Dean of Students Di Rushing poked her head out the door. “I’ll say a prayer,” she told them, a nervous lilt to her voice.
The students, ages 14-18, had been participating in a college-accredited flight training program offered by Ouray School since January, taught by local pilots and flight instructors John Lockhart and Bill Swartz.
The kids had practiced in flight simulators maybe a dozen times. But today, they were headed to the Black Canyon Jet Center in Montrose to fly a real airplane for the first time. Take-off, landing, the whole nine yards.
“I’m gonna die,” Senior Steven Duce grimaced two hours later, wearing dark glasses and a radio headset and looking a little green around the gills as he squeezed his teenage frame into the cockpit of the tiny Cessna. Lockhart, seated next to him in the co-pilot seat, gave him a few words of encouragement and the two sped down the runway for a flawless take-off.
Lockhart, a former TWA pilot, and Swartz, who flew helicopters and planes in the Army before a career as a Continental Airlines pilot, have volunteered countless hours of their time to get the flight training program off the ground and the students into the air. They are thrilled to be ushering this small group of bright, motivated kids into the fraternity of pilots.
During a recent day in the classroom, the students had flight maps, called VFR sectionals, spread out across the tables. Their assignment was to chart their own cross-country course from a starting point to a destination.
The vibe was focused and intense, as students quietly conferred with each other to chart their road in the sky, or “victor airway.” Swartz, standing nearby, had full confidence they could do it.
“They have to compute everything – the altitude they want to fly at, everything,” Swartz said. “Just like they were actually going to take an airplane and go. So it’s real-life training.”
One of the students looked up from his chart. “What’s our ceiling? How high can we fly?” he asked.
“What’s your airplane performance?” Swartz replied. The unspoken suggestion: Figure it out.
“We can’t find it.”
“Well what do you think a 172 will fly at? I had it at 11,000 yesterday, coming back from Naturita to Montrose.”
“I’d take it to, like, 13, 14?” the student offered.
“But you gotta remember, you have oxygen requirements,” Swartz reminded him. “Twelve [thousand] would be okay, but you can’t stay up there for more than 30 minutes.”
“Ah, I’d just hold my breath,” the student joked.
Turns out flying takes a lot of planning, and a mind for details.
When the course is offered at the college level, it takes a full year to complete. At Ouray School, students have managed to cram it all into five months.
“It’s been pretty intensive at times,” Swartz said. “It’s a lot of stuff. I say it’s like standing at the end of a fire hose.”
Students must have a 3.5 GPA or better to be eligible for the course. Many of them say flight school has stretched and challenged them in ways they’ve not experienced in their education up until this point. Some say they are now considering a career as a pilot.
When they complete the course later this month, the students will know enough to pass a commercial license test. But in order to actually become licensed, they will also need to get in 40 hours of flight time (averaging $175 per hour, including airplane and instructor), and pass the FAA ground test and flight test.
Some of them will also have to wait until they turn 16, the minimum age to become a licensed pilot.
Ouray School Superintendent Scott Pankow is delighted at the success of the program in its pilot year, and is crossing his fingers the school can offer it again next spring.
“The rigor is absolutely intense,” he said. “These are our top kids, and they’re getting stretched. It’s palpable.”
Pankow stressed how lucky the school is to have two experienced pilots heading up the flight training program. “We couldn’t ask for better guys to donate their time and their passion,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to have freshmen taking a college level flight school course. These kids could have their pilot’s license before they have their drivers license.”