Spirits were soaring alongside hawks and drones at SVVSD’s Innovation Center on Saturday afternoon as young ladies from the St. Vrain Valley School district took to the skies.
More than a dozen young women from across SVVSD gathered at the Innovation Center for Girls in Aviation Day on May 1. Presented in partnership with the Mile High chapter of Women in Aviation International, the program included a video of the female leaders of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and a discussion with Delta Airlines pilot Nancy Hultgren on the life of a commercial airline pilot.
“You have to see it to be it,” said Trimbi Szabo, president of the Mile High chapter. “There is a social solidarity, when you can see other young women sharing interests in engineering and aviation, that’s so important. These girls are so lucky to see everything at the Innovation Center and have an opportunity to meet women making advancements in their fields.”
A last minute cancellation from one of the speakers led to a remarkable surprise guest. Alana Johnson, senior communications specialist from NASA, connected remotely to discuss the Mars Ingenuity project and the work MiMi Aung, project manager at NASA, led on the first helicopter flight on an extraterrestrial planet.
After the presentations, students split up into groups to explore several of the Innovation Center’s aeronautics program offerings. Groups rotated in half hour increments, giving every student a chance to experience drone control, flight simulators and a hands-on airplane build.
Steve Kerchner, the advanced ground instructor at the Innovation Center, led a group of students in the flight simulators. A variety of equipment gave the students a chance to settle into the scaled-down cockpit of a commercial airliner, while others settled in with flight sticks and virtual reality headsets.
Ola Herndon, a flight instructor at Rocky Mountain Flight School in Denver, spoke to the young women about the joy and rewards of aviation.
“My favorite thing about being a flight instructor is getting outside every day and really appreciating life. It’s not necessarily the safest job, so you really do appreciate every single day coming back from a flight when nothing’s gone wrong and learning to accept that not everything is in your control,” Herndon said.
Another group worked with Connie Socash, local aeronautics engineer, as she led a hands-on demonstration for engineering and building aircraft parts. The project is part of an after-school program at the Innovation Center, with the goal to produce a working aircraft at the end.
The third group stepped outside to pilot quadcopters — part of the Innovation Center’s pathway for unmanned aerial drones. Guided by students already participating in the program, the young women learned how to handle and land the remote controlled drones, as well as a brief demonstration on how the quadcopters are assembled and disassembled for storage.
Ashley Withnell, a junior at Niwot High School led the demonstration with the drones. Withnell said she got her start in STEM programs early on, crediting her engineer parents. After high school, she plans to study mechanical engineering with an interest in aeronautics.
“When I first came [to the Innovation Center] I expected to be learning physics or something, but on my first day I got to fly drones for my first class. I jumped right in and loved it,” Withnell said. “It’s a great opportunity to really get with a like-minded group of people and do something cool.”
The participants were all thoroughly engaged in the presentations and demonstrations, even as the event ran over it’s planned timing.
"It's wonderful when young girls find professional women in aviation who are willing to mentor and guide them toward their future goals! The Aeronautics Program at the Innovation Center is so lucky to have Women in Aviation International as a friend and supporter," Kerchner said.