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Teens behind the wheel -- of planes

By John Couwels, CNN
  • An air museum in central Florida offers aviation summer camp for teens and tweens
  • The kids practice on simulators, before getting in a real plane
  • Some students get the opportunity to fly the airplane, while others sit in the backseats
  • Director Ernie Sanborn says young kids "adapt to (flying) much easier than older students"

Lakeland, Florida (CNN) -- At a summer camp in central Florida, students learn the fundamentals of flying an airplane -- not just from a computer simulator, but from an actual airplane cockpit.

"It was epically scary," Brandon Hardy, 16, said after he flew and landed a plane for the first time. "My knuckles were white, my toes were curled in my shoes."

For the past four years, kids between the ages of 11 and 18 have attended weeklong camps at the Florida Air Museum at Sun 'N Fun in Lakeland.

The Destination Aviation summer camp teaches kids everything from the instrument panel in the cockpit, the aerodynamics of a plane and how to file a flight plan followed by hours on flight simulators.

"It's amazing just how well an 11-year-old can do flying an airplane," said Ernie Sanborn, who operates the summer camp.

"You'd think it's much beyond their capabilities but they actually do a lot better and adapt to it much easier than older students."

Hardy's grandfather, a pilot who has built a plane in his garage, suggested he attend the summer camp.

"It's fun," Hardy said. "I like it and I just kept coming."

He's not alone. Katelynne Pease, 16, has returned to the camp year after year, along with many other kids.

The daughter of a helicopter pilot, Pease started attending the camp when she was 12. She says she inherited the love of flying from her father.

"My father takes me whenever he gets the chance," she says. Flying in a helicopter is very different than piloting a plane, but both are "very cool."

"You're in the moment and you actually have control of the whole entire airplane," Pease said of flying. "Time slows down and you're having fun."

The first three days of camp students are focused on the fundaments of flying. They also practice on simulators, which aren't quite the same as the real thing, said Hardy.

"I didn't feel the bonds of Earth slip away as people like to say," he said. "I felt that in the airplane."

Teachers from a local aerospace high school volunteer their time to teach kids about weather, how to read the instruments and aviation maps.

"The kids are all motivated, you don't have attention deficit," said pilot and camp instructor Michael McCarty. "You don't have kids looking outside wanting to be somewhere else."

Model planes made of balsa wood are used to teach the importance of weight and balance on a plane. If the wood plane flies straight up when thrown, then tape is used on the nose to keep it level.

Too much tape and the plane makes a nosedive into the ground, a simple yet effective lesson.

The day before flight day, students are taught how to calculate the 20-minute flight each student will fly.

With aviation maps and airport plans, McCarty tells the students to keep a lookout for landmarks, which is a good way to confirm they are on course.

On flight day, groups of three students are paired with a flight instructor in training aircrafts.

Before taking off, flight instructors show the students how to perform a preflight safety inspection of the plane outside and in.

It's amazing just how well an 11-year-old can do flying an airplane.
--Ernie Sanborn, director, Destination Aviation summer camp

Each of the students will get the opportunity to fly the airplane, while the other students sit in the backseats. Flight instructors assess each student's ability and confidence to take off or land.

For some students, it's the first time they've been inside an airplane.

"Their first experience is in the left seat of an airplane," said Sanborn.

Once the planes return, students are quiet as they walk down the tarmac toward the hangar.

Sanborn says parents tell him they want their kids to take part in the program "because they grow up ... it's a change and an opportunity" and they exude "a quiet confidence, they don't brag about it."

After flight day, the boys and girls gather in the parking lot and, when asked about their experience, they shout, "Awesome!"

"I got to fly a plane! I got to fly a plane!" Pease exclaimed with the typical giddiness of a teenager.

"Not a lot of people can say that at my age!"