Starbase teaches children how to fly

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell
  • National Guard Bureau Public Affairs
On her 11th birthday, Catherine Newcome gripped the yoke of a Cessna airplane and learned a lot about flying. She crashed the first time she tried to land, but quickly regained her composure, paid attention to her coach from the West Virginia Air National Guard, and took off and landed safely on her second try.

Catherine did all of this while sitting before a computer terminal in a classroom at the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg, W.Va. She is one of many young people in this country who National Guard officials want to help explore math, science and technology.

The program is called Starbase, and Catherine and her two dozen fifth-grade classmates from the Eagle Intermediate School had just completed the first monthlong Starbase Academy at this eastern West Virginia city with the support of the Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing.

Two of the Martinsburg wing's C-130 Hercules pilots, Capts. Kelly Wight and Jon McCullough, helped the youngsters get a feel for flying on the computer simulators. They monitored six gauges, including the artificial horizon, that would be found in most cockpits.

National Guard and NASA officials observed the pupils from several locations thanks to the Guard's two-way television system that it uses for distance learning programs.

Retired Navy pilot Pete Thomas taught the class from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He told the pupils that aviators wear flight suits to protect them from flash fires and that most people in aviation do go to college.

"I've always been interested in the unknown, and I like the exacting nature of flying. Hey, flying's a blast," Thomas told the attentive class.

"These are all at-risk kids," explained Joe Padilla who oversees the Starbase program for the National Guard Bureau. "You want them to think they've done something more than sit at an arcade game. You want them to think that they can become a pilot, too."

They are at risk, it was explained, because they live in a rural part of the country that may not have the educational resources of an urban school system. They are also at risk because of their age.

"Fifth-graders, kids who are 10 or 11 years old, are the most impressionable. It's the beginning of their peer pressure years," explained Evonne DeNome, a former elementary teacher who is deputy director of the new Starbase program in Martinsburg.

"This is the best time to start stressing the dangers of drugs," she added. "Our philosophy is to get them interested in something else, such as math, science and technology."

The academy's motto, in the form of a mathematical equation, states "Dreams + Action = Reality."

"It's fun, and it's challenging," Catherine said. "It's good for kids to be able to do things that we don't get to do in school."

That is what Starbase instructors have been striving to do for pupils since the National Guard began sponsoring the academies in 1993. So far, Padilla said, 30 academies have been established in 23 states and territories, and approximately 1,000 young people complete the four- or five-week programs every year. That is 30,000 young people who National Guard officials believe they are helping.

Catherine's mother, Virginia Newcome, said she is convinced the program works.

Catherine wore a T-shirt proclaiming "My Mommy is in the Air Force" the day she went flying.

That's because Virginia is a staff sergeant in the 167th AW as well as its full-time civilian property manager, responsible for the buildings, equipment and the 200 acres that the Air National Guard facility occupies.

"Watching these kids learn to work as a team was just amazing," Newcome explained. "It brought out the quiet ones who didn't say very much in class. It was really neat seeing them come together like they did."

The academy also rekindled Catherine's academic interests, her mother said.

"This is the first year she has attended a public school because she's gone to private schools since she was 4," Newcome said. "She used to talk about becoming a veterinarian. Then she got into the social mix of the public school, and all she talked about was becoming a cheerleader.

"Now, thanks to Starbase, she's started to talk about being a vet again."