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A rural Colorado high school’s aerospace class is paving the runway for a new generation of pilots

Calhan Public High School students recently took a field trip 1,000 feet above the ground, escorted by pilots wanting to open their eyes to a career in aviation.

Calhan Public High School senior Bailey Tipton, 17, climbs into Randy Loyd's airplane on Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Meadow Lake Airport northeast of Falcon. Tipton and eight of her Calhan Public High School classmates were treated to free flights thanks to the Experimental Aircraft Association and their aerospace class teacher Larry Troesh. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Mya Diaz Soto’s phone buzzed Saturday morning with a text message from her frantic mother, who demanded to know why her 17-year-old daughter was cruising 134 mph. 

Mya’s mother, who was visiting family with her father hundreds of miles away in Texas that morning, uses a smartphone app to track her daughter’s location, shows how fast she’s driving and, when she accelerates, alerts her if she gets into a car accident. When the app captured Mya traveling well over 100 mph, her mother immediately sent her a screenshot of her speed and then called her, letting her know that her father was ready to jump on the phone next.

Mya’s response: “I’m on a plane.”

Mya, a junior at Calhan Public High School, on Saturday did, in fact, clock 134 mph while riding sky high behind a professional pilot as part of an assignment for her aerospace class. She and her classmates took turns climbing into two-seater and four-seater private planes at Meadow Lake Airport in Peyton, where lessons they had learned in the classroom were brought into sharper focus at least 1,000 feet in the air. For some students, Saturday’s flight was a maiden voyage — their first time ever flying. For others, it was one of many flights they’ve taken, and for one student it was yet more time in the air amid training for his private pilot’s license.

Calhan High School teacher Larry Troesh tests student Jaidon Burch, 17, on the parts of an airplane Saturday, May 8, 2021 at Meadow Lake Airport northeast of Falcon, Colorado. Troesh arranged for nine students from his aerospace class to have free flights Saturday thanks to the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 72. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

But for all students, the flights served to further pique their interest in aviation careers, which has been an underlying goal of the rural high school’s aerospace class all year long, particularly as shortages threaten the aviation industry. Larry Troesh, a science teacher at Calhan, introduced the aerospace class this school year, converting a personal passion he has had since he was a teenager into coursework that he hoped would ignite the same fervor for flight among his 14 students.

“It’s beyond careers,” Troesh said of what he wants his students to take away from the class. “It’s a lifelong passion for flying.”

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Calhan’s aerospace class gives its high schoolers the rare opportunity to explore flight from all angles — the history behind it, the science and mechanics that make it possible, and the rush of adrenaline that comes with being airborne. The class folds into a broader set of career and technical education courses that Calhan School District offers high school students so they can explore their interests and understand the kinds of career pathways that exist after graduation.

Superintendent Dave Slothower has worked with his staff and community to bulk up the rural district’s career and technical education courses over the past few years. Along with adding an aerospace class, the district of 465 students has reintroduced an agriculture program; rolled out a cybersecurity program in which students can earn up to three industry certificates; expanded virtual internship opportunities; and exposed students to business and entrepreneurship by partnering with a local businessman to operate a used-car dealership on campus.

Slothower said rural districts such as his offer the same kinds of programs as other districts do across Colorado but often have to find innovative ways to make them happen and focus on responding to the specific needs of their communities. Other Colorado districts feature aviation and aerospace classes — including Cherry Creek School District, St. Vrain Valley School District and Aspen School District — but Calhan is an especially small, rural district to facilitate the course.

Pilot Jim Stewart settles Calhan Public High School junior Mya Diaz Soto, 17, into her seat before taking her up in his airplane on Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Meadow Lake Airport northeast of Falcon. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Widening career and technical education for Calhan students has been key in engaging students in learning, Slothower said.

“If students are engaged, they will learn, they will pursue,” he said. “I really believe this is fundamental to getting students engaged with their education.”

Michelle Murphy, executive director of Colorado Rural Alliance, which represents 146 rural Colorado districts, points to Calhan School District as a leader in finding ways to open students up to real-world experience by collaborating with its community.

“Experiential-learning programs and hands-on experience is of infinite value to students” and the community in which they live, Murphy said.

From a first-time flyer to a pilot in training

Troesh created the aerospace class after learning that it was permitted by the Colorado Department of Education. He has walked students through the history of aviation, from the Wright brothers to World War II aircraft to current modern-day military jets. Students have also studied airframe design and aerodynamics, which on Saturday their teacher quizzed them on, asking them to identify different avionics in one of the private planes. 

And Troesh has woven lessons about different kinds of aviation careers into the curriculum at a time the industry is hurting for more workers. A recent report released by consulting firm Oliver Wyman indicates that North America could face a post-pandemic pilot shortage of more than 12,000 pilots by 2023.

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Troesh sees himself as “the air-traffic controller” of the class as his students have taken the lead in developing presentations and have helped to rewrite the curriculum for next year’s class.

“They fly the planes,” he said. “I just direct the traffic.”

Overseeing the aerospace class has refueled Troesh’s passion for aviation. He secured a pilot’s license for gliders and completed his first solo flight in a glider at age 14. He’s now motivated to complete his private pilot’s license for planes with engines after living vicariously through his students and watching their own passions take flight.

“That passion that I experienced at 14 I got to see it again at 16 through them,” said Troesh, 58.

Trevor Adams, a senior at Calhan, has long known he wanted to take the helm of a plane. Trevor, who completely revised his class schedule at the start of the school year so that he could enroll in aerospace, has been flying remote-control airplanes since he was 10 and watched as his older brother, now in the U.S. Air Force, completed his private pilot’s license. The 17-year-old student is now making progress toward earning his own private pilot’s license with a goal of pursuing commercial flying and becoming a certified flight instructor so that he can teach others how to fly.

Calhan Public High School senior Trevor Adams, 17, talks Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Meadow Lake Airport about his pursuit of a private pilot’s license. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Trevor, who recently wrapped up an internship with Lockheed Martin, has already helped Troesh teach the aerospace class this year. The class has become the highlight of his school days.

Although he has flown many times and taken off at the Meadow Lake Airport runway several times for flight school — including for a 6 a.m. flight Saturday before his class assignment — he was grateful to step aboard a Bellanca Super Viking 1975 to add another flight to his roster and receive class credit.

“I just enjoy any time I can get in the air,” Trevor said, noting the plane was the nicest one he has ever ridden in.

As students gathered near the runway of the airport, flanked by pastures, homes and the town of Falcon, some of them awaited takeoff with nerves while others were jittery with excitement. The aerospace students had the option of writing a 10-page paper summarizing what they learned about flying rather than buckling up to soar skyward, but all of them chose the adventurous route, Troesh said.

Saturday morning’s flights whisked students up and away amid small gusts of wind, with wisps of clouds stretching across to Pikes Peak’s snowy caps but enough sun soaking through for a clear view. 

Calhan Public High School senior Trevor Adams, 17, flies with pilot Randy Loyd as part of an outing with his aerospace class on Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Meadow Lake Airport northeast of Falcon. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Prior to Saturday, some students had never left the ground. Among them was Haille Misek, a junior who has grown more open-minded about a career in aviation after taking the aerospace course this year. Haille, 16, leaned on the enthusiasm of classmates such as Trevor and became more fascinated by aviation throughout the year.

“Everything that I know about aviation right now I learned through this course that I was able to take,” Haille said.

She will build on that knowledge next year as she steps in to help Troesh teach the class and rework the curriculum ahead of it.

On Saturday, as Haille settled into the Bellanca for her first flight, her nerves dissipated and she focused on the moment and getting to fly beside her friends. Together, they peered down, and Haille absorbed a new perspective of the place where she has grown up, remarking at all the houses in her “busy little town.”

“I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did,” she said after returning to the ground.

Recruiting kids into aviation to stem shortages

Professional pilots such as Jim Steward, who lives in Monument, always hope that their passion for aviation will rub off on their young passengers. But he finds that the thrill the students get midair is contagious, amplifying his own.

“It’s an incredible joy,” said Steward, 78. “These kids, they just seem to be so intelligent. They’re so full of energy, and they just have such a good time flying the airplanes.”

Steward is president of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 72, which covers the Colorado Springs area, and has been involved in the group’s Young Eagles program for the past six years. As part of that program, which introduces youths age 8-17 to aviation and tries to get them more engaged in the field, Steward has flown about 60 students. On Saturday, he ushered six students — one at a time — into the sky in his 1973 Decathlon, a yellow, blue and white two-seater that is one of four planes he and family members own.

EAA Chapter 72, composed of pilots who build and fly their own airplanes and meet monthly to learn different skills related to plane construction, on Saturday transported a total of 24 kids, including Calhan students. Donating their own time, planes and fuel, the pilots gave students 20-minute rides for free. The Young Eagles program takes kids on free flights each month during the summer so that they can get a taste of aviation. Most of Troesh’s students flew on Saturday, but a handful who are too old for the Youth Eagles program will take to the sky on Wednesday, with flights paid for by the school.

Steward has been a private pilot since 1960 and spent three years early in his career as a flight instructor before devoting the rest of his career to owning his own heating and air conditioning businesses in Colorado Springs. Now retired, he flies locally about once every two weeks, taking his Decathlon out for a few loops and rolls to “just kind of play around a little bit” before veering back down to “kiss the ground and put my airplane up.”

His own aerobatic maneuvers scare him more than the moments when he hands the controls over to the kids joining him in the cockpit. On Saturday, all but one of the students took command of the plane, as Steward placed his hands on the frame of the plane so that they could see they had complete control. 

He recalls one girl who threw herself completely into the experience of flying his plane, experimenting with steep turns and climbs as Steward enjoyed his time as passenger.

Parents of Young Eagles program participants must sign a waiver for their children, Steward said, while the chapter and chapter members are insured through the national EAA organization. Each private plane is also insured locally.

Calhan High School junior Haille Misek, 16, gets a high-five from her aerospace class teacher Larry Troesh after she took her first plane flight with pilot Randy Loyd on Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Meadow Lake Airport northeast of Falcon. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Steward — whose 57-year-old son has lived a life in the sky, serving as a flight instructor, flying with the U.S. Air Force Reserves and now working as a pilot for FedEx — aims to draw more kids into aviation as the industry faces shortages across positions, including pilots and aircraft mechanics.

“There’s a tremendous number of career opportunities in aviation, and it’s a great career,” Steward said.

EAA Chapter 72 newsletter editor Randy Loyd, who lives in Monument, also worries about the future of the aviation industry as it has lost pilots and other professionals of previous generations.

“It’s important to keep it going, but it’s a freedom that we will lose if we don’t recruit younger generations to get into the aviation industry,” Loyd said.

The private pilot, who also has a commercial license, has committed his entire career to aviation, including serving in the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s, working in product support for airlines and owning a business as a designated airworthiness representative, in which he issues airworthiness certificates to confirm the safety of how planes are built or maintained. He still runs the company, The Avsource Group, and flies his own airplane to New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas for work.

Loyd, 69, currently owns the Bellanca, a four-seater he named “Dairy Queen” since the plane’s original owner owned a Dairy Queen in Cañon City. On Saturday, he shuttled 12 people over the course of five flights in that aircraft. 

Loyd has participated in the Young Eagles program since he joined the local EAA chapter three years ago and has been flying kids for two years. He has yet to have a young passenger throw up, cry in flight or express relief at being back on the ground. Most love tagging along, he said.

He’s encouraged by Calhan’s aerospace class, noting that “if that continues, that’ll be good for the industry.”

Calhan Public High School teacher Larry Troesh watches as students Jaidon Burch, left, and Bailey Cornforth check out the engine of a plane on Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Meadow Lake Airport northeast of Falcon. Troesh arranged for nine students from his aerospace class to have free flights on Saturday thanks to the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 72. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Loyd remembers how his first flight, at age 17, sold him on a career in aviation — with a kind of speed at takeoff he had never before experienced and a perspective in the air that left him inspired. But even for a veteran pilot such as Loyd, the views from the cockpit haven’t lost their luster. He’s still moved by them — as are many of the students he chauffeurs through the sky.

“You can look down on the Earth just like God does and see the world from His perspective,” Loyd said. “We look like ants on the ground, I’m sure. It’s a powerful experience. It’s not something that everybody gets to do.”

It was a first-time experience for Mya, whose mother had forgotten about her daughter’s field trip to the airport and calmed down after realizing she had flown, not driven, 134 mph. The teen has boarded many commercial flights, but before Saturday had never strapped into a small private plane. And before taking Troesh’s science class, she “knew nothing” about aviation beyond the basics. Studying aviation this year has opened her up to the idea of a career in the sky, possibly a flight attendant.

Mya’s minutes soaring above her community Saturday was a lot smoother than she imagined it would be — it was even comforting. The front-row seat she had in the cockpit is now seared in her memory, with all the controllers spread out right there for her to look at up close — “something,” she said, “I’ve never seen before.”

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