I had the experience of a life time at the National Flight Academy (NFA) in Pensacola, Florida! It was nine days of non-stop action which I enjoyed hugely and met many new friends.
I enjoy Maths and Science in school, so when I saw the notice in the newspaper looking for 12-15 year olds, with an interest in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects to go to the NFA in Florida with the Galway Education Centre, I immediately applied. I was both nervous and excited when I heard that I would be going to America. The Galway Education Centre organized pre-trip meetings where they informed us about the trip and gave us a chance to get to know the other ambassadors and the three teachers from the Galway Education Centre (Kate, Paddy and Maeve), who would accompany us on the trip.
On the 3rd of August, we met at Dublin Airport at 6am, all dressed in our matching ‘Aviator of the Future’ gear. We had a long flight to Atlanta, Georgia and then a further short flight to Pensacola, Florida. We were exhausted when we arrived but we were given a warm welcome by Hank, Kathy and all the others from the National Flight Academy. After many photos, we headed for the NFA, which had been renamed the International Flight Academy, just for us.
We were shown to our staterooms and were given time to unpack before having our first dinner in America- pizza! We stayed up late that night with Chief Chrissy and Chief Lonex, getting to know each other. It was great fun.
As the course wasn’t starting until Sunday we had a free day which we mainly spent on Pensacola beach. It was beautiful. We slapped on the sun cream and ran for the water. With the sun and the sea, we couldn’t have been happier. Later that evening we were taken to the local shopping centre for some quick shopping! We had a barbeque that night. What a start for our first day! I couldn’t wait to see what we would be doing for the next 5 days.
We spent the next few days living on Ambition, a simulated air craft carrier. It was so real that I actually felt like I was living on a huge ship. We were all put into squadrons. I was part of the Chargers, and Chrissy and Jennifer were our chiefs. Throughout the week, they made a huge effort to make us feel welcome and make the experience as enjoyable as possible.
Every morning we were woken by the trumpet blowing the wake-up call at 6.30am (not exactly what I had planned for a week in Florida!!) We had a quick shower, then breakfast at 7.30am and we were sitting at our stations at 8am, ready for a day of action! Our days involved spending time in the JIC (Joint Intelligence Centre), JOC (Joint Operations Centre) and on the simulators. In the JIC we planned our flight paths using computers and smart boards. This is where we put our everyday Maths skills into action. In the JOC, we used head sets and computers to help and advise the other squadrons, who were ‘flying’ using the simulators. While on the simulators, we learned to fly planes and took part in many tasks such as air rallies and rescue missions. We were given a task of rescuing people from a collision between a cruise ship and a cargo ship. Unfortunately, my flight buddy and I weren’t the most successful! – Good job it was only on simulators!!
During the week, we were taken to see the Blue Angels air show, an air traffic control tower and the Rescue Swimmers School. On our final night in America, we went to a local baseball match with the staff of the National Flight Academy. We also got a bit of shopping done too! It was a great finish to a great week.
I loved every minute of my time in Pensacola and I would really like to go back there again some time. I am very grateful to everyone at the National Flight Academy and to Kate, Paddy and Maeve, from the Galway Education Centre for the care we were given while abroad. I would strongly recommend the whole experience to anyone who is interested in the STEM subjects (and a good time!). I had the time of my life and I will remember this experience forever.
Upon my arrival in Florida, initially, it was not the stone splitting heat, nor it’s accompaniment of sultry, sticky humidity that was most apparent; it was the warm welcome we received. After an exciting eight hour Delta flight to Atlanta, followed by another hour further south toward the equator to Pensacola, it was a welcome reward to be met with southern hospitality, as we were bleary eyed, jet lagged, and in need of a “ time out”. The people we encountered, and the welcome we got, were phenomenal to say the least. Once we had arrived in the NFA, we were delighted to be invited to the mess deck, to enjoy some pizza, before we retired to our staterooms, gradually readjusting to the adverse time difference. The immensely warm welcome we received that first evening, injubitably, was one of our trip’s more memorable chapters. The following afternoon, at the beach, we were reminded of America’s reputation of being an incredibly friendly country; rather than revelling in the incessant heat of Florida’s climate, it was the people we met, our chiefs, and all of the NFA’s staff who welcomed us so heartily to the U.S. that made our excursion so memorable.
The initial sun soaking, obviously, was only a morsel of what was to come for the group. Our presence on that transatlantic Delta flight was solely to attend the NFA, in order to further our knowledge in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths; perhaps the subjects considered most difficult among today’s students. And what better place could there be to imbibe, than the International Flight Academy. It offered me the chance to experience some of the most authentic and representational flight simulators in existence. In my opinion, there is no better method to learn something, than to immerse oneself into the topic, and to experience it physically and firsthand. The NFA gave the group the honour to be the first international students to do so. This was an ideal opportunity for the group to augment our knowledge concerning STEM. The NFA allowed us to learn about STEM in a genuinely enjoyable way.
Students often complain that, when learning in a drab, prosaic atmosphere, what goes in one ear, comes out the other as soon as it is needed for an exam. Aboard Ambition, we were educated in such an entertaining, yet informative fashion, that the wealth of new knowledge we acquired there will stay with us, while also imbuing in us an interest in the subjects associated with STEM. The NFA offers an incredibly effective method of instilling a vast interest and indelible knowledge in the minds of youths which would not have otherwise been realised. In hindsight of my experience on Ambition, I can honestly say that it did not contain a dull moment.
I shall be brief as I mention my own personal experience; I was indeed one of four to appear on America’s ABC news – This was an extraordinary experience but it was to be seconded. I was interviewed a second time for the NFA’s own PR requirements. To finish an unexpectedly high profile week, I was elected as AXP of the week, and gave an impromptu speech at our graduation; the experience which was a heady mix of terror and shock at the number of people present, but mostly excitement and appreciation.
Between the systematic excitement of our daily routine, there was always time to meet new people, and of course, room for a little evening entertainment during our dinner. Whoever presented the tidiest stateroom would receive their dinner first. This was, on one occasion our own room. The evening entertainment consisted of renditions of popular songs, performed by AXPs who had lost their possessions, and were trying to earn them back. My own squadron even subjected Ambition to Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up”. It wasn’t long until all 108 AXPs had joined in. Aside from the flight simulators, the hours in the JIC and the time spent in the JOC, it was moments like that that completed the NFA experience aboard Ambition, making our time a well rounded and rich mixture of meeting new personalities, enjoying ourselves and becoming more savvy as regards STEM. The mixture of an academic atmosphere anywhere but the dinner table, and the fun we had everywhere, was essential to the NFA’s ability to educate, and to emphasise the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, without ever seeming tiresome.
As I remember what I have learned during my stay on Ambition, I must recollect what an immersive experience the NFA was, and the lasting impression it has left on me. Everything we did aboard Ambition; the missions we completed while in the flight simulators especially, were based on the premise of realistic situations, signifying the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in reality, and accentuating that each must co-exist for everything to work as they do. This was one of the most important facts the group and I learned aboard Ambition – the consequence compelling us to want to learn more while we could during our stay with the NFA.
To summarise an unforgettable week, my experience with the NFA was entirely positive, and it could probably be isolated as the few days, along with the weeks leading up to the Junior Certificate examination, of my life so far where my learning has been accelerated the most. The interest I gained in the STEM subjects over the period I spent on Ambition would be simply impossible to replicate in school.
I would like to thank the Galway Education Centre for giving me the opportunity to go to the NFA. I would also like to thank the NFA and all aboard Ambition for a very memorable week, and instilling in me an appreciation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths which will last me a lifetime.
On August 3rd a big adventure started for twelve Irish Ambassadors; from the time we took off in Ireland to the time we landed in Ireland nine days later it was all Go! Go! Go!
The first day at the (NFA) National Flight Academy (which was renamed the International Flight Academy for us) we went to Pensacola beach to have great fun and enjoy the sun! After the beach we went to do a little shopping and then RTB’ d for the evening to chill out. Sunday we got to meet our room mates and make some new friends and found out what squadron we would be in for the week. We also were taken on a small tour of Ambition. Monday morning, everyone was up at 06:30 with breakfast at 07:30 and at 08:00 we got to practise planning missions and also had some time to practice our flying skills on the simulators. We learned how to fly our assigned Triad for our missions during the week. When we were flying we had a flight buddy; my buddy was an American girl called Brianna who was really nice. The rest of the week was hectic; planning missions in the J.I.C, controlling triads from the J.O.C and flying some of our big missions in the simulators. Here are just some of the missions we flew during the week : The Tampa Air Rally, day and night heats, ship rescues, time trials and much more. During the week we also got to do some fun things outside Ambition. We visited the National Aviation Museum and while we were there we saw The Magic Of Flight in the IMAX theatre. We visited the Rescue Swimmer school, Air Traffic Control and the Blue Angels show. It was so cool
Who would have thought S.T.E.M is so much fun…It was a mind blowing experience.!! 🙂
Shania Cunningham. 🙂
Parentless for the first time:
August 4th was the day I left Ireland behind me, and began my adventure to the States. The whole challenge had been facing me all summer, and I must admit the prospect of being parentless in Pensacola was quite a daunting one. I would soon learn that the majority of those who attend the National Flight Academy suffer less from loss than their parents!
First time in the States:
We spent two days traveling to Florida. We flew Dublin to Atlanta and had a six hour stop over there, a good opportunity to spend our first few dollars, before boarding our flight to Pensacola. The U.S. was so alien and new to me – nothing like back home.
First experience of the incredible Southern hospitality:
Cheers and banners greeted us at Pensacola airport. Needless to say all twelve of us lucky participants were exhausted. I remember feeling quite self -conscious as the camera flashes started to go off, but the warmth and kindness of the staff of the NFA made the welcome incredibly enjoyable.
My first flight:
We attended the academy from 6 am to 10 pm each of the six days we stayed there. A wonderful breakfast of waffles and fruit was followed by an intensive day of – well- learning to fly. I can still remember my first disastrous flight. I nose-dived into the runway and flew through the air traffic control tower, before plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll be glad to hear we weren’t flying real planes. They were state of the art simulators that gave you an incredibly realistic experience of flight, without running the risk of disaster. But before you could fly, you had to plan your route in the Joint Intelligence Center (JIC), on the amazing smart boards and computers. As well as flying, I spent some time in Air Traffic Control, patrolling the airspace making sure nobody tried to break the sound barrier over land. We would speak with the pilots over microphones and give them permission to take off, land etc. I really do love telling people what to do, so I must say the Air Traffic Control was a highlight for me. Other highlights include broadcasting Rick Astley over the microphones to other pilots as well as giving permission for barrel rolls.
My first air show:
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see the famous Blue Angels acrobatic pilots preform on the airstrip just down the road from the Academy. Watching them was exhilarating, and they were fantastic. I really learned to appreciate the skills it took to achieve that kind of performance at my time in the Academy. The only part I didn’t like was when one of the Angels came out of nowhere, and flew roaring over my head. I thought it was the signaling of WWIII and, much to everyone’s amusement, screamed and dived onto the ground.
My time in the NFA was truly unforgettable. I appeared on NBC news Pensacola and ate my fill of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Who could ask for more? The Galway Education Center and the National Flight Academy have given me an experience that I will hold dear to me for the rest of my life. The intention is for this program to continue, and I cannot recommend the experience enough to you. Thank you also to Ms. Hickey who notified Kate and I of the program. It was a fantastic experience that I will always remember.
National Flight Academy
From the minute we left the plane I felt at home in Pensacola. The staff were waiting for us at the airport and I knew that I was going to have a good time there. As we walked outside the weather felt very alien to us, the hot humid air was as if we were right beside a fire. We soon found though that the National Flight Academy was indeed air conditioned.
When we reached the National Flight Academy we realised that it was much bigger than we had originally thought it would be. The National Naval Aviation Museum was housed beside it and was an amazing sight to see. The first thing we did when we went inside was get our badges and we were shown to our rooms. The rooms were plain and empty but we soon started to fill it with our clothes and belongings in a couple of minutes. We began to make our beds and instead of feeling a hard bunk bed instead we felt a nice soft bed. We then went to the mess deck to get an experience of American Pizza. Lastly we explored the Ambition CVT-11 for a while longer until it was lights out. I had a good night’s sleep after travelling almost 24 hours.
The next morning we woke up refreshed and scurried down to the mess deck. We had lovely food getting us ready for the day’s big adventure. We hopped in the vans and were driven across Pensacola and brought to the BEACH! At the beach the sand was bone white and as hot as a stove. There luckily was a pool beside it where we could cool down though. As we entered the sea water we went out to where the water was about chest level. We looked down into the water and amazingly see the bottom (unlike Ireland!) We saw lots of different things including hermit crabs and sand dollars. I thought I had no sunburn but when we got back it turned out that I had been mistaken, from my elbows to the top of my back I was badly sunburnt. But when we went to sleep I was not disturbed by it that much. It was our day to write on the blog and we didn’t find it too hard to do since we had such an exciting day. When we got back we met the first people apart from ourselves to come aboard Ambition; Trenton and Michael.
On Sunday was when everyone arrived. Ninety four others piled on board Ambition with the ship able to hold everyone easily. We met people that came from all around America to come and see the Ambition. At 1400 everyone reported to the mess deck where the Captain gave a speech and us our Chiefs. I was part of Wolfpack so we had Chief King. He told us a little about himself and then we went straight up to the ready room. When we reached the ready room we had a small bit of free time so we all got our call-signs; Giggles, Sparkey, Atom, Chatterbox, Google, Mickey D’s, Theory, Smiles, Fountain, Wada boy, Einstein and mine; Tech. Some of the callsigns changed like Google to Burner after burning all of her fuel because of the afterburner, Chatterbox to Psycho after all the murderous stories she told and Wada Boy to Masseuse because he randomly started massaging the table.
On Monday we were well into the program and we started on proper missions working with other Squadrons in our Cag such as Chargers and Lancers. We saw the museum and saw many interesting things especially the iMax theatre and we got to see a brilliant movie called the Magic of Flight. Just after we went out of the museum I realised that my card was missing so we went all the way back searching for my card until we realised that it wasn’t there. Later on we found it in the ready room which was strange because we hadn’t been there all morning.
On Wednesday we went out to see the Blue Angels practice and they put on a great show. I was hoping that we’d meet them after their performance but unfortunately we did not!*sobs* When we went back in we planned out formation flying and said, sure this is simple after seeing the Chargers doing it though our hopes were fizzled out. After the Chargers we stepped up and we took a go at it. A few planes got lost as we approached Destin airport and lined up to the runway. Eventually we had to leave after waiting too long so 3 of our six planes including us went for it performing the move perfectly until we were told that we were out of time.
On Thursday we went to visit the Swimming school where they taught people to save others in danger. They explained everything and showed us all of the facility. When we got back we found out that there was a great disaster; the Gulf Sunset collided with the Tropicale cruise ship. Ambition was on alert and we took to our stations. We had to deliver pumps and drop W.A.S.P.s to the collision site to put out the fires and the water. We took recon and figured out that the Gulf Sunset was from the Bahamas. The other thing we found was that the chemicals that were in the water were highly dangerous. The Gulf Sunset later blew to pieces and the cruise ship went down but everyone was saved in the end.
On Friday we had graduation and Ruadhrí made a great speech. Everyone watched as we all received our wings. After the graduation the Admiral gave us a three star admiral challenge coin. We were delighted to graduate and celebrated by going to the mall. I got a few souvenirs for my family.
Afterwards we came back to Ireland delighted to see our families again but we’ll never leave the knowledge we learnt behind and we’ll never leave the friends we made behind!
National Flight Academy
When I first found out about the project in Pensacola and the fact I had a chance to go there – I couldn’t believe it. But when I was told that I was one of the people going – I almost didn’t believe it. It seemed too good to be true! I now have been there and back and it still seems like a dream.
Waking up early in the morning is usually a big problem for me, but when we were told that the day started at 6:30 am, surprisingly, I didn’t really mind. The morning we were leaving, I was up before the rest of the house (excitement hadn’t let me sleep anyway!) It never really hit me – (how far away I was going and how amazing it would be) – until I was over American soil.
When we reached Pensacola airport we got a lovely welcome from the people who ran Ambition. The humidity was unbelievable, I never really got used to it but thankfully every building had great air conditioning.
When we arrived at the NFA, they gave us cards to unlock the door to our rooms – like in a hotel. We all had our own card with our names on it. Then we had a chance to shower and unpack. The girls were divided into two rooms and the boys were all in the one room. Once we did all of that we were called down to the main hall – the food hall, which they called the mess deck, and we had a feed of pizza. When we finished eating pizza we went to the game room. There, you could play air hockey, Xbox, Playstation or cards. Soon after, we all were more than willing to go to bed.
On Saturday we went to the Holiday Inn Resort. There was an outdoor swimming pool there and then a little wooden bridge leading to the beach. The bridge was so hot from the sun, when you were going back and forth between the two, you would have to run across or else you would burn your feet! The sand was hot as well so you needed to find a spot of shade quickly! The ocean was perfect – 28 degrees! We spent most of the day at the beach and then they brought us shopping for around two hours and afterwards we went back to Ambition.
The next day was when all of the Americans started to arrive. Once everyone had settled in the Captain called us all down to the mess deck to tell us the rules that applied while we were staying there. One of the things we had to do was to make sure our beds were made and our rooms were clean and tidy because that decided theb order of who would eat first of all the 108 AXPs. An untidy room meant bringing up the rear. Our room got us to second in the queue on one occasion and we never ended up last!
The days from Monday – Thursday were great. We were brought to a museum, where we saw lots of different models of planes, a Rescue Swimmer School, where we saw how the future rescue swimmers train and they brought us to the IMax theatre where we saw a 40-minute-documentary about the Blue Angels and the day after we were brought to see them perform a practice show! They were really good!
When we were on Ambition, flying the triads we were invited to take part in the Tampa Air Rally to do missions and sometimes we were given a case like a ship collision and we would have to do certain things like pick up people in the water and, if there was a fire, drop water. Whatever we did on the Triads would be about 40 minutes long. But before we flew, we planned.
In order to plan our flights we had to go to the JIC, (Joint Intelligence Centre). There, we used Google Earth to measure the distance we had to travel. Then we had to decide how fast we would travel so we could calculate the fuel requirement, how much we would burn per minute and how much we would need overall.
When we were controlling the planes we went to the JOC (Joint Operations Centre) where we had to wear a headset in order to be in contact with the people in the Triads and make sure among other they were heading in the right direction.
So the week was brilliant! On Friday we graduated in the museum at 10:00 in the morning. The American students were all gone by noon. We made lots of new friends there. The Americans were very amused by our Irish accents!
At around 01:30 in the afternoon we went shopping again for a few hours and then we went to a baseball game and watched Pensacola’s local team, The Blue Wahoo’s, play. The game was about three hours long and it was really good.
The day after that was our last day in Pensacola, Florida.
Pensacola Airport was really quiet and we passed through security easily enough and thankfully our stop over in Atlanta wasn’t as long as it was coming over. Before I knew, I was on the plane home.
No words could explain the tiredness I felt in Dublin airport – I slept the rest of the day and was awake for the rest of the night!
But jet lag or not, I’m still incredibly grateful for my experience. After all, it’s not everyday you get to go to Florida to such an amazing facility where we had so many fantastic experiences! Thanks to everyone for making it a reality!
By Kate Kelly.
An Aviator is a person who is actively involved in the flight of an aircraft. For us as “Aviators of the Future” we spent the week linking Maths with fun using the STEM system (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The Aviator of the Future Programme gives students a chance to explore the world of education. Education is an adventure that we all discover during our lives. Many people receive a chill of excitement when calculating a maths problem, people get a thrill when creating new technology, others may enjoy experimenting with different chemicals, I for one feel quite ecstatic when reading a book based on natural history. So you see anything that involves learning or finding out something new always attracts a little something in the mind of an individual. It quite excites the brain to extract new information and when you read or write it, it sticks to the brain forever. We “Aviators of the Future” are fortunate enough to have already experienced this feeling of triumph, whether it be on your first day of school, or daily while reading your favourite book. I most certainly experienced it when in America and I am sure everyone returned home with more knowledge for their brain to absorb.
My journey began the moment I found out that I would be one of the twelve picked to journey to America to experience an opportunity of a lifetime and to have NFA (National Flight Academy) as a temporary home. When my parents told me, my whole family were thrilled to hear that I’d be following the family tradition of maths and science. I attended several meetings in which all the Aviators of the Future exchanged individual backgrounds and personal details. We learnt all about the Naval terms and acronyms and what the trip meant. I had looked up National Flight Academy on the internet and learned more of what we would be doing in the Pensacola. In preparation for the trip we were all vaccinated with the necessary vaccinations and made sure our passports would be valid for the next 6 months. We went on a trip to the Atlantic AirVenture in Shannon to try out the simulators, get used to flying and learn about the aerodynamic terms. As the day approached in which we’d be journeying to America, I became more and more excited and finally when the day arrived I couldn’t sleep a wink the night before.
As I stepped foot in Dublin Airport, 3rd of August, 2012. I was excited, actually come to that, ecstatic to be meeting my new friends and fellow AXPs before our flight to Atlanta. I am sure everyone was feeling slightly nervous as we gathered, chatting and wondering how our experience in America would go. We took a group photograph and the parents said their last goodbyes, perhaps wondering would their children miss them. I think I am right in saying that not one of us felt homesick, in fact I think we were all regretting leaving America and returning home to our normal lives.
As we checked in our baggage and were handed out our boarding cards, the sensation became real. We were travelling to AMERICA! It was an experience beyond our wildest dreams. As everyone milled about we handed our passports to Paddy and I was glad I didn’t have the responsibility of looking after my passport as my Father had told me earlier that morning; Your passport is your most important object you will have, so I was certainly most happy to hand it over! We walked in a group to a café in Terminal 2 and I’m sure we received many interested glances as our jackets read ‘Aviator of the Future’. I myself was talking to a woman who was very interested in what we would be doing in the States. We had a short snack, mainly a drink and croissant or muffin and headed out to board our flight DL177 to Atlanta.
The flight was 8 hours long to Atlanta and then a short hop to Pensacola. The weather couldn’t have been more different than the weather in Ireland. It changed from being cold, rainy and dreary to a sunny, humid climate. We were staying in the Naval Base located in Pensacola, Florida. We were settled in nicely and once the American AXPs (Ambition eXperimental Pilots) arrived, we were all set to take off from Ambition. My first impression on the American AXPs was that they were all extremely interested in their international comrades. They seemed to know so little about Ireland, but I am sure that at the end of the week, they must have learnt plenty about the country including some Irish lingo.
Ambition is a Naval aircraft carrier located in the Gulf of Mexico. Our mission was to fly the experimental aircraft, the Triad X12. The Triad X12s are configured to fly as fast as an FA-18, hover and set down like a helicopter and drive like an all-terrain vehicle.
On a typical day, we would wake up to a horn sound at around 06:30. We would have a shower in the fantastic bathroom facilities and get dressed and head down to the mess deck (food hall). Usually there would be some type of Americanised breakfast such as breakfast burritos or pancakes with bacon. It seemed like an American diner! The squadrons would eat with their chief, discussing the events of that day. Occasionally in the morning the AXPs would be brought on a trip; for example the Naval Aviation Museum, the Aircraft Control Tower or a chance to see the Blue Angels do aerobatic formations! We would then be briefed on the days’ action-packed mission and come together to create a master-plan, flight map and fly in the fantastic simulators. Each mission would text the AXP’s mental agility, preparedness and communication skills, including their ability to fly and ability to handle whatever comes unexpectedly. There would be lunch at 14:00 or earlier, depending on the events of the day. Each day would require a different mission and different requirements. Dinner would occur at around 18:00 and the line for the food would be decided according to each rooms’ cleanliness. AXPs who had lost their belongings would be required to entertain the entire audience of the mess deck in song or dance indicating a sense of fun. AXPs would be debriefed and allowed an hour of free-time before lights out. It would be an end to an extremely exciting and busy day!
Thinking back on the week, I realised that having Maths and Science applied to missions made me realise how exciting the subjects were and how they are used so regularly in everyday jobs. Also, thinking back on the start of the week, the Irish people were very conscious of how the Americans students were so different to us because they looked and sounded different. However, by the end of the week we discovered we had much more in common than we had realised before by the bonding we had during all of our adventures and we regretted leaving them and perhaps wondered would we ever meet again.
I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to travel to Florida. It was a fantastic experience. Paddy Maeve and Kate, our mentors were terrific in organising the entire event and for minding us while we were so far from home and I really want to thank them for everything!
One day at the end of June my mum was reading the newspaper and she showed me an article which she thought would interest me. It was entitled “Aviator of the Future Programme” and it said that the Galway Education Centre was seeking 12 school children to take part in the programme. I decided that I would enter because it sounded very exciting and because STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills are used. I was absolutely delighted when my dad received a phone call from the Galway Education Centre to tell him that I had been picked to go to Florida to take part in the “Aviator of the Future Programme”. At the first meeting we had together I met all of the other students who were chosen to take part and they were all really kind and they seemed to be just like me! That evening we learnt all about the National Flight Academy and what we would be doing when we went to Pensacola. A few weeks later we went on a trip to Shannon airport where we learnt the basics of flight and we practiced flying on a simulator and got a tour of the museum there. I felt that I got to know the other students very well that day.
The night before we left to go to the airport I was feeling nervous and excited I woke up at 4 am that morning so I could make it to Dublin airport at 6 am.I met with all the other students at Dublin airport. We were all dressed in our matching tracksuits and we took some pictures and said a quick goodbye to our parents there. It took a long time to check in and go through security and customs but we eventually made it and we had breakfast in the airport before we took off. The flight was 8 hours long and when we reached Atlanta everyone was tired and hungry. We had a 6 hour layover there and our next flight to Pensacola was only forty minutes long. We got a huge welcome from some of the members of the National Flight Academy when we arrived in Pensacola. They had a banner with ” Welcome to Pensacola Irish Ambassadors” written in green writing and an Irish and American flag. They gave each of us pink, gold and green beads which are worn by people in Pensacola. We got our luggage off the carousel and went outside to the minibus where we met Kathy who drove us to the National Flight Academy. She showed us that on the front of the building it said “Inter-National Flight Academy ” and that they had changed it in our honour! We felt very special! Chiefs Cody and Melody showed us to our rooms and then we headed to the mess deck for a pizza party. After that everyone felt very tired so we went to our staterooms for a well earned rest.
We awoke the next morning and went to breakfast in this nice diner near the National Flight Academy. All the food was really nice especially the pancakes! After our breakfast , back at the Flight Academy , everyone covered themselves in sun cream and we each received a blue wristband with an American flag on it so we would not get lost at the beach. We got into the van and drove to the beach which took about 20 minutes and when we arrived there we jumped straight into the pool. There was a large pool and a lazy river and a board walk down to the beach. On the beach the members from the Flight Academy had set up a tent and cooler boxes filled with nice cold drinks and cookies! We spent all day swimming in the sea and in the pool until we had to leave. When we got back in the van we drove to a gift shop on Pensacola beach where we spent some dollars and bought our families and friends some souvenirs. After this we went to the shopping mall! We had a great time looking through all the cool American shops and we had some lunch there also. We headed back to the Flight Academy in the afternoon and we had a barbecue on the mess deck. Every one enjoyed it. That night the 12 of us plus Chief Chrissy and Chief Lonex spent some time in the games room. We played cards and air hockey and we got to know the two Chiefs better. Every one was having such a great time that we didn’t even notice that it was 23:30 by the time we got to bed.
The next morning breakfast was at 09:30 and after that it was a very busy day! Children from around the States were arriving at different stages throughout the day and we all came together for lunch and a meeting in the mess deck with all the Chiefs. Chip ( the Captain ) talked to us about all the rules aboard Ambition and about what would be happening over the week. It all sounded very exciting and I could hardly wait to get started. We headed to the JIC (Joint Intelligence Centre) for the first time where we met IO Laton. She was very nice and she explained to us that she would be teaching us the theory of flight. She showed us how to find headings on a map, to find out how long it would take you to reach your destination and how much fuel you would need for your journey. You needed to have a lot of maths skills to be able to complete these tasks. Next we headed to Hangar bay 1 where we practised flying, landing and taking off from Ambition. After this we went to the JOC (Joint Operations Centre). Here we met OPSO O’Rear who we discovered is of Irish descent. He would be helping us to plan missions and to guide other pilots on headsets from the JOC. We helped the Raiders to fly by giving them headings and telling them to lower/higher their speed and altitude. After this every body was very hungry and we really enjoyed the dinner which was beef tips and rice. After dinner all 108 of us AXPs (Aviation Experiment Pilots) split up into our squadrons and spent some time with our chiefs. After a long tiring day everybody was ready for bed.
Our second day aboard Ambition started with and early alarm bell at 06:30. We all showered and got ready for the day and were down in the mess deck for breakfast at 07:30. It was great. We went to the Naval Aviation Museum and we received a brilliant tour of the whole building. We learnt about the ‘Blue Angels’ which is the Navy Flying Squad from Pensacola who would be doing a practice air show for us in two days time. We went to see a forty five minute movie about the ‘ Magic of Flight ‘ in an iMax theatre in the museum. It was a great experience to be able to feel and sound like you are in an aeroplane when you are sitting down in a cinema theatre! When we got back to the Flight Academy we had our lunch which was baked ziti which is a pasta bake in a red sauce. We all really enjoyed it. We arrived at the JIC after this where we were greeted by IO Laton who gave us a flight briefing , and after that we were in the Hangar Bay 1 flying our mission. We then went to the JOC and guided the Lancers on their flight and then it was time for dinner. After dinner we headed to the JIC where we went through another flight briefing and then we commanded another flight before bed. Altogether it was quite an exciting day and that was only day 2!
The next two days on Ambition were very busy and eventful. We went to Air Traffic Control and climbed to the top of the tower which has 177 steps in total and we learned all about the ATC , we also went to the Rescue Swimmer School. The following day we were lucky enough to see the Blue Angels perform. They were absolutely brilliant and everyone got lots of pictures of them. We had more JIC, JOC and flying also at the Flight Academy which was getting more difficult as the days went by but that just made everything more exciting. We even did some of our own formation flying and we also did a Tampa Bay Air Rally. We made lots of new friends in our staterooms and in our squadrons and they are all so nice and kind to us. We are all trying not to think about our final day aboard Ambition but it was coming closer and closer and we knew we would be so sad when it was all over.
Our final full day in the National Flight Academy started off early and as we were eating breakfast the screens in the mess deck showed us a news report saying that the cruise liner ‘Tropicale’ had crashed into an oil tanker named ‘Gulf Sunset’. Under the guidance of OPSO O’Rear and IO Laton we helped to put out fires on the cruise ship. Everything became more serious when we found out that OPSO O’Rear’s parents were aboard the cruise ship. Even though it was a simulation everything felt so real as we were flying our mission. After a full day of hard work saving critical patients and putting out fires finally, all of the 2317 passengers that were on the ship were saved and successfully brought back to land. There was great celebrations on Ambition that night and as a treat we had burgers and chips for dinner with brownies for dessert. We went to bed early that night so we would all be ready for Graduation the next day….
We had a bit of a sleep in on our Graduation morning the next day and breakfast was an hour later than usual. We all got dressed into our squadron T-shirts and we went over to the Naval Aviation Museum where we met Kate , Paddy and Maeve. We thank them so much for their hard work over the week. Without them we would not have had this brilliant opportunity. The graduation ceremony was very enjoyable , we each received a badge , a brooch , a photo of our squadron and a certificate. Congratulations to Ruadhri who won AXP of the week. He gave a speech and he did a wonderful job. After the ceremony we met the Vice Admiral Gerald Hoewing and he presented each of us with a medal. It was a great honour to receive this. We said goodbye to all of our new friends who have been so nice to us this past week. I know that I will keep in touch with them for a long time. After all the other AXPs had left we went back to the shopping mall to get some last minute shopping finished. We spent two hours there and then we went to a local baseball game. It was the Blue Wahoos from Pensacola against the Chatanooga Lookouts. Even though the Wahoos lost we had a great time looking through the gift shop and we even got to go on the stand and we were shown to the rest of the crowd on the big screen. It was so exciting. After the game had finished we went out onto the pitch and took some pictures before we went back to the Flight Academy to have our last sleep aboard Ambition.
The next morning we had Krispy Kreme doughnuts for breakfast which is a type of American doughnut brand. Everyone really enjoyed it. We also tried almond milk which is Chief Lonex’s favourite treat. We played ninja and air hockey with Chief Chrissy all morning until we had to leave to go to the airport. We said goodbye to Kathy, Treasa, Chip and our Chiefs outside of the airport. We thanked them for making our week so special. We arrived back home in Dublin early on Sunday morning and we got a great welcome back from all of our parents and brothers and sisters. It was good to be home but I wished that we were still in sunny Pensacola!
“Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.” – Peter Seeger. (Musician, songwriter)
Over the last week I have had the privilege to learn what that actually means and it is very true.
The National Flight Academy (NFA) is an amazing journey of learning from start to finish at such an accelerated rate. Every day there’s something new to learn and new skills to master. There’s never a dull moment, never a time to be bored, always a new mission to be planned and executed. So let me share with you some of the highlights and experiences I had as an Irish AXP (Ambition eXperimental Pilot) participating in NFA’s incredible program.
One of the things that will always stand out in my mind is definitely the welcome we received from everyone. After almost 24 hours of travel from Galway to Pensacola it was wonderful to see some of the staff from the NFA standing outside the arrival doors of Pensacola International Airport waving flags and holding a huge banner welcoming us. When we arrived at the NFA there was nothing but awe from the whole group at the sheer size but to top it all there was a sign that had proudly been changed to read “INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT ACADEMY”! The team had really pulled out all the stops and gone out of their way to make sure that we got a memorable arrival to Pensacola and they certainly succeeded!
Once we had settled into our quarters on board Ambition I quickly forgot about the outside world as we set sail and were immersed into life as it would be on an aircraft carrier. It was amazing how realistic it was, every detail carefully designed to perfection from the grey narrow corridors and the sleeping quarters down to the water under the gangway and the sounds of aircraft taking off and landing all day long. Everything was as imagined and better, exceeding all hopes and expectations.
We started to carry out missions pretty soon after we got underway. First we needed to learn how to plan our mission flight plans, how to use the radars and radios in the Joint Operations Centre and finally we needed to learn how to fly the X-12 Triad aircraft. The amount we learnt in that first day was incredible! We had progressed from knowing almost nothing to being able plan, control, take off, fly a mission and land back on an aircraft carrier. Multiply that amount of information in a half day, by a week’s worth of time and you start to realise the sheer volume of new information we learnt! We got through things that would take a few weeks or even months in school, in a matter of days or hours! But that was just the theoretical side of things. During that week we learnt some of the most important skills that we’ll ever learn and use in our lives: skills like teamwork, leadership, delegating, assigning and sharing work, clear and concise communications, quick and innovative thinking, initiative, networking and most importantly friendship.
Over the course of the week I had the opportunity to work and become friends with so many amazing, talented and intelligent people. Each person had his or her own story to tell, each person bringing something unique to the squadrons. I’m sure that my fellow AXPs from both sides of the Atlantic will also agree that the friendships that were formed are the thing that I’ll never forget and cherish the most out of this experience. In a world where networking is so important, spending time with probably over 120 new total strangers gave us a chance to build up connections with people we may never have met otherwise. With each new friendship formed, another potential opportunity arises, an opportunity that mightn’t or couldn’t be possible without the support and friendship of these people. I know that I’ll definitely stay in touch with every one of my new friends and see where that friendship might lead me. Who knows, it might be that I was talking to the future President of a nation, a future General or Admiral or possibly the next Bill Gates this week! Whatever the future holds for these people, the friendships that have just started will never be forgotten.
On the subject of friendships and great people, of all the impressive things on board, the people were the most amazing. Every squadron of 12 AXPs was assigned a chief or rather the other way around. These chiefs are the most incredible people ever. Every one of them was always in a good mood, always patient while we learnt and worked, always there to help us. They were all great fun and kept all our spirits up all week long. I admire what they do and I hope that someday I’ll return and spend time as a chief for another group of young aviators. I also need to say that it wasn’t only the chiefs that were on the excellent team. There was also the Vice Admiral, the Captains, the Master Chief, Admin staff, the Intelligence and Operations officers, the technicians, the nurses, the catering staff and so many others that were working incredibly hard behind the scenes to make this experience possible. All of the wonderful team really pulled out all of the stops to make the experience one to remember. From the welcome to the emotional farewell, their hospitality and kindness was really incomparable to anything I’ve experienced before and was greatly appreciated by all.
I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone we met (and also to those we didn’t) on this trip and to everyone who worked so hard to make this experience happen. Special thanks to VADM Hoewing, VADM Architzel, Kathy Denkler, Teresa Gurka, CAPT Chip, CAPT Miller, Master Chief Curley, all the Intelligence officers and all the Operations Officer, all the chiefs, and of course to Kate Murray, Paddy Clancy and Maeve Clancy for all of the work they put in to make the experience a reality for all the Irish AXPs. I know I’ll have left someone out but know that I thank those people equally; you know who you are yourself! It has been the experience of a lifetime.
The International Flight Academy was a perfect way to wake me up after months of relaxing and doing very little academic activities. But it was more than just a wakeup call; it was an experience of a life time. Everything from the fact it is based in sunny Pensacola, to the outstanding hospitality, to the amazing friends I encountered along the way, was awe inspiring.
The adventure started before we even set foot on an aeroplane, as we were invited to Shannon to learn about the theory of flight. We got taught about Isaac Newton’s laws and the four antagonistic forces that come into play on an aeroplane when it is airborne, which are thrust, drag, weight and lift. We also got a chance to test some flight simulators they have there. We all thoroughly enjoyed it and have been invited back again.
We also got to meet Enda Kenny and get our picture taken with him. While we were in Florida that picture appeared in the Connaught Tribune.
The expedition started at 2:30 AM Friday the 3/8/12. We made it to Dublin airport at 6:00 AM. Once there we all met up and after surviving security we finally boarded the plane. Eight hours later we found ourselves in Atlanta. In Atlanta we had a six-hour wait before our flight to Pensacola. When we arrived in Pensacola we found a welcome party awaiting us with banners and beads. We arrived at Ambition, which is a mock-up of an aircraft carrier, in a haze of tiredness, but tired as we were we could still appreciate the size of the building. Once out of the delightfully air-conditioned minivan, we were almost suffocated by the heat of the night.
Inside the Ambition, we were shown to our rooms where we deposited our bags and then went to the mess deck for a pizza party.
The next day we went to a beach resort, and had a brilliant time. That night the first of our fellow AXPs arrived in the form of two American brothers.
The next day yielded the arrival of the rest of our fellow Ambition eXperimental Pilots. We were introduced to the rest of our squadron and started learning the ropes in the JIC (Joint Intelligence Centre), the JOC (Joint Operations Centre) and the X-12 Triad simulators.
The next couple of days involved learning how to plan our flight in the JIC, directing air traffic in the JOC, testing the Triad in the simulators, learning about our next mission in the Ready Room, eating exquisite food and making exceptional friends. We learnt how to plan for, instruct and execute missions which included formation flying, a race, and rescuing 2000 plus unfortunate victims of a collision between a cruise liner and a container ship, which contained deadly chemicals which when combined with each other had the power to explode, intoxicate, dissolve flesh, cause cancer and potentially death. Fortunately we managed to save all on-board the cruise liner and all on-board the container ship.
As well as the missions, we got to visit the US Navy Museum, the lifeguard training school, the survival school, the Blue Angels air show and the control tower for the military airport.
I was disheartened when it came down to graduation wishing the experience could have prolonged for another week or so. We all graduated successfully and received our gold wings, medal and a certificate. After graduation we said our goodbyes to our squadron mates as they departed for home.
That evening we went to see the Blue Wahoo baseball team play the Chattanooga Lookouts. The Blue Wahoos lost but it was still fun to watch. We had a very relaxing time eating cracker jacks and candyfloss. At the end of the match we got to go down on the pitch and get our photo taken before we headed back to Ambition.
The next day we bid farewell to the Chiefs, Ambition and Florida. The flight home was uneventful but when we got home we were greeted by our family and friends. We said adieu to each other then headed home.
I would just like to say thank you to Kate, Maeve and Paddy for looking after and putting up with me.