8:30 AM, it’s a frigid spring morning. Three yellow school buses pull up to the curb of Kansas City International Airport’s Terminal A. This isn’t a rare sight; local schools often send sport and academic teams on trips to compete. But this day is different. The buses, filled to capacity with girls age 10-13, come to a stop outside a shuttered airport terminal which for years has not seen passenger traffic. These young minds would indeed be boarding a plane for a multi-hour experience, but the goal was not to travel. Instead, today’s visit to the airport is to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) through hands-on experiences aboard an ultra-rare, airworthy L-1011 wide-body aircraft.
The plane, which last served as a mobile hospital, arrived in Kansas City, MO last year thanks to TriStar Experience, a local non-profit. The organization seeks out rare planes, with the goal of inspiring the next generation to seek STEM and aviation careers. Readers may recall this is the same organization which rescued and restored TWA’s Wings of Pride plane which is currently on display in partnership with the TWA Museum at the Downtown Kansas City Airport.
The event was timed to coincide with Women in Aviation Week as well as International Women’s Day. Much has been written about the strikingly low numbers of female workers in STEM fields (including aerospace). While the trend is turning, there is still a major gap in action to introduce young women to these fields. Enter the impressive L-1011.
Many of the TriStar Experience events are sponsored by third parties. This event was sponsored by Garmin, a multi-national technology company headquartered in the KC-metro area. Garmin is a top technology employer locally, and for this reason, it makes perfect sense that the company would invest in the inspiration and development of potential future employees and collaborators. The agenda for participants from three local school districts included a tour of the plane, interview with a captain, discussion of aviation and technology careers with a Garmin technical recruiter, and rotation through rigorous, curriculum-based educational program stations.
Up front, education program participants received 1:1 time with not just any L-1011 pilot, but a Wayne Hidalgo, a retired TWA training captain with proficiencies in this plane and others. L-1011 captains are indeed rare, but to find an L-1011 training captain is of particular note. A major perk of TriStar Experience choosing Kansas City as its home, our metro area can claim a dense population of former TWA employees. Capt. Hidalgo’s experience as an educator was on display as he exercised great patience and positive disposition while pelted with rapid-fire questions and excitement from the tween learners.
Up in first class, Katie Bones, Garmin Technical Recruiter engaged small groups in discussion around the need for women in technology. Katie offered her first-hand experiences in her efforts to recruit a diverse workforce and discussed a number of the roles that she hires for locally. For most participants, this was their first exposure to the existence of these various high-tech roles. Simple exposure to career possibilities is a powerful tool in helping students to evaluate their direction.
The rear and lower deck of the TriStar Experience L-1011 is where participants spent most of their time, rotating through the various STEM modules. TriStar Experience partnered with educators to develop a curriculum which adheres to Missouri and Kansas state STEM education standards as well as new National standards. A sampling of modules included hands-on experiential teaching for principles of flight, aircraft systems, as well as contrast and comparison of the visual differences of aircraft.
A module I found to be of particular interest challenged participants to custom-design their own helicopters. To test these prototypes, aspiring engineers could simply toss them down the L-1011’s stairwell to the cheers of their cohorts situated in the lounge below the flight deck. The 747 and A380 get a lot of attention for their two-deck arrangement, but it is a little-known fact that the L-1011 had an option for a lower-level lounge. Sadly only one airline (PSA) chose the option. Thankfully, the TriStar Experience L-1011 got its start (in 1974) with PSA, and future operators preserved the lounge. And for good reason; how else would we have tested our helicopters?
The entire program took about four hours to complete and left students with smiles on their faces. Experiential programs involving rare planes, exposure to professionals, and a dose of education seem just what the doctor ordered in inspiring the next generation of knowledge workers. It was a fun field trip for all, but some left with a newfound interest in STEM and aviation. In that regard, one would have to consider the joint Garmin TriStar Experience event a success.