Thursday, October 30, 2014

Diamond DA40: Aspen aeronautics program offers higher learning • Aircraft obtained will be used by schools for student lessons

Jordan Curet/Aspen Daily News 
Greg Roark, director of the aeronautics program in the Aspen School District, explains the instrument panel on the 2010 Diamond DA40 aircraft. Students in the program and the public will able to use the plane, which belongs to a not-for-profit corporation, for flight lessons. 

Looking around Greg Roark’s classroom in Aspen Middle School, with its immersive flight simulator, three flat screen TVs, noise-attenuating headsets, a private pilot syllabus and federal test standards, it’s easy to believe him when he says the school district’s aeronautics program is “not playing around.”

That’s additionally backed up by the Oct. 4 arrival of the program’s newest addition: a 2010 Diamond DA40 single-engine light aircraft that will be devoted to flying lessons for students of all ages. Roark, a certified pilot and director of the program, landed the plane at Sardy Field after flying it from Canada.

The plane does not belong to the school; it was purchased through private donations made to the Aspen Aerospace Alliance and the Aspen Higher Learning Flight Academy, both not-for-profit corporations affiliated with Roark’s program.

While that plane is a huge boost to those attending Aspen schools — which haven’t had to pay anything toward the aeronautics program, as all the money has been privately raised — Roark said it also will be available to the general public at subsidized rates for lessons. He declined to say the price, citing the private nature of the donation that funded the purchase. But such planes tend to be in the $350,000 range.

Hunter Bryant, a junior at Aspen High, got his first experience in the Diamond DA40 recently. He is devoted to learning the myriad aspects of what it takes to be a pilot, a path that started for him last year.

When Roark introduced the program, Bryant said he joined it with a few friends and that there were about 20 people in the ground-school class initially. Ground school gives students the basics of aeronautical knowledge.

“Some kids thought it was hard … and so we ended up with six kids in the class,” Bryant said. “It’s just a lot of content to learn.”

Roark said that is the point of the program.

“As a pilot, you’re managing so many different things, so many different systems,” he said. “You’re in airspace, you have atmospheric conditions, you have the mathematics that you have to be able to do in your head, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, the communications piece.”

But Bryant has endured and starts pilot lessons next week (the Federal Aviation Administration requires a licensed pilot to be at least 16 years old, though a person can begin training at any age).

“Hopefully by next year I can have my private pilot license,” he said.

Sky-high plans

The aircraft is but one part of what Roark and the not-for-profit corporations have in mind to jump-start applied math, engineering and physics lessons for Roaring Fork Valley students, while also offering the public a way to learn to fly without having to go to Rifle or Grand Junction.

Roark and board members of the corporations also envision students building an unmanned aerial vehicle with two cameras mounted on it and a small supply cache that could be dropped via parachute to someone stranded on a mountain.

“We ultimately would like to be able to team with Mountain Rescue Aspen to be able to get out there and use these,” Roark said. “This can be the first responder.”

And the groups are hoping to buy a five-seat experimental aircraft that the students would build themselves, except for the engine and fuselage.

All of this, and the aeronautics program is only in its second full year. Roark, who speaks with evangelical zeal about the need for students interested in engineering, math and aeronautics, said the airline industry will need 544,000 new pilots in the next 28 years. Without them, “it will be a very rude awakening for a lot of people who just look at air traffic as this ubiquitous thing,” he said.

The Aspen schools’ program he is spearheading hopes to address that through applied math and science, and college and career readiness.

Starting the program required figuring out how to “implement that into the existing curricular architecture in such a way that it makes sense for the vision the superintendent has for the school,” Roark said.

Superintendent John Maloy said one aspect that captured his attention when Roark made his pitch was that students would be “participating in a high-energy, technology-based learning environment.

“Students really get engaged if it is more of a lab setting, more of a roll-up-your-sleeves” endeavor, he said. “They can see the relevancy between what they are studying and what they’re applying in the short term and long term.”

Maloy also noted that Colorado ranks second in the nation for private aerospace employment. The industry will be needing highly qualified employees, and local students, if interested, could return to their home state for careers near their families.

The program offers two potential career pathways — FAA pilot certification and aeronautical engineering. It starts in the elementary school with assembling static models. In middle school, students build what Roark called dynamic models — on a recent morning middle schoolers were in the early stages of constructing radio-controlled (RC) planes. The process involves “true problem-solving,” he said.

Building an RC aircraft allows the students to understand what makes a plane tick as students work their way up to the real deal.

The new plane already has offered its first lesson. Student lessons are offered at the operational cost of the plane: $125 an hour. Scholarships, similar to those available to students for sports and the district’s experiential education programs, will be obtainable.

The general public will pay $185 an hour, which Roark called a fair price, considering the solidity of the Diamond DA40. He compared it to a flight center in Grand Junction that offers a rental price for a Cessna of $175 an hour, which doesn’t include the instructor and fuel costs.

Roark and principals of the affiliated corporations want to take the program to other schools as well. The FAA pilot course he teaches for high school students and the general public, for instance, are to be broadcast live, allowing for distance learning at schools in Basalt and Carbondale. That aspect is expected to be available starting in January.

“There are not a lot of schools out there that do what we do,” he said. “It’s pretty rare. But I don’t think it has to be that rare. … We don’t think we have to limit the experience here.”

Asked about the funding aspect of the program, which is considerable, he likened it to sports.

“You want to teach a kid how to play hockey, well, you have to have ice, build a rink. You have to pump millions of dollars into it,” Roark said. “In looking at what we do, it’s no different.”

The school has not devoted a “single penny” to the program, providing only Roark’s classroom space.

He said he spent three years knocking on doors for donations and that the Aspen Education Foundation has been a “tremendous supporter” of fundraising efforts.

One of the students diligently working on an RC model on a recent morning was eighth-grader Ethan Linn. He said the RC projects haven’t been as hard as the piloting he learns through one of the room’s smaller simulators, though he is getting better at that. Linn said he sits down at a simulator “every single day at lunch.” He remembered when Roark brought an RC helicopter and another model plane to his regular classroom.

“I said, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’” Linn said.

Wait until he’s in the Diamond DA40.

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