THE BOB HOOVER ACAD­EMY mixes an avi­a­tion cur­ricu­lum with guid­ance from fly­ing leg­ends to steer at-risk high school stu­dents along the RIGHT PATH

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Pia Bergqvist

We join air­show star Sean D. Tucker and ac­tor Har­ri­son Ford for a closer look at the Bob Hoover Acad­emy, a STEM pro­gram for at-risk teens.

Nes­tled be­tween the Pa­cific Ocean and the rolling, oak-clad hills of cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia lie the fer­tile farm­lands of Sali­nas, the largest com­mu­nity of Mon­terey County, with a pop­u­la­tion of about 160,000. Aptly re­ferred to as the “Salad Bowl of the World” due to the in­ten­sity of lo­cal agri­cul­ture, Sali­nas is home to many low-in­come im­mi­grant farm­work­ers who ded­i­cate their lives to pro­duc­ing the food that shoppers so eas­ily col­lect from the pro­duce sec­tions of their lo­cal gro­cery stores. Fewer than 60 per­cent of the city’s res­i­dents 25 years or older have com­pleted high school, and only about 12 per­cent have achieved a bach­e­lor’s de­gree, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau. Nearly 19 per­cent of the peo­ple in Sali­nas live in poverty.

An un­for­tu­nate side ef­fect of the area’s poverty is par­ents who of­ten work too much to prop­erly man­age their chil­dren. The re­sult is an in­crease in drug use and an in­ces­sant youth gang prob­lem, lead­ing Mon­terey County to the high­est homi­cide rate per capita in Cal­i­for­nia for peo­ple ages 10 to 24 — about 23.5 per 100,000 — ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port by the Vi­o­lence Pol­icy Cen­ter.

“Mon­terey re­searchers an­a­lyzed 20 years of Sali­nas crime sta­tis­tics and con­cluded that vi­o­lence cor­re­lated most closely with lack of ed­u­ca­tion,” noted Miriam Pawel in a re­cent ar­ti­cle in the Los An­ge­les Times. “The find­ings con­firmed what peo­ple have long known in the Sali­nas Val­ley, where dropout rates are high and lit­er­acy rates are low: A lack of op­tions for poor Mex­i­can chil­dren has driven cy­cles of gang vi­o­lence for decades.”

An ini­tia­tive that aims to turn around this epi­demic is the Bob Hoover Acad­emy at the Sali­nas Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port. The pro­gram was con­ceived by famed air­show pi­lot Sean D. Tucker, who has be­come known for fly­ing his bright-red cus­tom-built Or­a­cle Chal­lenger III bi­plane in a thrilling aer­o­batic rou­tine that he nar­rates, while fly­ing, in a man­ner only Tucker can. If you have seen his per­for­mances, you know what I’m talk­ing about. If you haven’t, you need to.

Tucker wanted to give back to the com­mu­nity where his own fly­ing ca­reer be­gan in the early 1970s. At that time, he was work­ing as a crop-duster, spray­ing the agri­cul­tural fields in bi­planes and he­li­copters. He was well aware of the gang prob­lem and the need for pos­i­tive role mod­els in his com­mu­nity. Tucker started a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion with his son Eric in 2013 called Every Kid Can Fly. Their idea was to re­de­fine the lives of at-risk youth, us­ing flight as a cat­a­lyst for change. The con­cept was to use avi­a­tion as a car­rot of sorts to in­spire at-risk teens to cre­ate a bet­ter life for them­selves. Every Kid Can Fly was run as an af­ter-school pro­gram through a lo­cal so­cial ser­vices cen­ter called Ran­cho Cielo.

But the pro­gram didn’t re­ally take off un­til Chris Dev­ers, who is now the se­nior di­rec­tor of the Mon­terey County Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion’s Al­ter­na­tive Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment, saw its po­ten­tial and in­cor­po­rated the Tuck­ers’ pro­gram as a com­po­nent of an al­ter­na­tivee­d­u­ca­tion STEM cur­ricu­lum. “He risked his job on this pro­gram,” Tucker says. While the pro­gram in­cludes

avi­a­tion topics, it is not about mak­ing pi­lots. It is about pro­vid­ing the stu­dents with in­spi­ra­tion, suc­cesses, hope and op­por­tu­nity through flight.

One at a time, the lives of th­ese teens are be­ing trans­formed. “They start see­ing them­selves as dif­fer­ent peo­ple when they look at them­selves in a mirror,” Tucker says. “It gives them self-es­teem and hope.”

The grad­u­ates are mov­ing on to real jobs and be­com­ing con­tribut­ing mem­bers of so­ci­ety. Tucker proudly an­nounced that one of his stu­dents, Edgar, won a sci­ence com­pe­ti­tion against stu­dents from na­tion­ally rec­og­nized avi­a­tion-tar­geted high schools.

Af­ter see­ing some suc­cesses with the pro­gram, Tucker asked per­mis­sion from his good friend Bob Hoover to use his name for the school a few short weeks be­fore the leg­endary test pi­lot, fighter pi­lot and air­show pi­lot passed away in 2016 at age 94. “It took courage to ask Bob,” Tucker says. “He had to trust me. And he com­manded me to not screw it up.” Every Kid Can Fly trans­formed into the Bob Hoover

Acad­emy, and if Hoover saw the pro­gram to­day, he would not be dis­ap­pointed.

“Now it’s a win that peo­ple can be proud of,” Tucker says.

The stu­dents at the Bob Hoover Acad­emy are al­ter­na­tive-ed­u­ca­tion kids who gen­er­ally came there by rec­om­men­da­tion from a pa­role of­fi­cer or be­cause they were ex­pelled from a Mon­terey County school. “Th­ese are trou­bled kids,” says Jeff Hardig, the principal of the SAFE pro­gram. “The nor­mal ap­proach to teach­ing didn’t work with th­ese stu­dents. The def­i­ni­tion of insanity is do­ing the same thing and ex­pect­ing a dif­fer­ent re­sult.”

The Bob Hoover Acad­emy pro­vides the school dis­trict with the unique al­ter­na­tive the com­mu­nity needed. “Th­ese kids are ba­si­cally bro­ken, and we try to put the pieces to­gether,” says Tucker. “But I don’t ask them what they did wrong. They come with a clean slate. You can’t re­build some­body if you re­build them with the same bad parts.”

One of the acad­emy’s main spon­sors is Har­ri­son Ford, who has do­nated tens of thou­sands of dol­lars to the cause. I was for­tu­nate enough to join Ford and his pi­lot Spike Minczeski on their first visit to the acad­emy. We jumped into Ford’s Cessna Grand Car­a­van at the Santa Mon­ica Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port (SMO) and flew along the Pa­cific coast­line to Sali­nas on a beau­ti­ful af­ter­noon in March. The coastal hills were green from re­cent rains, and scat­tered clouds made for an atyp­i­cal South­ern Cal­i­for­nia day. While I gen­er­ally pre­fer the front left seat of any air­plane, this was a spe­cial flight. Not want­ing to dis­turb the two pi­lots’ ter­rific CRM, I spent most of the flight work­ing on my lap­top. But we had time for some great con­ver­sa­tions about air­planes and some not-so-great dis­cus­sions about the tragic state of the Santa Mon­ica Air­port.

We landed in Sali­nas and Tucker gave us a quick tour of the school be­fore we headed out for din­ner. Tucker’s wife, Colleen, joined the four of us at a scenic golf re­sort near Mon­terey. It was a very pri­vate set­ting be­cause we were tucked into a cor­ner, away from the other restau­rant visi­tors, though Ford ad­mit­ted that some­one he ran into in the re­stroom had mar­veled at his “sim­i­lar­ity” to the fa­mous ac­tor who played Han Solo. Many great avi­a­tion sto­ries were told, and many laughs were had. It was ev­i­dent that th­ese avi­a­tion leg­ends were good friends.

The next morn­ing, Tucker and Ford stepped into the alt-ed class­room at the Sali­nas Air­port, where the Mon­terey County Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion Al­ter­na­tive Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment’s SAFE pro­gram op­er­ates. Aside from the ground school and flight-train­ing com­po­nent the Bob Hoover Acad­emy pro­vides, the pro­gram uses a full high school STEM cur­ricu­lum that in­cludes avi­a­tion-re­lated topics. In ad­di­tion to the op­por­tu­nity to earn a high school di­ploma, the stu­dents are pro­vided with com­put­ers, psy­chother­a­pist ses­sions, in­tern­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties, hands-on courses and much, much more. In all, the pro­gram can ac­com­mo­date up to 20 stu­dents, and it is cur­rently at full ca­pac­ity.

Some stu­dents have been given ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for learn­ing and growth through the pro­gram. Peggy Chabrian, from Women in Avi­a­tion In­ter­na­tional, learned about the Bob Hoover Acad­emy and of­fered two schol­ar­ships. Two of the three young women from the acad­emy, Sugey and Dulce, ap­plied and won a trip to WAI’s con­fer­ence in Reno, Ne­vada, this year along with $1,000 each for the acad­emy. Hav­ing been the win­ner of a sim­i­lar WAI schol­ar­ship as a bud­ding flight stu­dent 18 years ago, I have no doubt that the visit to the con­fer­ence was a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for the two stu­dents, whether they de­cide to go into avi­a­tion-re­lated fields or not.

While in the class­room, Tucker gave a heart­felt and mo­ti­va­tional speech to the stu­dents about why he started the pro­gram and what he hopes it will do for them. Af­ter telling them about Ford’s fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the pro­gram, Tucker asked Ford to say a few words to the group. Ford was lit­er­ally speech­less and got vis­i­bly emo­tional. He was sim­ply too moved to speak af­ter re­al­iz­ing the im­pact this pro­gram has on the stu­dents.

The un­com­fort­able si­lence was bro­ken when one of the teach­ers asked Ford how he and Tucker met. The two shared sev­eral great sto­ries, in­clud­ing a tale of


when Tucker took Ford for a flight for the first time in a bor­rowed Pitts. The in­ter­com was bro­ken, so they couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate ver­bally dur­ing the flight, but Tucker flew sev­eral aer­o­batic ma­neu­vers and, af­ter each demon­stra­tion, let Ford at­tempt to copy those ma­neu­vers. When Tucker praised Ford for his fly­ing skills that day, he re­sponded, “I was just act­ing.”

The stu­dents trans­formed from be­ing vis­i­bly in­tim­i­dated to fully en­gaged, and it was truly a spe­cial mo­ment in the class­room. They seemed amazed that some­one so fa­mous would care so much about their lives. As we all ex­ited the class­room, Ford said to Tucker, “This makes me re­ally happy.”

We drove down the street to the lo­ca­tion of the Bob Hoover Acad­emy. The acad­emy has a beau­ti­fully re­stored Cessna 150 as its pri­mary trainer and one in­struc­tor for the stu­dents. But one Cessna doesn’t pro­vide much op­por­tu­nity for the stu­dents to fly. The stu­dents only come to the air­port on Wed­nes­days, and if the weather is bad one week, ev­ery­one is grounded. For­tu­nately, Red­bird Flight Sim­u­la­tions came to the res­cue ear­lier this year and do­nated an FMX sim­u­la­tor worth about $60,000. Not only can the stu­dents now train re­gard­less of the weather, but Tucker has been im­pressed with how quickly the stu­dents be­come pro­fi­cient both with fly­ing and

ATC com­mu­ni­ca­tions through the re­al­is­tic learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment the sim pro­vides.

The sim­u­la­tor has also be­come a source of in­come that helps pay for the fa­cil­ity costs be­cause the school rents it to other lo­cal schools as well as cor­po­rate flight de­part­ments. Dur­ing our visit, one of the stu­dents, Diego, was asked to teach Ford to fly in the Red­bird sim­u­la­tor. “Pre­tend that I know noth­ing about fly­ing,” Ford said to Diego. “I want you to teach me how to fly.” Diego was up for the chal­lenge, and the two spent at least 20 min­utes in the box.

For the stu­dents to con­tinue to­ward the ultimate goal of solo­ing the Cessna, they must ad­here to sev­eral strict rules. Tucker thought that only through ac­count­abil­ity could the stu­dents stand a chance of get­ting out and stay­ing out of the bad sit­u­a­tions they had found them­selves in. At­ten­dance is re­quired, and the stu­dents will be on pro­ba­tion if they miss two days with­out a valid ex­cuse. The pro­gram also re­quires drug test­ing. Tucker says nearly ev­ery­one fails the first drug test. A fail­ure re­moves flight priv­i­leges for seven weeks. With two of­fenses, the stu­dent will be out of the pro­gram. This pro­vides the stu­dents with an ex­cuse not to en­gage in any drug-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties, one that their peers are not likely to ridicule.

Be­fore the stu­dents can en­gage in any fly­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, they must suc­cess­fully com­plete the ground school. They start in the sim­u­la­tor be­fore be­gin­ning their train­ing in the Cessna 150. The ultimate achieve­ment is solo flight. “Solo­ing is a big deal,” says Tucker. “If I lose a kid, the pro­gram is over.” Tucker is adamant about keep­ing the stu­dents safe, and those who have soloed had ac­cu­mu­lated about 50 hours of flight time be­fore­hand, much more than aver­age. “Solo­ing is the most pow­er­ful tool that I have in my arse­nal,” Tucker ex­plains.

One of the stu­dents who achieved that ultimate goal is Martin, who had an op­por­tu­nity to show off his fly­ing skills dur­ing our visit. De­spite hav­ing a large group of peo­ple watching, in­clud­ing his peers at the school, sev­eral dig­ni­taries and teach­ers from the lo­cal school dis­trict, his flight in­struc­tor, Tucker and Ford, Martin ex­uded con­fi­dence and pride as he climbed into the air­plane to fly a cou­ple of laps in the pat­tern. The char­ac­ter­is­tics Martin ex­hib­ited are ex­actly what the Bob Hoover Acad­emy set out to achieve.

In ad­di­tion to com­plet­ing his high school de­gree, Martin was bit­ten by the avi­a­tion bug. He is now work­ing on his A&P cer­tifi­cate, and Tucker says he is cer­tain Martin will even­tu­ally go on to be­come an air­line pi­lot.

Af­ter Martin landed the 150, it was time to say good­bye, and we climbed back into the Grand Car­a­van. Two days af­ter our ad­ven­ture in Sali­nas, Ford flew to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to be hon­ored with the R.A. Bob Hoover Tro­phy from AOPA pres­i­dent Mark Baker for his un­wa­ver­ing en­thu­si­asm and ded­i­ca­tion to avi­a­tion. He might be pub­licly known mostly for fly­ing the Mil­len­nium Fal­con and for a cou­ple of mishaps in his air­planes, but he is an ex­cep­tional pi­lot who has used his air­craft for hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts and to in­spire kids to get into avi­a­tion. He has also do­nated his time to get po­lit­i­cally in­volved in is­sues close to gen­eral avi­a­tion, such as the fight against ATC pri­va­ti­za­tion.

In his ac­cep­tance speech, Ford took the op­por­tu­nity to speak about the Bob Hoover Acad­emy.

“Bob has in­spired Sean, us­ing the metaphor of avi­a­tion, us­ing the metaphor of flight, to use Bob’s name to cre­ate so­cial jus­tice. He’s help­ing kids, one at a time, to pull them­selves up, out of dire cir­cum­stance, and it’s an amaz­ing thing to see,” Ford said. “God bless Amer­ica and God bless Sean D. Tucker, be­cause our love of avi­a­tion, our re­spect for the legacy of avi­a­tion, our un­der­stand­ing of what it can mean is be­ing used to bring th­ese kids, one by one, boys and girls, up to be pro­duc­tive, real, strong peo­ple.”

A visit by ac­tor and pi­lot Har­ri­son Ford made for a spe­cial day at the Bob Hoover Acad­emy at the Sali­nas Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port.

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