A reality television show that usually chronicles the exploits of harried airplane passengers and the employees who serve them will dedicate some time tonight to a happier tale about some Severn kids.
The "Fly Babies" episode of A&E's Airline will feature members of a fourth-grade class at Van Bokkelen Elementary who this spring studied math, science and ways to achieve one's goals with Southwest Airlines pilot Anthony C. May.
The episode - which focuses on the airline's hubs in Los Angeles and Chicago and at Baltimore-Washington International Airport - also followed the pupils on a flight to Birmingham, Ala., in June to visit key sites in civil rights history.
"It was a reward for all the hard work they had done," Southwest spokeswoman and program leader Linda Hochster said of the trip, the first flight for some children at the school, which receives federal funding for its high proportion of children from low-income families.
In fact, said May, "many of the students hadn't been out of their county before, much less out of their state."
The show Airline has been aired on A&E since January. Recent episodes have featured a family moving to Los Angeles arriving at the airport 20 minutes before their flight, with 18 boxes to check.
Tonight's episode, which starts at 10 p.m., includes footage in the classroom, "graduation" at BWI, as well as the trip to Birmingham - including an impromptu pillow fight during the flight.
Southwest's "Adopt-A-Pilot" program began in 1997, its curriculum developed with the help of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and other educational consultants. Pilots lead children through geography, writing, math and science activities related to aviation, including time and speed calculations and demonstrations of the principles of lift and air flow that permit flight.
Nationwide, more than 20,000 children have participated in the four-week program this year, meeting about 425 pilots, Hochster said. This year, Southwest translated the materials for a bilingual class in Texas. The airline also matched an African-American pilot with a predominantly African-American class.
Focus on the positive
Rhonda S. Ulmer, a customer service manager for Southwest whose daughter will be a fifth-grader at Van Bokkelen, suggested the school take part in Adopt-A-Pilot. She thought the program would offer a good opportunity to change the perception of Van Bokkelen by focusing on something positive.
"I know they've been struggling every year to get the [test] scores up. It's like they've always been in need," she said.
Ulmer, who is African-American, felt it was important for pupils at the predominantly African-American school to see a role model who comes from a similar background. Even though she works for an airline herself, she said May was the first black pilot she had ever met.
`Like a mentor'
"He was like a mentor to them, and they looked up to him," Ulmer said.
May, who grew up in Cleveland's inner city, said he has volunteered with the program for several years and sought the opportunity to talk to a group of mostly African-American kids.
"When I was growing up, aviation wasn't something that people aspired to do because they knew nothing about it," he said.
Now a resident of a Cleveland suburb, May said he knew from a very young age he wanted to fly - even though he was 18 years old before he ever took a flight himself. When May told people in his community about his ambition, he got a variety of reactions, from laughter to encouragement.
"I think there were actually some people who felt like they were protecting me from disappointment," he said.
May, 44, said he gave the Van Bokkelen pupils lessons in career planning in addition to the science experiments and mapping activities.
In one exercise, he had the children close their eyes, picture themselves 15 years from now and think about what would be necessary to reach that point.
"I give them an opportunity to see if I can do it, anybody can do it," May said.
May, who is based in Baltimore, would arrive early from his Ohio home to visit the children in their class. He also sent them postcards and digital photos from his travels.
"The children got an opportunity to realize how important it is to learn and to be in school," said Van Bokkelen Principal Rose Tasker.
A real flight
The program was capped by the trip to Birmingham aboard a regularly scheduled passenger flight, piloted by May, who rode in the cabin with the children on the way back.
While in Birmingham, the children toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and saw the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the 1963 bombing that killed four girls. They also met Chris McNair, father of one of the girls, Hochster said.
Breanna Shackleford, Ulmer's 10-year-old daughter, was among those on the trip. Although she had taken flights before, she said May was the first African-American pilot she had met.
"I thought he was very nice," Breanna said. "He shared with us a lot of things."