An airplane fluttered, veered left and crashed Friday morning in a conference room of the Holiday Inn Downtown.
Lots of airplanes actually – all of the balsam wood or Styrofoam variety, and all in the name of education at the 2015 Montana Aviation Conference, which returned this weekend to Missoula for the first time in five years.
“Did it pitch up and stall right away?” Kaye Ebelt asked 15 seventh-graders from Valley Christian School.
No, all agreed.
Airplanes with propellers tend to turn left, Ebelt explained. Blades going down create more lift than they do going up.
“But these don’t have propellers, so what surface would I (address) to correct it?”
“The ailerons,” someone answered, correctly, referring to the plane’s small trail wings.
Lift and weight, thrust and drag, flight simulations and other aeronautic terms became part of the students' vocabulary during Ebelt’s two-hour “Take Off With Aviation Education” at the conference.
For at least one seventh-grader, it was familiar territory.
“Drag was a little new because I didn’t know much about drag or, like, stalling going down,” said Gabe Riley, who flies with his uncle and joined the Civil Air Patrol a few months ago. “I just knew that it was hard to get out of because I’ve stalled going down before. It feels like 200 pounds pulling up on you.”
Ebelt is an experienced hand at these things. She spends other sessions teaching teachers, and will even be taking some brave conference attendees up in the air Saturday for flying lessons at Missoula International Airport.
The annual aviation conference began Thursday and winds up Saturday evening with a banquet that features keynote speaker Ron Hooper, chief executive officer of Neptune Aviation in Missoula.
“It’s a time for all the aviation groups to get together at one time and discuss important aviation issues,” said the conference's coordinator, Patty Kautz, of the Montana Department of Transportation’s aeronautics division.
Among the hot topics are unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which are making waves in the Montana Legislature, and the U.S. Air Force’s proposed expansion of the Powder River military operations area. Both are subjects of presentations this weekend.
The conference draws 500 people from around the state and nation, Kautz said. A record 53 exhibitors have set up booths in the hotel atrium.
For Ebelt, a pilot and longtime middle school teacher at Target Range, the conference provides an opportunity to spread the gospel of aviation education. She doesn't know of one school in Montana that offers it.
“We want to expose kids to aviation and to maybe spark an interest that this is something they can do, now, at their age,” she said.
It's also a chance for Ebelt to come home, if only for a few days. She's in the second year of a two-year Einstein Fellowship at the National Science Foundation in Virginia. There she was placed in the engineering directorate of the Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation division.
Her emphasis has been on 3-D printing, but she’s translated her experience there into other endeavors, most of them of an aeronautical bent.
“I happen to be working for an aerospace engineer who got me involved in gliding,” she said. “He’s my gliding instructor and my boss.”
George Hazelrigg took Ebelt gliding last summer, and she’ll take her pilot check ride in a couple of weeks. She didn’t intend to fall in love with gliding, she said, but touted its virtues to the Valley Christian students.
“Gliding is something you can start at the age of 13, solo at 14 and get your license at 15,” she said. “I didn’t know that. I wish I would have had someone tell me at their age, hey, you can fly.”
Compared to flying an airplane, the costs are minimal – a flight costs her just $22 for the tow plane.
“And there are all kinds of scholarships available for kids,” Ebelt said. “It’s just a way to get them started. I think it ingrains in them the skills they need to have if they eventually want to fly airplanes. It makes them better pilots.”
Ebelt was one of 22 teachers nationwide chosen for the Einstein Fellowship in 2013, a year after she and fellow Target Range teacher Jann Clouse took part in a NASA Teaching from Space program that found them flying in zero gravity above the Gulf of Mexico.
Her slate is full in Virginia. She’s working on three writing projects, including two books of math and science lessons with engineering design and 3-D printing components for students K-5 and middle school through high school.
She’s teaching an eight-week class at Virginia Tech on how to teach engineering to kids, after which she’ll teach courses at Marymount University and, perhaps, George Washington University.
And Ebelt is rubbing shoulders daily with professors from MIT, Harvard, Purdue, Georgia Tech and Princeton.
“These are my colleagues,” she said. “Every day we go to lunch and I’ll throw out a lesson and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ They’ll say, ‘Well, to be more engineering politically correct, you need to do this.’
“So these lessons are being designed by the best of the best in engineering, and I get to bring that home to the teachers and students here. That’s exciting to me.”
Ebelt isn't certain what her exact role will be when she returns to Missoula in July. Target Range Superintendent Corey Austin is hatching a plan that would allow her to spread her knowledge and enthusiasm to other Montana schools.
Her dream job, Ebelt said, is to have a place geared specifically to engineering, aviation and science for children to “tinker and build things and make things and figure out how things work.”
“They don’t know. You ask kids how a cellphone works and they’ll tell you it’s just magic.”