|Learning Jet to fill role as classroom at St. Paul airport
By Tom Webb, firstname.lastname@example.org
POSTED: 08/17/2014 12:01:00 AM CDT | UPDATED: ABOUT 10 HOURS AGO
Steve Horvitz has led a project to project to turn a retired FedEx Boeing 727-B200 cargo jet into the Learning Jet, an aviation learning lab for students in grades K-12, at Holman Field in St. Paul. Horvitz was photographed in the cockpit of the jet on Tuesday, August 12, 2014. (Pioneer Press: ...
A 153-foot Boeing 727-200B will become the Learning Jet, an aviation learning lab for students in grades K-12, at Holman Field in St. Paul. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
A sleepy corner of the St. Paul Downtown Airport is about to get new life and -- advocates hope -- inspire the next generation to dream of the skies.
In October, a donated Boeing 727 will open as a hands-on classroom where schoolchildren can learn about aviation, weather and the physics of flight. Dubbed "the Learning Jet," the retired FedEx cargo jet has been renovated to handle school field trips from across the Twin Cities and beyond.
Because the Learning Jet is a working 727 -- with engines disabled -- officials think it will be a powerful tool for learning, with a high degree of cool.
"Kids will be able to go into the flight deck and they'll be able to operate all the control surfaces," said Steve Hurvitz, who has led the plane's transformation into a classroom. "Except obviously the landing gear, which is locked out."
Moreover, the Learning Jet may be just the start. There are separate and even bigger plans for an entire education campus at the St. Paul airport, to inspire students to follow paths in science and technology.
"We could turn that whole corner of the airport into an education center as it relates to transportation and aviation," said Dennis Probst, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which runs all the metro-area airports.
"There's certainly nothing like it in the Twin Cities," Probst said. "And if all of this stuff can come together, I don't think there's anything like it anywhere in the country."
AIMING FOR THE STARS
A 2-year-old group of aviation enthusiasts called AirSpace Minnesota has unveiled plans for an Aviation Learning Center at the St. Paul airport. It is now actively raising the $1.5 million in cash and donations needed to make it a reality.
The center would be housed in a long-vacant hangar at Holman Field, next to the Learning Jet. The center would give students a real-world taste of what it's like to be a pilot: writing a flight plan, making safety checks on an actual Cirrus aircraft, communicating with air- traffic controllers and -- on a flight simulator -- "flying" with a co-pilot to Rochester and back.
"Kids need dreams, they need skills and they need pathways," said Kristi Rollag Wangstad, president of AirSpace Minnesota. "Flight is the engagement or the excitement, but what it leads you to is a strong base of science, technology, engineering and math."
The AirSpace Minnesota group is filled with heavyweights from Minnesota aviation circles. In April, it brought in Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin for a fund-raiser. It also has partnered with a popular aviation learning center in Seattle, Boeing's longtime home.
That Seattle center "serves 150,000 kids a year with their educational programs," Wangstad said. "They picked us to be the very first group to replicate their aviation learning center, so that's what we're hoping to bring to the downtown St. Paul airport."
And there are more dreams for the St. Paul airport site. AirSpace Minnesota's longer-range vision also includes a robotics center at the site, along with a hands-on construction area, dubbed "the Maker Center," where students could design and make models and other items with the help of cutting-edge 3-D printers.
"Kids don't have access like they used to to industrial arts, to shop class," Wangstad said. "They need more of this kind of space."
Whether the dreams become reality depends on fund-raising. It will need $5 million for the full package. But the group is aiming for the stars.
"We'll get the Aviation Learning Center installed first," Wangstad said. "We would like to get the renovation underway this fall, so by next school year -- 2015 -- we're starting to serve kids."
FUNDING AND SECURITY
This vision excites Metropolitan Airports Commission officials, who for years have wanted a bolder educational, inspirational mission. MAC recently opened a public observation area at Holman Field, next to the future Aviation Center hangars and Learning Jet site. On Monday, MAC commissioners are expected to give their final approval for the project to move forward.
"It's an opportunity to step out and actively promote aviation in a way we haven't for a while," Probst said. "One of the events we used to have here at MSP -- that we don't anymore -- is Airport Days. That event used to draw tens of thousands of people."
The popular event became a victim of congestion at the main Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and security concerns that escalated after 9/11.
These days, security remains a concern, even at less-trafficked Holman Field, which is used mostly by private pilots, corporate jets and the Minnesota Army National Guard. The educational area will be fenced off from the airport's active runways and taxiways -- but not blocked from view.
"We want people to see the activity," Probst said. "We think that will be part of the success of the location."
The bigger issue is money. Some aviation museums have opened with great dreams, only to struggle financially. A few have closed.
"Museums are tough, there's no question about that," Probst said. "But this function at the St. Paul airport is going to be driven by using it for education, to introduce students to science and technology."
School groups will pay a modest fee to use its one-of-a-kind facilities. The Learning Jet project is still deciding how much it must charge to cover expenses, but officials expect a half-day program will cost a classroom of students less than $500.
The Boeing 727-200B aircraft that became the Learning Jet was manufactured in 1979 as a passenger plane for now-defunct Braniff Airways. Then it hauled cargo for Federal Express.
Today the plane is owned by Minnesota Association of Women in Aviation. That group teamed with St. Paul's Farnsworth Aerospace public school to win a $100,000 federal grant, which was used to remake the donated aircraft into a classroom open to all and to draft a curriculum for different age groups.
Angela Olson, a former Sun Country Airlines engineer and pilot, took charge of the lesson plans for the Learning Jet.
"We've started with kindergarteners, going fingertip to fingertip" to figure out which is longer -- the 727's wingspan or its fuselage. "It's ratios, it's counting," she said.
"And that goes up to high school, figuring out the co-efficient of lift." That's an aerodynamic calculation including the weight of the aircraft, the surface area of the wings and the plane's rate of speed, Olson explained.
Meanwhile, Steve Hurvitz led the jumbo-sized job of remaking a 153-foot-long cargo jet into a classroom. A former WCCO sports personality, Hurvitz tapped a base of retired aviation buffs, who have donated thousands of hours of time and talents.
"We've been really blessed with a lot of fantastic people on this project," Hurvitz said. "It's been a delightful challenge at times and a painful challenge at times, but we have succeeded in doing something that nobody thought was going to happen."
He knows he and his buddies were under the gun to produce.
"The deal with the MAC was, if we didn't have this moving along within the first year, it would be cut up and sold for scrap."
Today, the interior of the one-time cargo jet is gleaming and nearly ready for its first busload of wide-eyed students.
Starting in October, kids will be able to sit in the pilot's seat, move the controls and gaze out the window at the St. Paul skyline. Olson, the former airline pilot, stood in the cockpit and smiled.
"It's nice to get kids in here and say, 'Go ahead. Touch anything you want,' " she said.
For more information on the Learning Jet, visit MnAWA.org.
For more information on AirSpace Minnesota's plans, visit AirSpaceMN.org.
Tom Webb can be reached at 651-228-5428. Follow him at twitter.com/TomWebbMN.