Panhandle's National Flight Academy aims for the stars


Published: Sunday, April 12, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 12, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.

PENSACOLA, Fla. The visionaries behind the proposed National Flight Academy at the National Museum of Naval Aviation imagine a science-based learning facility that will help students reach for the stars literally.

They imagine hundreds of students each week learning from whiz-bang technology that could someday put them behind the controls of a military jet or a NASA spaceship.

They envision hundreds of jobs and a learning facility that will pump millions of dollars into the local economy each year.

But imagining the Flight Academy, on the drawing board for more than a decade, is the easy part. Coming up with the money to make it a reality is much harder.

Not that the visionaries are not well on their way.

They've raised the $17.5 million needed to build the four-story, 100,000-square-foot academy. And they're diligently working potential corporate, private and government donors to help raise the $8.8 million still needed to outfit the academy flight simulators aren't cheap and to design programs.

"We need to do this so we can inspire kids in science, technology, engineering and math," said the gung-ho fundraiser-in-chief, retired Navy Vice Adm. Gerald Hoewing, president and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, the fundraising arm of the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

"I do not believe the Pensacola community or the Northwest Florida region really and truly understands the positive impact of having a best-in-the-world capability right here where we all live."

If the National Flight Academy is to open by the May 2011 target date, construction would have to start no later than August.

The 11-member foundation board will decide May 6 whether to begin construction this summer or wait until all or most of the additional $8.8 million is raised.

"I feel like they will make the right decision and move forward," he said. "But if you take a look at the current economic conditions and the difficulty in raising funds, the board might say that more money has to be raised before we start building."

The National Flight Academy's cost originally was estimated at $19.5 million but dropped $2 million, said Bill Greenhut, whose Greenhut Construction Co. is doing the design and building contracting.

The cost of key building materials, such as steel and copper, are falling and subcontractors are charging less, Greenhut said.

"I know it's a terrible time to raise funds," Hoewing said. "But my confidence in raising the funds is very high."

The academy will focus on teaching students science, math and technology to accomplish simulated missions in a team environment, Hoewing said.

The academy will have dormitories, classroom areas and a restaurant. Dormitories will be outfitted to resemble aircraft carrier staterooms, and classes will be conducted in simulated ready rooms.

The academy has partnered with Orlando-based Imagine Creative Technology for 42 flight simulators, including 12 F/A-18 Hornet simulators.

Imagine Creative Technology is run by Marc Watson, a former Universal Studios, Orlando, executive who has helped develop park attractions.

The academy is also working with the University of West Florida, the University of Central Florida, and the Andrews Institute to develop the program's curriculum, Hoewing said.

Hoewing said the sessions, for about 265 middle and high school students, will be 5 days. Each session will cost $895 per student, but scholarships will be available through public and private grants.

"My vision is that about half of the kids who attend the National Flight Academy are on some sort of scholarship," he said.

Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sam Shilling, who taught for 11 years in the Escambia County School District, is the coordinator of the Flight Adventure Deck at the museum, which offers more than 30 hands-on exhibits for students.

He said the academy would benefit not only the students but the nation because of the high-tech lessons they would learn.

"The youth of our country are falling behind the rest of the world in stem subjects such as science, technology, engineering and math," he said. "And I've learned as an educator that students learn a lot better if they can put their hands on something rather than just have their nose in a book."

Victoria Glass, who turns 17 next month, knows that similar camps and academies motivate young people to aim for professions that few dream possible.

Glass, a junior in the Pensacola High School International Baccalaureate program, received a scholarship to space camp in Huntsville, Ala., in 2007.

Now she wants to be a Naval aviator, and, eventually, an astronaut. Her ultimate goal is to command a mission to Mars or a return mission to the moon.

"So many subjects, like math, had more of a purpose after I went to space camp," she said. "You take what are usually boring lessons you learn in a classroom and apply them to real-life missions and goals."

Glass believes the National Flight Academy would have a similar impact on students.

"It would be great for our students because it will prepare them academically and in leadership," she said. "And they'll be more interested when they go back to school."

Hoewing, 60, a Naval aviator by trade who has led the foundation for nearly three years, admitted that fundraising isn't a natural talent for him.

"It's the part of the job I enjoy the least," he said. "But in this particular job, fundraising has allowed the museum to continue to grow."

He said the academy is seeking corporate donations, applying for public and private grants, partnering with other companies for equipment sponsorships and conducting a local fundraising campaign for the additional money needed.

The biggest contributor so far is Jack Taylor, founder of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, who has donated $10 million.

The City of Pensacola and Escambia County have both pledged money, with the city giving $100,000 and the county giving $1 million in installments over 10 years. Most of the other money raised has come from corporate donations.

Escambia County Commissioner Gene Valentino said he recently talked to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., about the possibility of steering federal stimulus money to the project.

Hoewing said the facility will have a multimillion dollar annual economic impact on the region, and using money from the stimulus package could help jump-start it.

He pointed out that parents often will accompany their youngsters to the camp.

"They'll stay in our hotels. They'll eat in our restaurants. They'll go to our beaches, shop in our stores," he said.

Hoewing said construction will create about 250 jobs, and once open, the facility will employ about 50 staff members.

"We feel that the National Flight Academy will inspire countless young people," he said. "And it will inspire this community as well."

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