The pilot is coming in for a landing and Henry Rey is concerned. “Nose up, please,” he tells the young woman in the cockpit. “Take it easy. You’re working too hard and making the plane bank too hard.”
Then he pivots to the rest of the class: “Let me tell you what you have to study for the test,” he says, pointing to the board covered with definitions of aviation vocabulary.
Rey’s class at Frederick Douglass Academy Preparatory School I in District 5, Harlem, is no ordinary class: four computer flight simulators stand ready for “takeoff” along one wall of his classroom; model planes hang from the ceiling. The flight simulators, which offer all the instruments and controls of a Cessna 172, were donated by EduStation, which created them. In exchange, Rey trained other teachers on the equipment. Students are paid a small fee for creating “missions,” which other schools can use on their own flight simulators.
“We call it STEAM, with the A for aeronautics,” Rey says.
Rey, a longtime licensed pilot, teaches students math and science through aeronautics. While many students are there to get science credit, others say the class has sparked an interest in piloting as a career — something they never dreamed of before.
For those students, the interest is stoked not just by simulated flight, but by the chance to do the real thing. If they have mastered the controls and missions on a flight simulator, Rey allows them — with parental permission — to fly with him in his private plane on Saturdays, and he gives them the opportunity to take the controls over Long Island. And just as a driving instructor has a separate brake to correct a student driver, Rey has his own set of controls to ensure safety in the air.Kathleen Mangan, a member of Rey’s afterschool and Saturday “Flight Club,” already has 15 hours of flying experience under her belt. A senior, she was accepted to West Point and to the U.S. Air Force Academy and plans to serve in the U.S. Air Force. “Being in total control of the plane, I was comfortable,” she says of her flight time. “The view of Long Island below me was breathtaking. I was in awe.”
Rey praises Mangan’s “visual spatial intelligence,” which enabled her to ace a mission on the flight simulator on her first try.
He also helps students who are enthusiastic but require assistance keeping their grades up.
“I was into sports, not flying,” says senior Samuel Gonzalez. “Mr. Rey pushed me to get better grades and tutored me in trigonometry.”
Gonzalez now plans to attend Vaughn College in Queens to study aeronautics and become a commercial pilot.
Rey taught aeronautics at August Martin HS in Queens and the now-closed Bronx Aerospace Academy before arriving at Frederick Douglass Academy five years ago. More than 20 years ago, he worked for the U.S. Air Force doing search-and-rescue missions after crashes. Now he’s committed to seeing that his students are prepared for lucrative careers in aviation.
“I want to take high school kids who don’t know about the jobs at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports and show them what’s possible,” Rey says. He estimates about 85 of his former students have become commercial pilots.
Frederick Douglass Chapter Leader Marquis Harrison says one of his 7th-grade history students, who had an Individualized Education Program, got his first pilot license in Rey’s class. That student is now graduating from Vaughn College and plans to become a professional pilot.
“I think Rey’s a jewel for our school,” Harrison says. “He’s been able to cultivate students’ interest in aeronautics.”
Rey is close to the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, and he brings them into class on occasion to share their inspiring stories about being the first African-American aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
Math teacher Adebayo Jobi referred one of his students, Carlos Benitez, a junior seeking a challenge, to Rey’s class. “Rey is somebody who is interested in sharing what he knows,” Jobi says. “As colleagues we have discussed concepts such as infinity during a free period. I’ll stop by his class and see what he’s doing.” Benitez now has eight hours of flying time with Rey and plans to become an airline pilot.
Ivy Colomba, a special education teacher, says she, too, has referred her students to Rey’s class and afterschool program, especially those who have not “connected” with the school in a meaningful way. Rey’s program often helps them make that connection.
“A student who may not have social skills will blossom socially,” Colomba explains. “You see the ripple effect in terms of engagement. They’re not so reluctant to participate in other classes.”