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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Pilot helps students soar

Tyler Barry and Katryna Niva try experiment involving Bernoulli's Principle. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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March 4, 2011 | Leave Comment

Southwest Airlines Capt. James Hechtl doesn’t have to keep track of the miles he flies — he’s got a classroom full of fifth-graders at St. James School on the job for that.

They have a United States map on the wall of their classroom, and as Hechtl e-mails in his locations, they mark his route with string, then calculate and log his miles.

“Ten thousand miles is the most he’s flown in one week,” reports student Michael Young.

Well, the most he’s flown in the past few weeks anyway, ever since this class “adopted” Hechtl through Southwest Airlines’ “Adopt-A-Pilot” program.

The 14-year-old program sends pilots into classrooms to teach everything from the science behind flight to geography, language arts and life values. Students, in turn, track their pilot’s journeys during the monthlong program. In addition to weekly classroom visits, Hechtl will accompany the students later this month on a tour of the Sacramento International Airport.

Hechtl is now in his second year as an adopted pilot, though he’s been flying for 28 years, first in the U.S. Air Force and now for Southwest. He says a neighbor in El Macero — who happens to teach in Elk Grove — convinced him to let her class “adopt” him two years ago. He figured if he was going to participate in the program, he might as well do it at his own kids’ school too.

So this month and last, he’s been spending an hour or so a week at St. James, where three of his own children are students — including his twins in the fourth grade, who are looking forward to participating next year.

He clearly has a rapt audience in teacher Paul Agnew’s classroom. During his visit Thursday, Hechtl and some eager volunteers took part in a few simple experiments demonstrating Bernoulli’s Principle on the relationship between air speed and pressure.

He asked students what they thought would happen if he placed a ping pong ball over an upward-blowing hair dryer. Some thought the ball would fall off to the side, others thought the moving air would carry the ball upward and hold it in place. The latter were proved right.

Other experiments made use of a balloon, a toilet paper roll and a baseball, and each experiment was followed with discussion.

Agnew, for one, appreciates what Hechtl brings to his classroom.

“It’s fun to see how enthusiastic the kids get,” Agnew said. “When he’s presenting, you can see them thinking, ‘What will it do?’ ”

Agnew is particularly looking forward to the airport tour later this month.

“When they go to the airport,” he explained, “they think it’s just a field trip. But the message is ‘We are a team … we need the ground crew, we need these people, we need those people.’ They say, ‘Oh, I thought it was just about getting on a plane.’”

Young says he’ll think about things differently next time he boards a plane.

“I’ll know how an airplane flies, and more about stuff like gravity and what pilots do,” he said.

Classmate Mimi McMahon agreed.

“He’s taught us a lot,” she said of Hechtl. “Most important was how a plane works and also how to achieve your goals.”

For his part, Hechtl says “the goal isn’t necessarily to get them involved in aviation, but just to use this as a vehicle to get them thinking about different things.”

Southwest has 835 pilots participating in the program, Hechtl said, with more than 330,000 fifth-graders having participated since Adopt-A-Pilot began in 1997.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8051. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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