‘Aviation Challenge’ Teaches Teamwork and Military Flight Training

A NASA T-38 Talon rests beside the space shuttle mock-up at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. (Charles A Atkeison)

Integrity. Strength. Parent and child bonding. Excitement.

Not just words, they describe personal life experiences for those who pass through the gates of Aviation Challenge at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Aviation Challenge is a program designed as a Top Gun-styled camp course teaching kids of all ages the fundamentals of outdoor survival and fighter pilot training. As summer approaches across America, children and adults alike can discover an exciting “summer camp” experience with real adventures and personal growth.

Surrounded by the green mountains of northern Alabama, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is a NASA visitor’s center for the Marshall Space Flight Center. The facility houses two museums and dozens of attractions, and is home to the popular Space Camp and Aviation Challenge programs.

Aviation Challenge’s Cheapshot enjoys teaching teamwork and basic outdoor skills. (Charles Atkeison)

This aerospace journalist went through the exciting three-day program with instructors Chris Edwards, call sign “Cheapshot”, and Sami DeWeese, call sign “Mule”. Both have aviation backgrounds and carry with them a strong interest in the program.

Call signs are given on the day you arrive at Aviation Challenge, and usually reflect something about you as a person — much like Tom Cruise’s risk taking character “Maverick” in the movie Top Gun. Just like real fighter pilots, you will use your call sign instead of your own name during your three-to-seven day career as an aviator trainee. My call sign as a trainee, “Dash”.

Teamwork is high on the instructor’s mind as both Cheapshot and Mule bring a group of children ages 7 thru 12 — strangers to one another — together as a squadron team.

“In Aviation Challenge, they have to work together,” Cheapshot explained his own views of the program. “I have to be their leader, that role model, and show them I’m in charge much like a military instructor would for his or her unit.”

Building a camp fire and outdoor survival lessons are taught at Aviation Challenge. (Charles Atkeison)

In our session, the opening hours allowed for the children and their parents to learn more about what is expected of them and just what lies ahead for them. Our living quarters were assigned. We dropped off our gear and met back up to begin our flight training.

“We also try to get everyone talking and to become go getter’s,” Cheapshot added as he stood in his green flight suit next to a NASA T-38A aircraft.

The first day included walking tours around the space and military museums; incredible rides or what the instructors call “simulators”; and a hearty dinner before boarding a private bus and heading out for the first of several training sessions upon a private field. Several static military aircraft are positioned around the training facility, including a real F-14 Tomcat flown in Top Gun.

At a secure location one mile from the space center is a five acre field in which the actual training is held. Flight simulations combined with classroom sessions introduce the parents and their children to the career of a military aviator.

Lessons on building a camp fire safely; using a compass to navigate an unknown wooded terrain; and learning how to recognize and find fresh water are just a few of the activities during Aviation Challenge. Adjacent to the exercise field are two special buildings which house flight training operations.

A retired Air Force F-16B Fighting Falcon honors Alabama’s own Tuskegee Airmen located near the training facility at Aviation Challenge. (Charles Atkeison)

Inside trainees are taught how to fly one of the current jets used by the U.S. Navy, the F/A 18E Super Hornet. Led by Cheapshot and Mule, trainees learn how to perform preflight checks of their powerful jet, such as setting the wing flaps in the ready position and how to taxi the aircraft toward the runway.

Several control levers and a large video screen inside a cockpit mock-up provide a realistic approach to the flight session as one begins to practice take offs and build towards a flight to a designated airport.

Training Director Kim “Spud” Thornton helps supervise the flight sessions from an air traffic control station near the flight simulators. Several will crash and burn on their first attempt, while some will fly like an ace behind the stick of their Super Hornet.

For those who crash after take-off, Spud becomes your wing-man as she resets your aircraft back onto the tarmac for another training exercise. Following one session, I witnessed an emotional bond as father and son exchanged hand slaps and laughter upon learning how to fly their jet successfully and land at the right military base.

“You learn by doing,” Mule says firmly, eyes focused on her own flight simulation screen. “And when you succeed your confidence soars.”

Aviation Challenge instructor Mule demonstrates how to navigate using a compass. (Charles Atkeison)

Jet flight simulations are taken to a higher level later in the day as the group of trainees, dressed in military camouflage fatigues, head to one of the highlights of the training, the Centrifuge. Built and used by NASA, the Centrifuge is how test pilots and astronauts alike train to ensure they can handle the stresses of high “G” loads on the body.

A “G” is one-gravity, and for pilots making a sweeping turn, they may encounter nearly four times their body’s weight, known as four G’s. Those trainees interested in the Centrifuge were allowed to ride it only twice, their bodies experiencing up to 3.2 G’s as their secured module traveled at nearly fifty m.p.h. in a circle thus creating the G loads.

As the sun began to set, the camouflaged trainees were led out to a wooded region of the training field by Mule and Cheapshot and briefed on their next “mission”. As they concluded, these young adults soon discover their own personal strengths as these aviator trainees worked hard to meet objectives under the blackness of the star-draped night.

Following the exercise, the tired squadron gathered together to shake hands and celebrate the recent accomplishment with treats over an open fire. Sharing smores together, a parent’s smile gave further encouragement to their child upon the completion of a full day.

Aviation Challenge student Chewie trains with the F/A-18 flight simulator. (Charles Atkeison)

Training requires rest times and enjoyment, and at the Space and Rocket Center will you find an IMAX theater with a gigantic 180-degree field of view movie screen. The high definition IMAX movie Hubble, the prehistoric Sea Rex 3D, and an aviator’s choice Legends of Flight are now showing at the Space and Rocket Center’s two theaters.

As summer nears, make plans now to attend a fulfilling summer camp experience. For moms and dads, it may be one of the most rewarding gifts one can give — time shared with their child and memories which last a lifetime.

Aviation Challenge manager confirm openings are available in May and into the summer months for most ages. Visit Aviation Challenge‘s web site for detailed information and to check on availability dates for your planned visit. The current Program Guide is available for download here.

Parents soon discover how important Aviation Challenge is upon graduation, as they grow closer with their children and reconnect in this busy world we all share.

(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)