The plane sat on the runway parked amongst gleaming private jets, the pavement already sticky hot in the humid August sun. The plane, a Cessna 162 Skyliner, is the color of an orange creamsicle, with newly polished wings. Everything looked in place, except for the pilots—a group of middle school girls, some perched on a floral booster seat to see over the plane’s instrument panel.
The newly minted junior aviators were at an airfield in Leesburg, Virginia as part of the Museum’s She Can STEM summer camp. The camp is aimed at introducing aviation to 60 underrepresented middle school girls in the DC metro area. They were about to take off on a discovery flight, with a licensed aviator showing them the literal ups and downs of piloting an aircraft. It would become the first flight the campers would carefully pencil in their brand new pilot’s logs.
The flights were a key activity in their two weeks of hands-on STEM programming, in and out of the Museum. The campers went indoor skydiving, built and flew their own do-it-yourself drones, and practiced pitch and yaw on flight simulators.
Despite their adrenaline-filled experiences, there was still a pause on the bus to the airfield when Barb Gruber, the Museum’s supervisor of school programs, asked who would be the first to fly. Eventually Diya, an eighth grader with her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, volunteered.
She said she didn’t want to wait and get too nervous. But as soon as she saw the Cessna waiting for her, she was bouncing on her toes with excitement. Diya signed up for the camp—on the very last day applications were open, she added—because she thinks she might like to be a pilot.
As she climbed into the plane, Diya showed no hesitation. She buckled herself in and adjusted her headset, her hand gripping the plane’s joystick control. The pilot and owner of the airplane started the engine, the propeller spinning into motion. The plane taxied onto the runway for takeoff. They faltered for moment on the turn. Gruber, watching from the sidelines, called out “Right rudder!” Diya quickly figured it out and kept going. The other girls watched with their cell phones ready, pointed to the sky to capture Diya’s journey.
On the discovery flight, each of the campers learned how to takeoff; how to gently adjust the joystick to the right and left to level out the plane; to fly the landing pattern as they approached the runway; and make it safely back on the ground 30 minutes later. They approached this task with pure concentration, eyes steady and focused on the horizon ahead. At the pilot’s urging, they did spend a little time taking in the view.
When Diya eventually landed, she recapped the experience for her fellow campers. What was it like? Was it scary?
“It’s really cool!”
Then, the next girl climbed into the cockpit.
The second camp of the inaugural She Can STEM program graduated today. In addition to their discovery flights, the students launched a high-altitude weather balloon, and analyzed the atmospheric data it collected.