PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. — The panicked voice came into Ambition's air traffic control room — one of the aircraft carrier's young pilots was in trouble.
"Dude, my nose is down," the pilot shouted as he struggled to regain control over his X12 experimental Triad aircraft.
There was no real danger, however: The planes are imaginary and Ambition is a simulated aircraft carrier, the centerpiece of the new, $33 million National Flight Academy that supporters are calling space camp taken to the next level.
It officially opens Friday at Pensacola Naval Air Station with scheduled appearances by former shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan — the first and the last men to walk on the moon.
Campers from seventh to 12th grade will experience five days onboard Ambition at the National Flight Academy, surrounded by sights and sounds that recreate the feeling of being at sea and conducting noncombat missions.
Organizers say it's not just for teens who might be interested in becoming a Navy pilot, but also for those who might have an unrealized aptitude for science or math.
"Unless kids get a spark somewhere and they get excited about math or science, they are not going to do it and that is what this is about. They may not find that they want to be an aviator, but they may be really good at meteorology or geometry and that helps them make decisions about a career," said Pam Northrup, dean of the college of professional studies at the University of West Florida and consultant on the Flight Academy project since it was conceived 15 years ago.
It costs $1,250 to attend, but directors said scholarships are available, with sessions running each week from June through August.
Ambition, operated by a nonprofit with funding from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and other aviation and defense industry leaders, was created with help from designers who have worked for Disney and Universal Studios theme parks.
It has 30 networked aircraft simulators, the most in any non-Defense Department facility, and a high-tech control room. When planes take off, loud jet noises are piped into the building and rooms vibrate. The simulated hangar bays are dimly lit, just like in real life. Bells ring dignitaries aboard and crew members are alerted by an intercom system. When the mission gets under way, the windows are covered with pictures of ocean scenes and the campers sleep in berths and eat in a mess hall.
But the academy's directors, who include former top Navy aviators with decades of experience commanding and flying from aircraft carriers, stress that the project is not sponsored or endorsed by the Navy and that all of its simulated missions are noncombat.
"The Navy hasn't put a dime into this building — the Navy authorizes this building to be here (on Pensacola Naval Air Station) but does not endorse or support it," said retired Navy Capt. Kevin Miller, a former F-18 pilot and vice president of the National Flight Academy.
New campers are assigned to squadrons and then taken to a briefing room where they are given a mission such as providing post-earthquake relief to a hard-hit country. Instructors dressed in flight suits direct each pilot and co-pilot to a simulator and hand them a clipboard with a checklist of instructions.
The squadrons then compete against each other in their flight and communication skills and how effectively they use their resources to provide the relief in the limited time given. They have to calculate their fuel supply, weight of relief supplies, weather forecasts, aircraft abilities and other factors.
"And then we throw in something unexpected like survivors in the water, so that they have to deviate from their plan. They have to use geometry, geography, trigonometry — things pilots use all the time," Miller said.
Recently, 30 teenagers put the Ambition through a two-day test run, competing in a simulated air race that took them over MacDill Air Force Base and Tampa Bay.
The instructors — many of them Navy and Air Force veterans — sometimes laughed at the furious flurry of communications as a co-pilot yelled at a pilot for causing the plane to spiral toward the ground or a team discovered they had miscalculated the fuel and didn't have enough to return to the aircraft carrier.
"Hey, make sure we are going to the right airport," one pilot said to his co-pilot.
One deck above the pilots, Will Griffin, 13, sat with his right hand clasped tightly over an earpiece and his eyes focused on a radar display. Griffin communicated with his Triad squadron members from the ship's joint operation center. "All squadrons return to Ambition," Griffin radioed from his front-row seat in a filled with rows of computers, maps and instructors in fight suits.
"I've flown simulators before but these are really cool," Griffin said. "They have like six screens with all the graphics and having your own co-pilots and all of the other people flying the missions with you. I love this place."
It is good fun, but also serious learning, said retired vice Adm. Gerald L. Hoewing, the Ambition's commander and President of the National Flight Academy. He is a former Naval aviator who once commanded the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and the fleet that included the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.
"This is an opportunity to give back in an area that is important. High-tech and engineering are what have made this country different, and we need to regenerate that enthusiasm if we are going to lead the world like we have done for so many years," he said.
The three-star admiral was more than a figurehead throughout Ambition's trial cruise, sitting with the young aviators and monitoring the communications from the hangar bay as they flew their missions. Hoewing said he wanted to ensure that all the kinks are worked out before Friday's commissioning ceremony.
A previous trial revealed that the simulators' flight-control settings were a little too difficult for many of the young pilots, he said. Technicians had to change the settings to ensure the simulators were set at basic level.
"We have brought the ship to life in the same way the U.S. Navy would bring a ship on the line to life. We had our sea trials to see if all the equipment works," he said.
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