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Students soar with Wright Flight

Fifth grader Braden Echols smiles for the camera after he completes his flight in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, April 15, 2017. Echols was part of a class of 27 students who navigated south of Tucson that morning. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman / Arizona Sonora News Service)

If you place a kid in a cockpit and give him the controls to an airplane, you might change the trajectory of his life.

Wright Flight is an organization specializing in “helping kids reach new heights.” The nine-week program introduces elementary through high school students to the basics of aviation. More importantly, it teaches students how to set and attain goals. Wright Flight concludes with a “fly day” in which students co-pilot a single engine airplane.

“We have the chance to change kids’ lives through aviation,” says Wright Flight founder Robin Stoddard. 

When Stoddard was a young fighter pilot, he’d take leave to fly with missionaries in Mexico. It was there that he saw firsthand how excited kids were around airplanes. Since its inception in 1986, the program has flown 30,000 students.

Wright Flight founder Robin Stoddard leans against an airplane at Tucson International Airport in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, April 15, 2017. He named the program after airplane pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright, who are credited with the world’s first successful flight. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman / Arizona Sonora News Service)

Wright Flight works with over 30 schools in Tucson as well as private, public, charter and home schools across the state. It even has branches in states like North Carolina, Kansas and Missouri. 

At the beginning of Wright Flight, students sign a business-style  form in triplicate stating the area of schoolwork in which they plan to raise a grade.

“We’ve had kids that literally change from F’s and D’s to A’s and B’s in nine weeks because they’re so excited at the chance to fly an airplane,” Stoddard says.

They also pledge to remain alcohol and tobacco free.

“If you start flying when you’re young, you’re probably going to stay out of trouble because you’re too broke to do drugs,” Stoddard says. “So you’ll want to get high on aviation.”

Students must earn an 85 percent or higher on the final cumulative test. Any score below that disqualifies them from flying.

“We have kids learn about famous aviators from all walks of life, who overcame big obstacles in order to fly,” Stoddard says.

Volunteer Grant Coppin gives a ‘thumbs-up’ as he poses in front of a plane operated by Wright Flight pilots. Driving around Tucson, Coppin notices the worn bumper stickers on parents’ cars from kids that were flown years ago. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman / Arizona Sonora News Service)

The curriculum covers the history of aviation from the Wright brothers to the World War II years. It integrates lessons on a variety of aviators, from Amelia Earhart to the Tuskegee Airmen.

“If they learn that a young Jimmy Doolittle who was from a broken home and beaten up in school can go on to win the Medal of Honor for his aviation exploits,” Stoddard says, “then maybe that can happen to them too.”

Air Force reserve pilot Grant Coppin, has volunteered with Wright Flight for two years. He believes the program’s high academic expectations make it unique.

“Not a lot of volunteer organizations actually hold kids accountable for their own study habits and achievements,” Coppin says. “Getting to fly here validates the work ethic they’ll need later in life.”

Coppin believes the material presented in the Wright Flight program provides students with an appreciation for our nation’s past.

“Aviation history is a microcosm of American history,” Coppin says. “It accurately reflects the trials and tribulations that ordinary Americans have gone through to make outstanding achievements.”

Coppin specifically cites the female aviators who “achieved monumental things well before the Women’s Liberation Movement” as pivotal figures in history. 

Volunteer Mary Pat Sullivan stands in front of a Wright Flight review board on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Tucson, Ariz. Sullivan says her fellow volunteers have a ‘special’ spirit. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman / Arizona Sonora News Service)

One of Coppin’s favorite parts of flying with students is the parents’ reactions.

“When they first arrive, mothers are nervous and say, ‘please bring my daughter or son home alive,’” Coppin says. “But when we land and they see the beaming look on their child’s face, they realize that not only was it awesome and fun, but also directly rewarded hard work.” 

And there are many people behind the scenes to help ensure the experience is as fulfilling as possible.

Mary Pat Sullivan has volunteered with Wright Flight for about 12 years. She takes photos of kids and their pilots, distributes merchandise and helps clean up.

“When kids come in, they have an enthusiasm that’s very special and genuine,” Sullivan says.

Nicholas Holloway, a University of Arizona student, helps with dispatch on fly days. He introduces students to the flight area and their pilots, and ensures they make it safely to their aircraft and up in the air.

University of Arizona and Navy ROTC student Nicholas Holloway stands in front of an airplane on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Tucson, Ariz. Holloway is in charge of assigning students to pilots and ensuring they are safe in the flight area. (Photo by: Hailey Freeman / Arizona Sonora News Service)

“I’ve wanted to fly since preschool, so seeing kids come back with a love for aviation is really rewarding,” Holloway says.

Tori Jones, K-6 teacher at Estes Elementary and Gladden Farms Elementary, notes that Wright Flight is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for students.

“It’s a blessing because so many students don’t have things like this to look forward to,” Jones says.

Jones explains the program encourages students to be successful and teaches them how to set and achieve goals.

“Wright Flight gives students something that’s tangible and shows them they can literally reach for the stars,” Jones says.

 

 

Hailey Freeman is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at haileyfreeman@email.arizona.edu.      

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