|NFA inspiring future workers
With the aerospace industry facing a shortage of pilots, maintenance workers
and more, the National Flight Academy is piquing the interest of youth in the
Becoming a pilot for the U.S. Air Force never crossed Jake Marino’s mind growing up.
He wanted to become a teacher.
Then he attended the National Flight Academy not once, but twice. Those immersive
six-day deployments on the aircraft carrier “Ambition” inspired a new career path in
the 14-year-old boy.
Marino graduates from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in professional
flight in May. He then travels to Del Rio, Texas, to begin his pilot training June 9 at
Laughlin Air Force Base.
“I’m very excited about it,” Marino said about his future, after a long day working at
NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “The missions and being in that (NFA) environment,
landing on an aircraft carrier. I really, really enjoyed it.”
The Air Force projects a shortfall of 1,000 pilots by 2022, while the U.S. Navy
predicts a 10 percent pilot shortage in 2020.
Meanwhile, Boeing released a report in 2016 that predicted 42 percent of the pilots
who now fly for major United States airlines will reach the mandatory retirement age
of 65 in the next 10 years.
Flight Academy future
Marino is the kind of outcome envisioned by Naval Aviation Museum leaders Rear
Adm. Skip Furlong, Capt. Bob Rasmussen, Vice Adm. Gerald Hoewing, and Vice
Adm. Jack Fetterman and Capt. J.J. Coonan, both of whom are deceased.
They first conceived of teaching science, technology, engineering and math, or
STEM, at the National Flight Academy.
Their mission: Using principles of flight to teach STEM, preparing today’s youth to
become tomorrow’s leaders and creating a competitive workforce for the 21st century.
Today, the National Flight Academy still teaches STEM. But as it has developed
during the past six years, it has introduced a new component -- job training.
This year, it unveils its new virtual reality program to teach aviation maintenance to
It also offers a “3-Day Cruise” during six spring break weeks in March and April.
Participants in 5th through 12th grade can explore various aviation careers, such as
aviation maintenance, cybersecurity, air traffic control and aerospace engineering.
Additionally, they receive exposure to a variety of concepts including meteorology,
aerodynamics, mathematics, bathymetry, physics, basics of flight, ballistics and
search and rescue fundamentals.
NFA officials said they want to do their part to supplement the ongoing massive effort
on the Gulf Coast to prepare young people for growing, high-paying aerospace and
aviation jobs in the region. Private company, government and education leaders
have introduced a wide-range of programs, including piloting drones and aviation
Triumph Gulf Coast has already approved more than $12.1 million to school districts,
vocational schools and colleges in Northwest Florida for job training in flight-related
Triumph funding comes from BP for its 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Oil damaged
the unique white sandy beaches. BP and Florida agreed to a $2 billion payment for
18 years with $1.5 billion earmarked for economic development projects for Bay,
Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Wakulla counties.
Don Gaetz, who chairs the Triumph board and served as the Florida Senate
president, said he believes building a workforce pipeline is crucial to the future of the
“We want students to be qualified for the jobs they are trained for,” Gaetz said.
For the first time during its March 14-16 “Spring Break Cruise,” the National Flight
Academy unveiled its virtual reality program that teaches students how to repair
A shortage of 189,000 aviation maintenance technicians in North America alone will
exist by 2037, Boeing forecasted.
That’s why NFA worked with ViziTech USA to develop a realistic Hangar Bay, where
planes and helicopters receive maintenance.
Scenarios include following pre- or post-flight checklists on aircraft. Another allows
students to get their hands on different types of aircraft engines and change out
various parts. In addition, students must learn to maneuver planes ready for flight
onto an elevator that brings them back to the top deck of the aircraft carrier.
“It teaches teamwork and paying attention to details,” said Cody Grogan, NFA’s
software development projects manager.
The first youth to try the virtual reality program worked in teams of four to back the X-
12B Triad, which looks like a stealth fighter, onto the elevator and back on ship’s
deck. They had to complete the task in 10 minutes.
The NFA students outfitted themselves in big black goggles, so they could see the
detailed Hangar Bay. They also had remote controls in both hands that looked like
cup holders. These helped them walk, look around the bay and maneuver the
pushback tug to move the jet.
Onlookers can watch the groups on a big-screen TV. After failing miserably, the
groups vastly improved the second time around. The initially quiet foursomes began
peppering each other with tips and instructions. The better the communication, the
better the groups did the task. None completed it, however.
One particularly vocal students was 13-year-old Vincenzo Kauffman from Pensacola
Beach. He nearly got the plane on the elevator in the time that was allotted.
“I enjoy stuff like this,” he said afterward. “After a couple of minutes you feel like you’
re actually in it. It really highlighted the importance of communicating so everyone
gets the message.”
Christina Wells backed the virtual plane into the Hangar Bay wall. Despite crashing,
the 13-year-old said that she had fun.
“I’ve never really been interested in this before,” said Wells, who liked how the X-12B
Triad looked in virtual reality. “This was really cool. It made me think about doing it.”
Heidi McBride works in aviation maintenance for Ansell & Brown Aviation at Ferguson
Airport in Pensacola. The National Flight Academy has invited her to speak to their
students several times.
She likes NFA’s virtual reality program emphasizing aircraft repair.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” said McBride. “Then someone put a wrench in my hand. I
liked pulling things apart and putting them back together again. You never know what
you love doing until you’re given the chance to experience it.”
Ambition sparks interest
Aerospace and aviation fields have benefitted ever since the National Flight
Academy launched its aircraft carrier, Ambition.
The theme-park like ship earned its realistic design from the creative and innovative
minds of high-tech experts from the University of West Florida, TEQ Games at
Universal Studios, the Disney Imagineers, and David Nixon Productions.
Boring? No way.
The $34 million facility has attracted girls and boys in grades 7 through 12, since
May 2012 to learn STEM skills. They do this through missions that teach
aerodynamics, propulsion, navigation, communications, flight physiology and
meteorology, along with core values, teamwork and leadership skills.
In its first year, 488 students experienced the immersive, high-tech, gameplay flight
missions. The number of students, called Ambition Experimental Pilots, or AXPs, has
gone up each year, reaching 3,478 last year.
In all, 13,881 AXPs have attended the STEM flight program from all 50 states, 22
countries and four U.S. territories. Up to 260 youth can attend each session.
During the six-day program in Pensacola, Students “board” the 102,000-square-foot,
four-story Ambition that includes real-life looking areas. There are: a Mess Deck
where everyone eats; Berthing Spaces to sleep in; Joint Intelligence Centers where
missions are planned; Joint Operations Centers where the missions are controlled;
Ready Rooms where aircrews receive instruction; and the Hangar Bay which stores
about 30 X-12B Triad flight simulators, which can reach virtual speeds of mach 3 and
altitudes of 90,000 feet.
Squadrons compete to finish missions, such as humanitarian efforts, search and
rescues, or flying to different bases.
“They stay engaged,” said Riannon Boven, a business development officer. “They
stay in the moment and learn as much as they can.”
The National Flight Academy has compiled a STEM report card every year on its
participants. The latest report for 2018 shows that students have, on average,
improved their skills by the end of their six-day deployment by more than 20 percent.
The latest results show improvement by 25.4 percent in critical thinking and problem
solving; 24.9 percent in creativity and initiative; 26.6 percent in communications and
social interaction; 25.4 in collaboration and leadership; and 26.8 percent in
information and technology literacy.
“We want to ignite their passion for STEM,” Boven said.
Hannah Ritz, manager of administration at NFA, also wants young people to know
about all the careers they could choose.
“We just want them to look at all the different fields,” Ritz said. “There are really a lot
of opportunities for kids nowadays, more than just college. College may be the way to
achieve their dream. But there may be other ways to get there.”
Where to start
Register for the six-day STEM program on the NFA website at www.
NationalFlightAcademy.com, call 850-458-7836 or call toll-free at 877-552-3632.
Programs start Sunday and run on a weekly basis from May 26 through August 11.
Check-in occurs from 10 a.m. to Noon. Registration for students entering grades 7
through 12 costs $1,250.