HAGERSTOWN -- The pouring rain mattered little to the middle school students who gathered at Washington County Regional Airport yesterday.
No amount of H2O was going to keep this group of 20 young women from soaking in the sights. They asked questions when given a chance. Tough ones, too.
Drawn from schools across this rural county, the students defied the stereotypes that claim only boys can appreciate 12,000 horsepower, super-charged engines, modern aerodynamics and aircraft navigation.
"I don't think this group of girls is scared of anything," marveled Kathy Holtzman, a mother of two who accompanied her 14-year-old daughter Pam on the outing. "At least not that I've seen."
All are students in Aviation Invasion, a course designed to pique young women's interest in mathematics and science by teaching them about flying, a topic for which their teacher has no small amount of enthusiasm herself.
"It's thrilling," said Barbara Walters, a 5th grade teacher and licensed pilot who instructs the after-school class. "If we can get them to look at all the options available to them, including aviation and those tough math and science courses . . . then I think they can lead a happy life."
Financed by a $5,000 grant from the American Association of University Women, the 3 1/2 -month class is an intriguing counterpoint to the report commissioned by the AAUW and released last week which suggested that girls still face discrimination in schools, particularly when it comes to science and math instruction.
The students, most of whom are age 12, 13 or 14, meet each Monday night from 6 to 9 p.m. at an old airport hangar. They talk mostly about flying, outer space and career opportunities. They build models, write time lines, launch toy rockets and listen to guest lecturers.
Saturdays are for field trips. Accompanied by a dozen or so parents, the girls pondered cockpit controls inside a DC-3 that could still safely guide a 49-year-old airplane.
Inside the airport's control tower, they learned about instrument landings from a traffic manager who happens to be a woman. Outside, they took turns sitting in the pilot seat of a handmade single-engine plane.
"My mom made me take the class, but I'm glad I did," said 13-year-old Karen Michaels, an eighth-grade Catholic school student. "I'm going to go sky diving when I get older. When I'm 17 or whatever age you have to be, I'm going."
Richard and Donna Koons said the class has had a profound effect on their once-bashful daughter Heather. The 10-year-old now sports an airplane watch, airplane pins on her jacket collar and carries around a photo album stuffed with dozens of pictures taken from the field trip to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
"I hope this will give her the incentive to go to college," said Mr. Koons, a guard at the nearby Maryland Correctional Institution. "I worry that the mentality still is, keep [women] barefoot and pregnant. They aren't seen as the breadwinners. They're overlooked."
Christie Cottrill, a seventh grader from Clear Spring Middle School, rates this class and math as her favorite courses. But she is not always happy with teachers who seem more interested in teaching boys than girls. "Most of the girls don't get to speak out, because the teachers pick on the boys," said Christie, a 12-year-old who wants to be either a pilot or an astronaut when she grows up.
Yesterday was supposed to be the day the girls got the chance to fly for real, to sit in the pilot seat, handle the controls (under the watchful eye of an instructor) and follow flight plans they plotted in class. The wind and rain forced that to be rescheduled until next weekend.
Until then, the youngsters must be content to soar with their minds, to stretch their intellectual wings and test their limits without falling prey to the ignorance and prejudice below.
"I fell in love with flying," said Mrs. Walters, a 21-year teaching veteran who earned her wings less than two years ago. "It's thrilling to see them fall in love with flying, too."