in ROTC in an effort to help them have career options when graduating from high school.
Drone pilots typically earn over $50,000 a year when first starting work.
Now, MHJH will be offering the same chance to students through its Aviation program. During last Monday’s meeting, Mr. Meurer said the program’s drone side was ready to go after the district’s purchase of new state-approved drones.
“Some of the things the [students] are excited about, is we were able to purchase some new drones,” Meurer said. “A lot of those are still in boxes because they’re going to be with the year two drone component.”
While the drone side of the program is popular, so too is the private pilot side.
Over the Christmas holidays, MHPS was able to procure six flight simulators for students who wish to step into the cockpit and learn how to fly. Two of the simulators were secured through a state education grant that was approved last year. The remaining four Redbird TD2simulators were provided to the program by the Leading Edge Aviation Foundation, which raised $50,000 from members of the public at the end of last year to help improve the junior high’s new three-year program.
Each of the donated simulators cost $12,000 each. The remaining money raised by the foundation is set to go towards scholarships for students.
“My hands are worn out from putting things together and setting them up,” joked Meurer when talking about setting up the simulators. “The technology department, I’m sure is tired of me bothering them about how to make this work.”
And while the simulators may have been difficult to put together, they are worth it. Ethan Parracq, one of the older students in attendance at the meeting, spent several minutes detailing his wish to fly for the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school.
The enthusiastic student has spent much of his teenage years pursuing the goal by not only joining the district’s ROTC program but also taking private flight lessons. MHJH’s newest program offers him the chance to learn even more about aviation while getting some much-needed practice time with the new simulators.
According to Gerald Gaige, a member of the Leading Edge Aviation Foundation, Parracq will be able to earn two hours of certified solo flight time while using the simulator to practice. The motivated student currently boasts some 22 hours of dual flight experience with an instructor and three hours of solo time in the air.
Each simulator can load different planes and flight conditions for students through an instructor computer that is overseen by Meurer in the classroom. The aviation teacher said he occasionally pulls a fast one on students by throwing in an unexpected challenge, such as 500 pounds of cargo magically appearing in the middle of the plane, to keep students on their toes.
Meurer may even allow students to have the occasional Top Gun moment if they’ve done well during class time.
He needs a minimum of 40 hours of flight time to be eligible to take his FAA exam for his pilot license. Parracq said it costs $100 an hour for flight time and $50 for the instructor.
The simulators allow for much-needed practice without the financial overhead. Parracq and his fellow students seeking their private license will also have to take a written exam, in a similar manner to a driver’s license.
MHJH’s Aviation program will help those students to prepare for the exam, but with the condition that they pass two practice exams with a grade above 80 before taking the real exam.
“You have to score at least an 80 on that twice before you’re eligible to go take the FAA exam with us,” Meurer said. “That way, we’re not wasting time and money, taking students that aren’t prepared to pass that exam quite yet.”
For parents with children interested in the Aviation program, please contact Mr. Meurer at [email protected]
For those interested in learning more about aviation, or donating to assist students in learning about aviation, please reach out to the Leading Edge Aviation Foundation at (870) 481-5418 or by visiting www.leadingedgeaviationfoundation.org.
Editor’s Note: For transparency, it should be noted that the Fulton family donated to the Leading Edge Aviation Foundation to assist in purchasing four of Mountain Home Junior High’s simulators. The David and Jeanne Corson Aviation Education Room is named in honor of Chris Fulton’s grandparents.