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The City Journals

New AAI aviation program launches students into realizing sky has no limits

Jan 13, 2022 12:16PM ● By Julie Slama

AAI teacher Ron Smart helps sophomore Justin Wesley with creating and launching balloon helicopters during a class project in an aviation workshop, part of the school’s new aviation & aeronautics program. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

American Academy of Innovation senior Becca Wesley wants to learn how to fly and possibly become a commercial or private pilot.

“I’m learning what I don’t know about the sky, but I do know that flying makes me feel free,” she said.

Wesley is one of 18 students who are enrolled in AAI’s introduction in the one-half credit aviation workshop.  The workshop, offered this first term of the 2021-22 school year, will lead into a full course next semester as part of the school’s new aviation & aeronautics six-term program.

The school has adopted the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association high school STEM four-year curriculum, which has two pathways: pilot and unmanned aircraft systems or drones.  This fall, the workshop is being taught by Ron Smart, a retired professor who also created the aviation sciences program, which he chaired, for Utah Valley University.

“He has been instrumental in designing everything he does, he has decades of experience, 40 years of experience,” academic director Ryan Hagge said. “He has so many years of experience that he has already tweaked the curriculum a little bit and the AOPA was very willing to work with him. It’s kind of rare for somebody like this to kind of stumble into your lab.”

Smart, who recently moved to the Daybreak area, said he learned about the school and came for a tour.

“I loved the idea of innovation and having kids learn in different ways and through projects,” he said. “I like that they can think on their own and figure things out, not that I’m hitting them with a ruler to make them pay attention and memorize something.”

Smart came out of retirement and offered to begin the program. He researched to find the curriculum, which is offered free to the school, as its base. Hagge said that students who go through this program will receive post-high school credit in Aviation I, Aviation II and Mechanics I through the certified FAA program. 

“Our goal with this is for him to train a couple of teachers that can take this on and keep going with the program,” Hagge said, adding that Smart plans to dedicate about five years to create the AAI program. “Ultimately, we want to get to the point where we’re offering private pilot licenses to graduates.”

Right now, the pathway is to certify students with drone pilot licenses so they could go to work in that field. 

Students also will be able to tour Hill Air Force Base and see a F-22 cockpit, check out Salt Lake International Airport’s control tower, visit the Utah Air National Guard and Skywest Airlines, and take controls to fly a fixed-wing airplane and experience zero gravity. 

Hagge added that the school also is working out aviation-related internship opportunities for students.

During this workshop, students have listened to those in aviation careers, learned the fundamental history of aviation, and are planning to start a statewide high school drone competition. They study technology, weather, physics, math, and aerodynamics.

They also were learning about rocket propulsion, changing mass and momentum by creating and launching balloon helicopters to test Sir Isaac’s Newton’s third law of motion.  

“They have to figure this out on their own; they have to learn it for themselves and by themselves. They need to have a foundation of where this career came from and how it works. They can’t understand what they’re doing unless they have that knowledge,” Smart said.  “When they have a passion, it instills the opportunity to learn that they may not have even known. This can create a fire or spark in their learning and then, they will engage more to learn to be a pilot, an aviation engineer, a maintenance technician, or to be able to work for NASA. Basically, I’m here to help students realize the sky has no limits.”

Smart’s own interest in aviation began when he was 5 when he flew for the first time with his uncle. After six years with the U.S. Air Force and two years with the California National Guard, and earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, he got into teaching at Sacramento City College. He also taught at University of Central California before teaching at UVU and serving on the Provo Airport Board.

According to the AOPA Foundation, and based on Boeing’s Pilot and Technician Outlook, more than 750,000 pilots will be needed in the world by 2039 and the number of pilot certificates issued by the FAA since 1980 has decreased by more than 60%, resulting in an increased demand for students to enter the field.

Senior Garrett Hodsdon is considering flight school.

“The first day I learned about this course, I knew I wanted to take it,” he said. “If I can become a private drone pilot, I can do that on the side to help pay for college.”

Sophomore Daniel Ogborn, who was reviewing the factors of acceleration with freshman Jakob Kilngler, said he would like to be an aerodynamics engineer for NASA and learn to fly. 

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, it’s been a dream of mine, to pilot a vehicle in the sky,” he said. “This class is a step I can take toward my career. I’m learning a lot.”