Sunday, January 29, 2012

National Flight Academy at Pensacola NAS ready for takeoff: First classes to begin May 11, but big changes are still in the works

A hurricane is in the Gulf, a sailboat has capsized and those aboard must be saved.

That's the scenario that will be before students when the National Flight Academy begins classes in May.

The youngsters will attend 51, 2-day camps at the academy, which has been designed to re-create the look, feel and smell of an aircraft carrier to be called "Ambition."

"People from all over will send their kids right here to Pensacola, where we will teach them in an immersive aviation learning experience," said retired Vice Adm. Gerry Hoewing, who is president and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and heads the Flight Academy.

To set the scene, boxes equipped with large subwoofers throughout Ambition will rumble the low bass that mimics the sounds of a carrier. The sound of jets taking off from the ship also is heard regularly.

Students in seventh through 12th grades, assigned to a "squadron," will start in the Joint Intelligence Center, where they'll view mapping and other visuals of their mission on what looks like an oversized version of an iPad. They'll work out mathematical equations that will tell them the exact coordinates to fly to the sailboat.

Then, they'll move to the Ready Room on the second floor of the academy for a briefing on their assignment. By then, the ship will be picking up speed for its mission, so the low bass sounds will be growing louder.

Finally, half the students will go to the Joint Operations Center, where they'll sit at control panels and help determine the logistics, weather and other factors. They'll be guiding the remaining students through their missions at $25,000 flight simulators. Later, they'll switch places.

If all goes well, the sailors will be rescued.

And the key goal of the program also will be realized: The students will have so much fun that they won't even realize they are using STEM skills — science, technology, engineering and math — to bring about the mission accomplished.

"These are not military missions the students will be flying," Hoewing said. "We are not teaching them how to drop bombs or shoot missiles on combat missions.

"Our mission is to inspire the next generation of students in STEM education all over the country, and the Ambition here in Pensacola will be the granddaddy of them all."

On schedule

The Flight Academy, nearly 25 years in planning and more than two years in construction, expects to take off on a test flight March 3, to be followed by the first real classes, beginning May 11.

The 102,000-square-foot academy is complete, except for the kitchen, with a look familiar to Navy veterans who have served aboard carriers.

The wood paneling on the walls of the faux carrier is made to look like steel walls held together by large bolts. The state rooms where students stay look identical to the bunks of junior officers on a real ship. The berthing lounges and activity rooms provide a lighter atmosphere with a game room, TVs and couches.

The Ambition's furniture is expected to be in place by mid-February.

"All critical path timelines are on schedule," Hoewing said.

The foundation raised $18.5 million for the construction of the academy and $15 million to outfit it. It raised an additional $7 million to build and outfit Hanger Bay One, a 55,000-square-foot addition to the Naval Aviation Museum.

Most of the contributions to the academy were private donations, many in the form of pledges spread out over time.

The several government entities that contributed included Escambia County, which pledged $1 million over 10 years, the City of Pensacola, which gave $100,000, and Florida's Great Northwest, which donated $64,000.
The tourism angle

In addition to the educational benefits, the academy is expected to provide a significant educational and tourism boost.

"You're going to have a whole segment of the population that maybe has never been exposed to the Northwest Florida destination, and they will come here thanks to the fact that they have family or friends going through the program at the academy," said Jim Hizer, president and CEO of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It's going to result in thousands and thousands of additional room nights in Northwest Florida. So it's a wonderful thing, not only for the direct economic impact, but for our community as a whole."

Valeria Lento, spokeswoman for Visit Pensacola, said she already has "media missions" scheduled in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Birmingham to meet with journalists and tell the academy's story.

"It is something we push already as a new attraction," she said. "To now have something this high tech and unique, a state-of-the-art facility in our backyard will just give us that much more to share with the rest of the world."


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