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Southwest Adopt-a-Pilot Program Takes Flight Again at Severn School

After a three-year hiatus, the Southwest Adopt-a-Pilot (AAP) Program touched down at Severn School once again, giving fifth graders a pilot’s-eye view of how the subjects they are learning relate to aviation.
Severn School is one of 1500 schools nationally to participate in this innovative mentoring program, which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The AAP programming generally spans four to six weeks and follows a standard curriculum developed by Southwest. Using the classroom-ready materials provided to them, visiting pilots drop in about once a week and take students through a series of interactive lessons that get them thinking about how an airplane works. The curriculum is designed to relate what students are learning in the classroom to aviation – specifically demonstrating how math, science and geography are critical to the job of a pilot.

Severn first signed on as an AAP school back in 2015, after Southwest Pilot Jeff Erskine P’23 ’25 approached Head of School Cathy North about it. Erskine had been involved with the program at another school previously, and when his daughter Anna ‘23 enrolled at Severn he was eager to get back into the classroom and engage with the students on the topic of aviation.

“One important piece of this program is to get students thinking about their future and what career options exist,” said Erskine, who has flown for Southwest for 28 years. “Even as fifth graders, that future is nearer than they might think and I really enjoyed introducing flying as a career that they could consider.”

Erskine filled the role of the adopted pilot at Severn for five years, stopping only when the program was grounded due to the pandemic. The program became airborne once again this school year, with Southwest Pilot and current Severn parent Tyson Sarina P’28 ‘30 stepping in as the school’s adopted pilot.

“I really enjoyed coming in each week to teach the lessons laid out in the syllabus that was provided by Southwest,” said first-time Adopt-a-Pilot Sarina, whose son is currently a fifth grader at Severn. Because Sarina knew he wanted to be a pilot from a very young age and considered that to be a north star of sorts when it came to school and other activities, he enjoyed talking to the students about what they wanted to do later in life. “I was surprised by the vocations that some students already had in mind! They ranged from dentists to engineers to teachers, and even a herpetologist,” he said.

This program is popular amongst Severn students and teachers alike, and the fifth graders’ feedback was that they learned so much that they never knew before, and especially liked that it was presented in such a fun and engaging way. Hayman gives the AAP program high marks too, and she especially appreciates how the connection is made between the classroom and the real world. “It’s always great when we have the opportunity to hear directly from professionals about how their education gets put to use in the field,” she said. “When students can see the link between the lesson and the application of it in the real world, they fully engage with the material and generally have more fun with it.”

For the spring 2023 programming, Sarina did demonstrations on the four forces of flight – lift, drag, thrust and weight. Experiments are used to demonstrate these lessons, such as using ping pong balls to study wind and drag. They also built balsa wood airplanes together in class to help identify the different parts of the plane. To wrap up the unit, Sarina held a Jeopardy-style competition to review all of the material they had covered. The winners of the game each received Southwest pilot wings.

While the Southwest curriculum is pre-set, pilots do have flexibility to vary the lessons, adding their own flavor and experiences. Erskine considered himself the “geography guy” and would put extra focus on this subject. He even put together a “Where in the World is Your Pilot?” activity. For this, he shared with students his schedule so that they could follow him over the coming week, using the 3-letter airport codes to look up his location.

Another favorite of Erskine’s was to run them through the type of math problems that pilots face all the time. That might mean asking students to calculate how many miles he would be traveling over a multi-stop trip, or something more complex, like if he was traveling at an altitude of 37,000 feet, and had to be at 31,000 feet 40 miles outside of Baltimore, when should he start his descent?

“I always liked to get out ahead of the ultimate question: ‘when am I ever going to use this?’” said Erskine. “I had a lot of fun with it!”

Another popular component of the AAP program is the custom ties that participating Southwest pilots are permitted to wear. The AAP kit that Southwest provides to each school includes a drawing of a tie and information about the contest. Students are encouraged to work together to create and submit a design for that year’s custom tie. Southwest selects the winning design and each pilot who is part of the program receives one. The pilots have approval to wear this unique tie as part of their flight uniform.

At the conclusion of the program, each student receives a certificate confirming that they completed the Adopt-A-Pilot curriculum with flying colors.

“I believe the value in this program is to get young students to start thinking about what they can be, even if it’s not a pilot,” said Sarina. “But I also wanted each and every one of those kids to know that they could be a pilot, or anything else they choose to be, as long as they were motivated and put in the work.”

About the Southwest Adopt-A-Pilot Program
Adopt-A-Pilot, which began in 1997, brings Southwest® Pilots into classrooms to engage students in interactive, aviation-related lessons that help define future successes, and sparks interest in aviation careers. Each school year, students in more than 1500 classrooms across the country “adopt” Southwest Pilots, giving them the opportunity to mentor students at the fifth-grade level. Students will research careers and develop life skills while Pilots underscore the importance of staying in school. The Adopt-A-Pilot curriculum is a supplementary way to educate students through aviation-themed activities related to science, geography, math, writing, and other core subjects.

Since the program launched in 1997, nearly 14,000 pilots and an estimated 556,000 5th grade students have participated. In celebration of the program’s 25th anniversary, Southwest recently unveiled an aircraft adorned with an Adopt-A-Pilot nose decal and fuselage artwork.

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