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When Taylor County High School teacher Deborah Hinton started the Flying Cardinals aviation program in 2010, she admits her knowledge of airplanes was limited. But during one of her flight lessons taught by instructor Edward Jett, Hinton learned "What's next?" are the two most important words in flying.
"You're always thinking about what you're going to do, making sure you know what is coming next," Hinton, a chemistry, physics, and aviation science instructor, said.
Jett, a veteran pilot who volunteers for the aviation program, said the role of a flight instructor is to get his students' minds from behind the plane, to the front.
"You can't be just reactionary to the airplane," Jett said. "You've got to plan. You've got to know where you're going."
As for what's next for her aviation students, Hinton hopes it's a fulfilling career in the STEM field - an acronym for fields of study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. From learning the electronic instruments in the glass cockpit to building a plane from a 600-plus piece kit, Hinton said students who go through the aviation program are exposed to all four STEM concepts.
"This is a direct application of what STEM is all about," Hinton said.
Although it is just in its fourth year, the benefits of participating in the aviation program are already being realized by recent TCHS graduates.
Jarrett Whitlock, a first-year student in the aviation maintenance program at Somerset Community College, said the opportunity to learn the basics of aviation in high school has helped make his transition to college a smooth one.
"[The aviation program] actually made me pay a little more attention in my classes because I knew that later on I could definitely benefit from it," Whitlock said.
While he already had an interest in remote control airplanes before he joined the program, Whitlock said it put him in connection with other remote control flyers who helped develop his skills.
Right now, the Flying Cardinals are getting hands-on learning with two big projects at the Taylor County Airport.
The first, restoring a 1940 pre-war Aeronca T-250 Champ airplane, is a collaborative project with several other aviation programs in Kentucky. According to Jim Shulthise, an airframe and power plant mechanic, who also volunteers for the Flying Cardinals, said they are building the wings of the rare plane. The fuselage, or body of the plane, is being restored at a school in Frankfort.
The students are also building a Zenith CH801 airplane using a kit that was donated from a Virginia resident.
"I would say it's at least 40 percent complete," Shulthise said. "The Zenith will definitely be used for flying and flight training or time building once the students have their license."
Hinton said the aviation program is still in the early stages, but she hopes it will be able to offer flight lessons necessary for recreational pilot certification to students. According to Hinton, the training is an expense that most students couldn't afford.
"I am most excited about the fact that as we look at these projects progressing, and I look at my students going off into their careers, A&P mechanics, that they are building what we're going to have in our community to bring back to our community," Hinton said.
Hinton said the aviation students are also able to network with people in the aerospace industry when they compete in competitions at the University of Kentucky and attend AirVenture Oshkosh, the world's "greatest aviation celebration," in Wisconsin.
Hinton said several competitions are scheduled throughout the year, giving her and the students the chance to choose which ones they participate in. She said there are flight simulation competitions in November, which students have been preparing for in a lab using flight simulation software and computers donated by the Board of Education. They are planning to compete in a skills competition in February and a wing design competition in May.
Savannah Rash, a junior and furthest in the aviation program, said she has always liked science but never had a specific interest in aviation. When she joined the program her sophomore year, she said it was because she couldn't think of anything else to do.
But she says seeing the concepts she learned in her math and science classes being applied in the aviation program have helped her become a better learner.
"I kind of see how it all applies now," Rash said. "It's not just OK, I'm learning math. I'm learning math to do this. And this is important."
While she doesn't intend to pursue a career in aviation, Rash said her new love of airplanes will not end after graduation.
"I do want to still be a private pilot, so whatever job I have, I'll still be a pilot," Rash said.
Industrial technology teacher Bill Shoemaker also helps Hinton with the aviation program, and he said they are hoping to attract more female students.
"You won't ever find her not doing something," Shoemaker said of Rash. "She's all the time busy."
Shoemaker said he helps the students read blueprints and teaches computerized drafting, which the students need for wing design.
Although he doesn't have much interest in becoming a pilot, Shoemaker said participating in the program has helped him, as well as the students.
"I'm interested in learning ... I don't know nothing about airplanes," Shoemaker said. "I knew they flew - that's about it. And I knew I didn't want to get in one. But since then, I've flown four times."
Since the beginning, Hinton said the aviation program has received much support from the community, particularly the Taylor County Airport. She said the program wouldn't be possible without the community support they have received. As the students become more involved with the hands-on construction of airplanes, Hinton and Shulthise have realized they are much lacking in tools.
"When you're sitting there doing riveting or something like that, you have 12, 13 students standing around you, and you have one riveter ... everybody doesn't get a chance to get hands on."
According to Jeffrey Schuhmann, public information officer and grant writer for Taylor County Schools, the aviation program's use of STEM provides additional grant opportunities for the program. While some grant applications have been submitted, they haven't been awarded yet.
Therefore, Hinton said she is looking forward to forming more partnerships within the community to give students more chances for hands-on experience.
Students interested in working on the plane projects outside of class meet at the airport after school every Tuesday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Hinton said while this extra work is voluntary, a handful of students always show up ready to work. She said the community is also welcome to come watch the students work.