It’s just your average weekday morning at Anaheim’s newest pilot school, and students are getting ready to fly.
Three computer screens surround a student’s head as he sits within his virtual cockpit. Rotating the yoke – the “steering wheel” of his simulated aircraft – he executes a slow, steady turn through a blue expanse of sky over the virtual city of Long Beach. An airport looms in the distance, one open space in a sea of gray, cubic buildings.
“Pull up!” his partner says. The young pilot hits the asphalt successfully, but the students are concerned about the landing and check the exterior of their craft.
These Canyon High School students are juggling practicing their airplane landings with attending football games, studying for the SATs and taking dates to homecoming.
The Anaheim Hills school is home to the only high school aviation program in Orange County. By the end of the program, these 45 students will be on track for several potential aviation careers and could take the written portion of the test for a pilot’s license.
“I’d like to be able to design airplanes, or maybe even fly them to test,” said James Stupin, 17, who is eyeing careers in aerospace engineering or automotive design.
“(We use) a lot of cool technology that there’s no way a normal class would get to have,” said program founder Steve Smith, who does triple duty at Canyon, teaching aviation, mathematics and student leadership. “(It’s) doing everything that educators are pushing for these days with science, math and technology.”
Smith, a professional pilot and accredited math teacher, has more than five years of flight experience. And it took almost that long to launch the Canyon Aviation program, which started in fall 2014.
“I saw some of the other classes we had on campus with culinary arts and auto shop and computers … and I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we have a pilot ground school class?’” said Smith, who has an aviation science degree from Baylor University. “Anyone I talked to thought it was a good idea but didn’t know how to get it started.”
About three years ago, the district cleared the program for takeoff.
With the help of Kathy Boyd, coordinator of Orange Unified School District’s career training and STEM programs, the school secured a planning grant of $50,000 from the district – enough to buy two flight simulators and new classroom furniture.
“It is high-skill, high-wage and high-need,” Boyd said of aviation. “We knew it would be popular with kids, but it also had those categories of putting kids in the right place.”
Smith wrote the entire curriculum from scratch and recruited students from registration days and eighth-grade information nights. Officials told him to expect a small class, perhaps even as few as five students – most people wouldn’t know what they were getting themselves into, they told him.
Thirty-nine students signed up for Aviation I in the fall of 2014.
“It was awesome,” Smith said. “It was just really cool to see that there was, right out of the gate, more interest than I was anticipating.”
The program offers two classes, Aviation I and II. More will be added. Smith wrote the curriculum using Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, modeling it after university introductory aviation courses.
By the end of Aviation II, Smith said students should possess enough technical knowledge to pass the written portion of their private pilot license test, which is open to anyone 16 or older.
Students not only take FAA-style written exams but also pilot planes themselves on the classroom’s Microsoft flight simulator systems. Each unit costs about $4,500 and features three monitors, speakers, an instrument panel, pedal system, side console, yoke and radios used for simulated conversations with air traffic control.
This year, the program received a $100,000 implementation grant from the district to buy four new simulators in addition to class sets of Chromebooks and flight planners.
One challenge Smith said he faced was tailoring the curriculum to a wide spectrum of background knowledge. Some may have signed up for an easy senior elective, he said; others enrolled because the pathway appealed to their career interests.
There are a multitude of careers in the aviation industry, Smith said. Last year, he took students on field trips to museums and airfields, including Fullerton Municipal Airport and Corona Airfield.
“I didn’t want the focus just to be (on becoming) an airline pilot,” Smith said. “I wanted it to be, ‘Look at all the different possibilities that exist … air traffic control, the military, maintenance, management, airport operations.’”
The local aviation community has been extremely supportive, he said. The Planes of Fame museum gave his class free guided tours, and the Anaheim Police Department Air Support Team donated expired flight charts and demonstrated the airplanes and helicopters used for surveillance.
Canyon Aviation also hosts guest speakers, and when a representative from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University visited the class, 16-year-old Zach Marshall said he found his new dream school.
Marshall said he finds meteorology and flight planning fascinating. Recently, a class volunteer opportunity helped him land a job at the Chino airport.
“Since I was able to make a paper airplane, I’ve always wanted to fly,” said Marshall, a junior. “We had a Marine F-18 mechanic who came in. That got me interested in maybe going to the Marines.”
Word of the program has flown as far as San Diego and Riverside, district officials said.
“(We’re) in talks with community colleges that own planes in Orange County,” said Diana Schneider, senior director for the Career Technical Education Partnership in the Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Orange Unified school districts.
“Students are all being encouraged to go forward and take the next level, whether it’s at a community college or a four-year university, because we want them to get to the top of their field … There’s so many job openings for people with flight experience,” she said.
Including girls. Smith added that he wants to encourage more girls to take the program – he’s had only two each year.
There are, he said, a ton of scholarships and internships open for females interested in flying.
Canyon Aviation is making more big changes in the coming years. Smith wants to implement an aviation internship class for college credit in which students can get off-campus positions in aircraft maintenance, business, operations, engineering or even flying.
In addition, a new Aviation Science class will be introduced in 2016.
Physics and calculus teacher Khoa Dao, who started at Canyon last fall, is working on curriculum for the new class that will address topics such as motion, meteorology and the physics of flight.
“I am working on the outline for the class because it includes a quarter of physics,” said Dao, who also coaches Canyon’s Academic Decathlon team. “We are modeling the class from college aviation science courses.”
Smith said he’s happy that many of the students have said they want to later obtain a pilot’s license.
“It’s already bigger than my initial vision was and I think it has the potential to be huge,” he said. “If you speak aviation … it can benefit you and open up career possibilities you might not have thought of.”