Students gain insight into test pilot tasks

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Students in the Junior Test Pilot Summer Program at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale look for stealth capabilities on a display Lockheed Martin SR-71A aircraft. The two-week program at the Palmdale airpark gives local students in grades 6 through 8 an opportunity to learn about the history of the Antelope Valley’s aerospace industry, as well as introduce them to the wide variety of skilled labor available for careers in the industry. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

What keeps airplanes up? That’s one of the concepts students studied if they joined the Junior Test Pilot Program, offered for the third consecutive summer this year at Blackbird Airpark on East Avenue P in Palmdale, where about 20 military aircraft including the D-21 drone and the SR-71 are on display.

The program hosts four sessions each year. The first runs for one week and is reserved for school classes. The following three sessions are two weeks long and are open to the public. This summer all three public sessions are full.

The sessions run Monday through Thursday each week, according to Kathy Harfman, the gift shop manager at Edwards Flight Test Museum and at Blackbird Airpark. Harfman ran the program, initiated by the Flight Test Historical Foundation, the first two summers.

This year, Rebecca Reeder, the new general manager of the Flight Test Historical Foundation, took charge.

Isaac Velez, 11, practices his stealth detecting skills while participating in the Junior Test Pilot Program being offered at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale this summer. The two-week program at the Palmdale airpark gives local students in grades 6 through 8 an opportunity to learn about the history of the Antelope Valley’s aerospace industry. (Photographs by Evelyn Kristo)

A highlight of the program, Reeder said, is the fact that aerospace industry professionals come in as guest speakers for the students on class days.

“So students get one-on-one access to aerospace professionals,” Reeder said. “Also, they’re learning there are hundreds of jobs in their backyard — pilots, engineers, mechanics, machine shop staff, IT personnel. In general, the goal is to get students excited about learning.

The program shows students that “learning is fun,” Reeder said. Furthermore, she added, the professionals show students the path that led to their own careers.

It’s a good opportunity for students to get a better understanding of the aerospace industry, Reeder said.

The first of four sessions kicked off June 17, Harfman said. That first session ran on a condensed, one-week timeline. Participants must complete eight missions, generally one mission per day over two weeks. Students in the first session had to complete two missions per day during that four-day period.

Lockheed Martin flight test engineer, Patrick Blazek, left, and Lt. Col. Ever Zavala, commander of the 47th Cyberspace Test Squadron, Det. 1, at Edwards Air Force Base, talk with students in the Junior Test Pilot Program being held this summer at the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale. The two-week program at the Palmdale airpark gives local students in grades 6 through 8 an opportunity to learn about the history of the Antelope Valley’s aerospace industry, as well as introduce them to the wide variety of skilled labor available for careers in the industry. (Photographs by Evelyn Kristo)

Harfman said the schedule of mission topics is set up as follows:

Monday: Flight
Tuesday: Stealth
Wednesday: Altitude
Thursday: Mach Speed
Monday: Payload
Tuesday: Maneuverability
Wednesday: Reconnaissance
Thursday: Jet Engines

Courses are developed based on elements of a STEM education curriculum — science, technology, engineering and math, as those disciplines apply to flight test and aerospace. Initially, students tour Blackbird and Joe Davies Heritage Airparks.

Students also take the “Become a Junior Test Pilot” course, an introduction to the Junior Test Pilot School. They choose different missions and learn about subjects of interest to them.
In a mission titled “How Do Airplanes Fly,” students learn about the four forces that work together to make flying a plane possible. In another mission about the F-22, G-Force and Mach Speed, they learn about the Air Force’s premiere stealth fighter the F-22 Raptor; the effects of G-Force, and how fast Mach Speed moves. Another mission focuses on Stealth Technology and the B-2 Bomber. Still another has to do with Airplane Instrumentation.

Blackbird Airpark intern Lonna Johnson talks about a Northrop F-5 aircraft with students in the Junior Test Pilot Program, as she gives a tour of the Palmdale airpark. The two-week program sponsored by the Flight Test Historical Foundation gives local students in grades 6 through 8 an opportunity to learn about the history of the Antelope Valley’s aerospace industry, as well as introduce them to the wide variety of skilled labor available for careers in the industry. (Photographs by Evelyn Kristo)

Among their hands-on projects, they build an altimeter and paper airplanes. Then they do things to tweak a plane, such as placing a paper clip on the nose to see the difference that extra weight makes in flight, Harfman said. At the end of each day, they receive a sticker for each mission and at the end of the two-week period, they receive a junior test pilot patch.

Although the program is geared toward children in grades 6-8, Harfman said they accept all youth who register if space permits.

“We get some high school (students) who want to go on for a career.” Harfman said one former high school student from the program who works at the Blackbird Airpark gift shop on weekends is now enrolled at Antelope Valley College and considering an aerospace career.

This summer in the first session, 15 students enrolled. But, Harfman said, the following sessions had between 40 and 50 students.

Students in the Junior Test Pilot Summer Program sponsored by the Flight Test Historical Foundation take a tour of the Joe Davies Heritage Airpark in Palmdale. The two-week program at the Palmdale airpark gives local students in grades 6th through 8th an opportunity to learn about the history of the Antelope Valley’s aerospace industry as well as introduce them to the wide variety of skilled labor available for careers in the industry. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

“Last year we were overwhelmed — 80 kids a day,” Harfman said. Because the classroom facility at Blackbird can’t really accommodate that many, she said, they have been considering using some space at Antelope Valley College next year for the classroom work.

Aside from the summer program, an online version of the course is offered to students worldwide who want to learn about Edwards AFB, test flight and experimental aircraft. Information about the summer program and the online course can be found at www.afftcmuseum.org. After accessing that website, click on the Education link.

The website also has some information about the late Astronaut Neil Armstrong, who made history as the first man to step on the moon. Armstrong was an experimental research test pilot and spent a lot of time during his career at Edwards. To benefit students, Armstrong had quoted Astronaut Gene Cernan, the 11th and last man to walk on the moon, who said, “Never let go of your dreams. Mine took me to the moon.”