In Huntsville, Dreams Take Flight

By Tom Kavanagh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

The F/A-18 ahead of me weaved and dodged, flitting in and out of my gun sight. I was closing in for the kill, but so was the ground.

"Sink rate! Sink rate!" a cold female voice mechanically repeated over the cockpit speaker. "Pull up! Pull up!"

My foe surely heard the same commands and began leveling off. Perfect. Just a few more seconds . . .

Suddenly, dozens of fracture lines peppered the glass of the canopy, and everything came to an abrupt halt.

"Ha! Got you, Dad!"

I looked over at my 12-year-old son, James, now gloating in another simulator across the dimly lit room.

"I've been following you. Didn't you notice?"

Notice? It was a miracle that I'd mustered enough hand-eye-brain coordination to keep from crashing this virtual bird.

James shook his head. "Haven't you shot down anybody yet?"

The answer was -- and would remain -- no. During a three-day weekend program called Aviation Challenge, I and four other parents would spend many hours in these flight simulators with our children, and the kids would outgun the adults again and again. (Or, more precisely, my kid would outfly me over and over.)

For the young guns, the weekend was an adventure and, overall, a success. For the grown-ups, the experience was mixed. Aviation Challenge (AC) is part of U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., which is also home to the Marshall Space Flight Center. (That's where Wernher von Braun led NASA's rocket science research and helped put men on the moon.) As the name implies, Space Camp primarily offers mock training for young "astronauts." The programs are geared to varying ages, and most are week-long and for kids only. But there are also three- and four-day weekend programs throughout the summer for children ages 7 to 12 and their parents.

James, bitten by the aviation bug a year earlier, had lobbied hard for this trip. At 54 and plagued with chronic back problems, I was leery. There would not only be the centrifuge (which simulates G-forces) and the "helo-dunker" (which approximates a crash landing in water) to contend with, but also something more elemental: Campers are housed in barracks-like quarters, sleeping in bunk beds that could prove unfriendly to my lumbar disks. Turns out, I was right about that. I wound up putting the mattress on the floor.

The AC program began with our counselor, who would steer us through the weekend, assigning "call signs," or nicknames, for everyone. (Think: Tom Cruise's "Maverick" in "Top Gun.") Each of us had to tell a bit about ourselves, which would prompt suggestions from the "squadron." I ill-advisedly mentioned that I'm an editor and was rewarded with "Typo." James, a football fanatic, got "QB." Life just isn't fair.

Our days were busy but not exactly full. Wake-up was at 7, and activities ran till 9:30 at night, with lights out (in theory, anyway) at 10. Simulator time recurred throughout each day, and the schedule is peppered with "briefings." You might be introduced to aircrew equipment in one session; go on "patrol" around the premises in the next, holding pretend guns and watching for an invisible enemy; then learn the phonetic alphabet that all pilots use (alpha, bravo, Charlie . . . ). Or you might play a game of tag with rules I never got the hang of. The kids didn't seem to notice or mind the herky-jerky "flow" of our activities. We were also the first class of the season, and perhaps the gears needed more time to mesh.

The jumping around also included visits to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, an adjacent museum that boasts a Saturn V rocket resting impressively on its side. This is an actual test vehicle; a replica of the 360-foot behemoth stands tall outside, an eye-catching and awe-inspiring advertisement for the camp. There's also an Imax theater, a few space-themed rides and a dining facility.

Feeding everyone is a fast-moving enterprise, with hundreds of campers getting their grub assembly-line style. There's not much choice involved: Everyone marches through the stations, grabbing the portions they're issued at a no-nonsense pace. (Sample menu: fried chicken, peas, mashed potatoes and rolls for lunch; spaghetti, green beans and rolls for dinner.)

As for the training itself, my back survived the centrifuge. Two campers reclined inside a capsule, which was swung in a circle at increasing speeds. It maxed out at 3.2 G's, placing unyielding pressure on one's body. Lifting a hand to push various buttons took considerable effort, putting the job of fighter pilot in a sobering light.

The helo-dunker turned out to be off-limits during our stay, as the lake (or "plake" -- it's part pool, part lake) had not yet gotten approval to open for the season. James was disappointed, but his dad sure wasn't.

One challenge I didn't dodge was the "Barney chair," a glorified bar stool into which one was buckled and then spun rapidly for 30 seconds. This was done with both fists stacked on a knee and one's head turned sideways on the top fist. The spinning induced a strange, almost giddy sensation, but when the chair was abruptly stopped, any sense of up, down or sideways was thrown way out of whack. Pilots must contend with this after extended barrel rolls, and I don't envy them. It took five minutes before my internal gyroscope reset itself.

Another activity I didn't forgo seemed innocent enough: survival-skill training. Like military pilots shot down behind enemy lines, James and I had to build a shelter and start a fire. We crafted a pathetic-looking tent out of a parachute, but our (read: my) attempts at fire-building fizzled, even with an allotment of matches. In real life, it would have been time to wave the white flag.

In the end, though, the training that mattered most to my son and the other young participants took place in the simulators. James tells me there are video and computer games that do much the same thing, but these offered close approximations of an actual cockpit. It wasn't exactly the wild blue yonder, but maybe the next best thing.

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