Sixty students, just days away from entering high school, were faced with this challenge: Safely deliver a box of explosives through a minefield, over an electrified fence and past a bottomless pit, all before the enemy, a mere 10 minutes away, attacks.

Keeping their cool, the 13- and 14-year-olds saved the day with a plank of wood and piece of rope provided by the U.S. Naval Academy. However, their real set of survival skills -- appropriate more for the pressures of school and the streets than for war -- came from the nonprofit program Reach for Tomorrow (RFT).

"When I talk to kids I say, Don't let anything stop you,' " says RFT founder Peter Underwood. "I tell them, There are people who have overcome incredible adversity, and you can do this! There's no question about it!' That's my message to them."

Since 1993, RFT has selected approximately 600 students from the Washington area and nearly 100 from Chicago this summer to attend its five-day basic training camps for the "motivationally challenged." RFT is Underwood's answer to students who wonder, "Why am I learning this? What use is it to me?"

Underwood targets teenagers early in their school careers who fall in the middle of the bell curve; the ones with C grades who test in the top 40 percent and may be so average that, if they slip between the cracks, their absence may go unnoticed. He bases his final selections on teacher recommendations, an application form and one-on-one interviews.

"I call it High School Relevancy 101," says Underwood, 47, who has the unabashed enthusiasm of a camp counselor. "If we can take these kids out of their environments and show them a place like Colorado or Annapolis or any university where they are doing chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, we can get them to do some really exciting things that would inspire them to go back to school and take the classes they need to get into college."

Underwood, the father of Kathy, 25, and Eric, 22, who lives in Fairfax with his wife, Marilyn, spends 12 to 15 days a month flying for American Airlines. When he is not co-piloting, he is consumed by his other full-time job -- running RFT and planning its future. "I'm still only one guy. I'm not Donald Trump, I'm not an anybody," he says. "But I think that is the point. Anyone can do this if they have the time."

As an Air Force Academy graduate, Underwood decided that military schools, with their supportive and competitive environments, could help the students understand the rigors and relevancy of an education. Approval from the assistant secretary of defense pried open the academies' doors. With his airline and military connections, he also secured donations ranging from planes and pilots to fuel and food from such private corporations as United Airlines, Bell Atlantic, MCI and Pepco, making the program cost-free for all participants. As a strong voice in the local community, he attracted volunteers to interview prospective participants, chaperon the trips and contact the students at least once per semester until the end of their junior year.

With the details in place, Underwood then sat back for the easy part: setting the students free in their new surroundings.

Students who often doze through class or shadow gang leaders are shaken awake by the 6:30 a.m. reveille, and by reality's wake-up call. As guest plebes, the students follow the same routine as the cadets: mental and physical challenges, leadership and teamwork drills, and adventurous escapades.

Using a hands-on learning approach, students at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs hitch a ride aboard planes carrying parachutists and fly solo on hang gliders. At the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, students work on supercomputers and observe the sea mammals trained for sensory missions. At the Naval Academy, they steer yard patrol ships along the Chesapeake Bay and pilot Cessna airplanes high above the Bay Bridge.

For many, such as Ashik Khandker, who moved from Bangladesh to Chicago a year ago, the visit to Annapolis two weeks ago was their first trip to the East Coast. And for others, including Ransford Kwame and Syria Johnson, flying a Cessna was only their second airplane experience -- the first being the flight from Chicago to Annapolis. "Drop your wings a little, keep the dashboard level with the horizon and aim for the next cloud to the left," coaches Jerry King, a volunteer pilot instructor, as Kwame cranes his neck above the steering wheel. "You've got a nice touch." On land, they face equally challenging missions. Swinging from rope ladders and tiptoeing across concrete precipices, the students escape an imaginary 100-foot bomb crater, a booby-trapped building and an ancient citadel surrounded by heavy urban fighting. Their objective is to transport medical supplies or explosives, but the result is an awakened sense of self-confidence and achievement. "I was a little scared of heights so it took a little time," says Janet Ceballos, 15, who scaled a steep wooden lean-to while hauling up an ammo box, "but we planned it out and put it into action."

With a newly acquired air of confidence, the students strut away to the next challenge, feeling invincible. But Underwood still wonders if these motivational lessons can stand up to the pressures of high school and home.

The successes of RFT alums John Brooks and Jenifer Berry, however, help to allay his concerns.

"I came back {from San Diego in 1994} and realized that I have to work hard, and do above and beyond the usual to make a name for myself academically," says Berry, 17, a senior honor student at School Without Walls and president of the student government. "There is life outside D.C., and I was encouraged to get up, get out and experience other places."

Brooks, a senior at Ballou, can still recite the advice that altered his outlook.

"What changed my mind was the cadet I shared the room with {at the Naval Academy in 1994}," says Brooks. "He told me if you don't push forward you will never be anything in this world. You will just be John or John the Bum."

In junior high, Brooks skipped class, preferring to hang out in the hallways, and he received D's and F's. When his mother told him that he was going to the Naval Academy, he "thought my mom got tired of me and was sending me to boot camp."

But once there he became excited about aviation and engineering, and was inspired to take his future seriously.

"After the program, I changed my whole lifestyle because if I didn't, I knew that I wouldn't become anything," says Brooks, who interned at a D.C. law firm this summer. "I left the people I called my friends and made new friendships with people who wanted to make something of their lives. I studied and paid attention in class, and after my first semester, I started getting A's and B's. . . . the program was my starting point to turning around."

As the summer comes to an end and schools reopen, Underwood now can return to his own long-range goals. His to-do list for RFT includes: adding a camp at Kennedy Space Center, encouraging private corporations to provide job-training internships during the school year and expanding RFT programs to other cities across the country.

At the same time, the students who have passed through RFT are looking at their own futures. Brooks is applying to electrical engineering programs at MIT and Temple, and Berry is perusing catalogues for NYU, Smith, Purdue and the Air Force Academy.

Though just entering high school, Kwame wishes to attend his mother's alma mater, Northwestern, and become a pilot; Khandker plans to attend medical school and wants to take up flying as a hobby.

Quoting a former student and taking a new twist on the old familiar Army slogan, Underwood leaves his RFT troop with one final motivational message: "All I can be is up to me." For more information on volunteer opportunities with RFT, contact Peter Underwood at 703-818-1425 or by e-mail at CAPTION: Fourteen-year-old Syria Johnson of Chicago co-pilots a small plane over the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Right, Reach for Tomorrow founder and American Airlines pilot Peter Underwood teaches students the basics of flight before they head for the air.