Tensions run high as the pilots take off from LaGuardia Airport and head for Manhattan. It's a clear morning as they fly under bridges and over the Empire State building, One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty, working skillfully to keep their planes on the flight path.
As they land and taxi back on the tarmac, the 4th-grade pilots and co-pilots from PS 195 in Rosedale, Queens, cheer and congratulate each other on their safe return — the bittersweet end of an exciting Jan. 9 field trip to the New York City Center for Space Science Education on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
The day begins with everyone outside excitedly tossing simple balsa wood model planes into the air, willing that they stay aloft. Instead, they watch as the models swoop and dip or immediately plummet to the ground. They try again and again to score a smooth landing.
Peter Giles, the assistant director of the center and a former high school science teacher, said he had planned the day's activities to help the 23 visiting students understand "why planes fly and don't fall out of the sky."
Back inside, a lively conversation centers on what has just happened outside. The 4th-graders have plenty to say because teacher Lorraine Tipaldo has prepared them well. They pepper Giles with answers to his questions about what keeps a plane up: "Air pressure, molecules, lift."
Tipaldo, who began teaching 16 years ago after a career in business, noted, "Preplanning for a field trip is important to help students connect to the new material they will be learning about."
Holding up a large model plane, Giles explores the parts — with students calling out "aileron, rudder, nose" — and explains how pilots use the parts to move the plane. Students then follow directions from Giles, using the language of pilots, and struggle to make small model planes pitch up and down and yaw left and right. Demonstrations, discussions, hands-on practice and working in teams of two to answer worksheet questions keep them all on their toes and busy.
Staff members at the center, part of the city Department of Education, are former teachers and current UFT members. Giles and Zohar Ris, an instructional programs specialist and former science teacher, design the curriculum and conduct all the field trips, tailored to grade levels from kindergarten through high school. The field trips are designed to increase student interest and excitement about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through space and aviation science.
Older students participate in a simulated mission into outer space in the Challenger Learning Center while elementary classes learn how planes fly in the NASA Aerospace Education Laboratory.
From the minute visitors step into the center, they are in a tunnel-like hallway that resembles the one that astronauts walk through to board their spacecraft. Every part of the center provides a feeling of being at NASA headquarters. The mission control room is as authentic as the one seen on television when astronauts are on a space flight.
And for the visiting 4th-graders, at last it's time for what they've all been awaiting: the chance to actually fly a plane. Excitement runs high as pilot and co-pilot teams head for the flight simulators.
Tipaldo, paraprofessional Mercedes Reinoso and four parents move around the room, helping each team settle into the cockpits to prepare for takeoff. Sitting at the controls, nervously testing and checking their instruments, pilots pay close attention to instructions. Giles finally signals, "You are clear for takeoff."
Staring out their cockpit windows, they are cloud high and see Manhattan and the river below, just as a pilot would. But flying turns out not to be as easy as it looks. One plane almost takes the top off the Empire State building while another wanders off course, flying low over lower Manhattan. They pull back as each catastrophe looms and move quickly to try to get back on course and avoid hitting a building, a bridge or the heart of Times Square. Gradually the teams gain confidence and more control of their planes.
But it's all over too soon. It's back into coats and scarves for the bus trip home to Queens with one last treat. Giles gives each student a word search sheet with all their new aviation vocabulary.
"They declared it the best field trip they'd ever been on," Tipaldo reported a few days later. "The students loved it, so did the parents and I did, too."
And it's really not over at all, she said, because they are still talking about it and will be building on what they have learned.
The New York City Center for Space Science Education is located at 220 Henry St. in Manhattan.