Kids and Airplanes

I’m taking my son and his cub scout den to an airshow this weekend. It’s one of the bigger events, featuring the U.S. Air Force “Thunderbirds and a number of well-known civilian acts. Our “cubs” are nuts about outdoors events and camping, but they amazed us all when they voted to go to the airshow instead of attending the district spring campout that falls on the same weekend. Like most of us, they’re nuts about airplanes.

There’s nothing aeronautically special about this bunch of 9-year-olds. People of all ages flock to airshows and fly-ins; they’re some of the most well-attended outdoor public events around the world. The International Council of Airshows, Inc. (ICAS) states that more than 15 million people attend airshows each year — in North America, alone. Between the wide-eyed wonder of the youth that stops playing ball long enough to watch an airplane fly over and the still-enthralled adults that make it so hard to find parking at airshows, something in society tells us that airplanes are dangerous, that flying is foolhardy and unmanageably risky. Adults cover the ramps at our air shows, but they’ll rarely seriously consider flying themselves.

Maybe there’s something we can do to keep the interest alive from the wonder of youth into the reality of adulthood.

In a sense we’re all teachers. Most of us will be parents, many of us will work with programs for kids and youth, and some of us actively teach in schools and churches. It’s possible to use topics from aviation to help teach more mundane tasks, in a lively setting in which we all seem to have a natural interest — flying. Think of how you can spice up your kids’ homework or club meeting with a little aerial education:

  • Teach math skills by using flight-related problems. My son’s kindergarten teacher has asked me back every year to talk to her students about airplanes. By the end of the year, when I give my talks, they’ve learned some basic math — and I want to let them know that math skills can be very important. I’ll say something like: “It takes three hours to fly from here to the ocean. Most airplanes have enough ‘gas’ to fly for five hours. If you flew from here for a vacation at the beach, how much ‘gas’ would you have left when you land?” Even most late-kindergarten kids can answer, “Two hours.” Then I ask, “Do you have to buy more ‘gas’ before you can fly back home?” and they’ll correctly state “Yes.”

Comment: look at the FAA accident database and you’ll see that some pilots could use to read “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

  • Review geography with a real or simulated flight. Get out the maps and talk about which cities, states, rivers, etc., you’ll fly over on a typical trip. “Where’s Grandma live? If you flew from here to there, will you fly over any mountains? Which ones? How high do you have to fly to avoid hitting the mountains? What lakes will you fly over? How far is it to Grandma’s?
  • Discuss science. From action/reaction to Bernoulli’s Principle to opposing forces to conservation of energy, aviation and airplanes are a treasure trove of practical application of scientific issues.
  • Introduce the problem-solving process. Propose a cross-country flight, but say there’s a thunderstorm in the way. “Can we fly around the storm? If we do, how much longer will the flight be? How much extra fuel will it take for the trip?

I’ve had great educational discussions with kids from preschool to the high school level, talking about airplanes and “sneaking in” topics and problems appropriate to their educational level. I like to think that by making airplanes (a topic they’re naturally curious about) a little less mysterious, I may have countered the natural “fear factor” society teaches about aviation. And, maybe, I’ve used an interested topic to inspire confidence in a child’s ability to learn and apply seemingly unrelated disciplines.

The Federal Aviation Administration and myriad other organizations provide tremendous guidance on age-appropriate educational activities involving aerospace education. Here are just a few from a sampling of sites specifically targeted toward educating young people, while keeping the dream of flight alive:

BOTTOM LINE: Airshow attendance proves there’s huge public interest in aviation, and the “little plane” acts are nearly as popular as the military teams. Work with kids now to introduce the world of aviation, and likely many will hold that interest for a future hobby or career. How many of you keep fond memories of attending an airshow with a parent? Even if some kids never sit in a cockpit, or on the flight deck, their natural interest in aviation may inspire them to pursue studies in other fields, while keeping a warm place in their heart for aviation. Work with kids and talk about airplanes, and we can’t lose!