SMS student flies high (virtually) at National Flight camp

Date Published: 
September 30, 2016

Coastal Point photos • Submitted: Drew Szlasa grins during a break at summer camp, where students flew aircraft and sailed massive ships (virtually, of course).Coastal Point photos • Submitted: Drew Szlasa grins during a break at summer camp, where students flew aircraft and sailed massive ships (virtually, of course).For one week this summer, Drew Szlasa was flying airplanes, or controlling them from an aircraft carrier ship.

But this Selbyville Middle School eighth-grader wasn’t really up the air or at sea. She was in an immersive National Flight Academy summer camp, with hints of virtual reality, at Pensacola, Fla.

The whole building was designed to look and feel like a ship. Even the dorms were laid out like an aircraft carrier.

There were two teams — those flying the aircraft, plus the mission control team helping the aircraft navigate.

“They had these flight simulators where they taught you how to fly it,” said Szlasa. “There was this place called the JIC [Joint Intelligence Center] where you told the planes where to go.”

When flying, the plane started on the actual boat, “and then you take off from there,” she said. “The aircraft was really fun. … It was laid out like an actual airplane. It would be just you and a co-pilot.”

Every day at the flight simulator, campers sat in front of screens, maps and diagrams to complete the mission.

“They showed you how to use thrust and throttle and stuff, and they taught you about planes and how they work,” she said.

“They gave you missions, and you’re supposed to go places, and you’d get rewards for it,” Szlasa said. “When you were on the simulator, it would be Pensacola, Fla. It would be the actual land outside, and you’d see places around [the city].”

For every mission, students first congregated at the Joint Operations Center (JOC) to hear the details, such as their destination and cargo.

“At the end, we had a late mission that we had to stay up late for,” Szlasa said. “There was a cruise ship on fire. We had to bring water to the fire and put it on the cruise ships.”

They had to learn from their mistakes and then try it again, hovering over the ships and dumping the water.

“It was fun. We just kept going back and forth from the JOC and the simulator until we all figured it out,” she said.

As a camp highlight, the students got to see a demonstration of the Blue Angels flight team.

“It was really amazing. They did a bunch of flips, and they were, like, really close together,” Szlasa said.

Nicknames were part of the fun, since campers got individual call signs. “Peter Pan” was Szlasa’s second name all week long.

“The instructor — over the week, she’d think of names based on how we acted and how we flew the plane,” Szlasa said. “Sometimes I couldn’t land the plane on the ship.” So she hovered and flew around, like Peter Pan.

She was fortunate to get a camp scholarship from her mother’s employer, Delta Airlines, which sent about 100 students to Pensacola, Cindy Szlasa said.

“I’m really hoping that kids here in our area [get involved],” said Cindy Szlasa. “If they apply, there’s plenty of money available [in various NFA camp scholarships]. They would love to have kids.”

The NFA website said camp “Ambition” has “theme park-like sight and sound [with] premier technology available for students.” The STEM camp teaches “critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and communication.”

“I just thought it was an opportunity to try something new,” said Szlasa, who usually attends field hockey and lacrosse camps.

Will she go into aviation one day? Maybe! This camp piqued her interest, and the middle-schooler has plenty of time to decide.

National Flight Academy camps are offered year-round for students in grades 5 to 12. The Academy is a subsidiary of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation.

Details are online at