National Naval Aviation Museum will attract thousands of new visitors with its forthcoming National Flight Academy
Taking Flight Already an economic powerhouse in the Pensacola region, the National Naval Aviation Museum will attract thousands of new visitors with its forthcoming National Flight Academy By Jennifer Ewing Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
In the early 1960s, Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum began as a humble display of only three aircraft. Today the museum, located at Naval Air Station Pensacola, houses more than 150 planes and, according to a 2002 study by the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida, has a roughly $47 million direct economic impact on the region. That’s an impressive feat, considering that admission to the museum is free.
While museum patrons could easily leave the grounds without paying a dime, statistics show that they spend almost an entire day longer in the region, have higher incomes and spend more during their stay than those who forgo visiting. Since the National Aviation Museum draws an average of 750,000 to 950,000 guests per year, the sum of these extended trips translates into about $38 million of the museum’s total economic impact.
Despite these numbers, Vice Admiral Gerald L. Hoewing, USN (Ret.), president and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, acknowledges that for most Pensacola tourists, the museum is not a primary destination.
“Most people don’t come to Pensacola just to see the museum,” he says. “They come to Pensacola because Pensacola is a great place to come, and the museum is an attraction when they get here.”
In the near future, however, the advent of a new program called the National Flight Academy is likely to make the museum a primary destination in its own right. The aviation-inspired, space camp-style experience is expected to lure an estimated 10,000 seventh- through 12th-grade students annually.
These students, or “aviators,” will spend five-and-a-half days completely immersed in a high-tech adventure on a simulated aircraft carrier, learning the core principles of science, technology, engineering and math. Working in squadrons of 11, the aviators will handle a variety of virtual missions related to non-lethal objectives such as homeland security, rescue missions, hurricane hunting, aircraft racing and space shuttle operations. Every young person in the program will be involved in mission planning and operations and will have an opportunity to fly a simulated aircraft. They will also benefit from a teacher-to-student ratio of approximately 1 to 11, which is far better than in most classroom settings.
While word of mouth should spread interest in Escambia County and neighboring Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, the unique program is prepared to welcome students from across the globe.
“The National Flight Academy will be the world’s best aviation-inspired education experience,” Hoewing says. “Nowhere else in the world will students in seventh through 12th grades have the opportunity to be immersed in a simulated aircraft carrier, where they will do aviation missions and science, technology, engineering and math learning objectives while having the best time of their lives.”
Hoewing believes the interactive nature of the National Flight Academy will grip the interest of plugged-in Generation Z students.
“The kids will literally believe that they are on an aircraft carrier,” he says. “It’s going to have sights, sounds, smells and vibrations like a ship. They will be immersed in that experience while doing all of the electronic learning, using the tools at their fingertips.”
This type of hands-on learning coincides with existing initiatives of the Naval Aviation Museum. Unlike most museums, it doesn’t keep its entire collection behind glass walls or velvet ropes. Visitors are encouraged to walk right up to decades-old aircraft to touch and get a close-up look at the historic planes and helicopters that have helped defend our country. In fact, this past September, the museum hosted an event called Paint-A-Plane, which called for visitors to press their painted hands against a T-38 Talon supersonic jet trainer.
The museum also keeps guests engaged through flight simulator rides and hourly IMAX Theatre screenings. Visitors can even stop by on select days between March and November to watch practice demonstrations by the Blue Angels Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron.
“The idea is that the more hands-on our visitors are, the more they will retain,” Hoewing says. “What differentiates this museum from other aviation museums around the world is that we are a hands-on museum in every respect.”
The National Flight Academy provides a way for the museum to expand its educational outreach while enhancing its economic impact. The program is expected to make $10 million a year from tuition alone. In addition, many parents will likely accompany their children to Pensacola for the week, supporting the local economy through their hotel stays, meals and activities. In total, the academy is expected to bring about $30 million into the economy.
Currently under construction, the National Flight Academy is expected to open its doors on May 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of naval aviation.
Planting Seeds for the Future
The National Flight Academy will have an immediate effect on the local economy, creating more than 400 jobs and generating roughly $56 million during the construction process. However, the program is designed for more than short-term gain. With an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM subjects — the curriculum will equip students with skills that are becoming increasingly necessary in the modern work force.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 of the 20 fastest-growing professions through 2014 will require substantial math or science preparation. This is disconcerting as, according to 2009 FCAT results, many Florida students are falling short in these areas. The most recent test scores revealed that 39 percent of middle school students and 31 percent of high school students are performing below grade level in mathematics. Science scores are far more alarming, with 59 percent of eighth-graders and 63 percent of 11th-graders performing below grade level.
Officials hope that STEM initiatives such as the National Flight Academy will help bolster the existing education system and prepare young people to enter a technology-based economy.
Percentages of Florida students performing below grade level in math and science, according to the 2009 FCAT results:
Seventh Grade:Math – 40 percent; Science – not tested
Eighth Grade:Math – 34 percent; Science – 59 percent
Ninth Grade:Math – 32 percent; Science – not tested
Tenth Grade:Math – 31 percent; Science – not tested
Eleventh Grade:Math – not tested; Science – 63 percent
Naval Aviation Museum
$47 million: direct economic impact
$11 million: indirect economic impact
$11 million: economic impact felt in the community from the salaries of those employed
National Flight Academy
$56.5 million: estimated economic impact from construction
$10 million: approximate tuition-based revenue expected
$30 million: estimated total annual impact expected (in addition to profits from the museum)