Flying with confidence: New simulators at Sterling HS prepare students for career takeoff

Moments after the bell rings for the last class period of the day, Sterling High School student Jacqueline Vickers is buckling her seatbelt inside a flight simulator and preparing for takeoff.

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With her hands resting on the flight yoke, she reviews the flight control panel and gazes at the video screen that stretches across the cockpit and shows a digital picture view of Houston.

“I love everything about flying – just knowing that you’re in the air and you’re doing something that most people think is impossible,” Vickers says while practicing to fly in one of two new flight training devices at Sterling.

The Redbird simulators were recently built in a Sterling aviation classroom to enhance the school’s aviation sciences magnet program with flight training devices for 60 students. The program addition funded by the district’s Career Readiness Department allows students to practice flying before they actually get in a real airplane.

Few school districts across the nation provide flight simulators for students, and the machines are typically used for adult training. Students can use the simulators to fly from any airport in the world, log their flight time, and watch video of their flights in the machine.

The students began using the simulators at the start of the 2014-2015 school year. The machines will be a major feature in the new Sterling campus which will be rebuilt under the district’s 2012 bond program into a 21st century learning environment that emphasizes the school’s aviation program. The simulators will be located near an airplane hangar in the new three-story transparent building, which will provide students views of airplanes in flight from William P. Hobby Airport, less than five miles from the school.

“The simulators are so valuable because they offer so many opportunities for collaboration and project-based learning for all of our students,” said Sterling Principal Edward Mitchell. “This will allow our global operations and logistics students the opportunity to not only troubleshoot flight scenarios but walk across the hall and look at the equipment and hydraulics at the microscopic level.”

The simulators complement what students are already learning in their aviation classes on aircraft technology and transportation distribution and logistics by providing them with an interactive and hands-on experience. Inside the simulator, students are able to discover how it feels to be in an actual airplane by experiencing and controlling the machine’s flow and movement.

“Remember as you gain air speed, the plane will generate more lift,” said aviation teacher Marvin Smith while instructing a student in the simulator. “She does an excellent job of tracking down the runway and not drifting.”

This month, Smith worked with students on their flight traffic pattern skills in the simulator. They also practiced taking off, landing, and changing flight direction by turning the yoke, which in turn moves the entire machine to reflect the new path. A group of students in his class are also receiving regular flight training from instructors with Solo Flight Training at Ellington Field Airport in Houston.

Smith, who grew up around airplanes, began flying 20 years ago after receiving a degree in aerospace science from Texas Southern University. He says the detail and control panel inside the simulator matches the interior of a cockpit in a real plane and allows students to select checkpoints to fly to around Houston. The weather conditions can also be set in the machine, so students can practice flying in different types of weather.

“When the students are immersed in this kind of environment and they have their pilot headset on, it’s beneficial to them because they can really see themselves flying,” Smith said. “They won’t have to wait as long for their turn to go fly because they’re acquiring the skills they need to pass the flight practicum.”

Student Ronald Mejia passed his flight practicum last year. He now has his private pilot license and is a member of a flying club.

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“I like to practice in the simulator before going out in the field, so I’m more refreshed on what I have to do by the time I get into a real airplane,” Mejia said. “Once I get into the airplane, I feel much more confident.”

When the senior graduates from Sterling in the spring, he plans to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and later to become a military pilot. He’s flown his teacher and principal around on a plane and would even like to take HISD Superintendent Terry Grier on a flight, too.

“The aviation program has opened so many doors for me,” Mejia said. “It’s important to keep making the program better because it shows students that there’s more to the world than just where they live. We go to the Galveston airport and practice landings and traffic pattern work. We’re getting real-world experiences.”