Although the demand for airport field trips has all but disappeared in the COVID-19 era, school groups will soon be back and now is the time to prepare.
Hosting field trips is the perfect opportunity to show your local community all that your airport has to offer. Children get a glimpse into a world they may have never known existed, which may eventually lead them back to the airport or into the aviation industry. Those seeds take a while to grow, however, so immediate effects are better realized through the adults accompanying them—voters who have the means to purchase a discovery flight for themselves or someone they know. Either way, both your young and not-so-young visitors will share what they learn with your community, increasing awareness of and support for your airport.
It typically takes an hour to conduct a field trip, depending on the number of students and their propensity for asking questions. Preparing for their visit will require more time initially, but use the following tips to create a program that you can then replicate for students of all ages. Young children, high school students, and even chaperones will be sure to learn a thing or two.
First, identify your airport’s options for interesting things to see, people to meet, and locations to visit. Consider an aircraft maintenance shop, charter flight business, or even the control tower for older students. Borrow an aircraft for your visitors to climb inside or view from the outside, depending on the owner’s preference. Either way, talk about aircraft features like the tail number and the location of the fuel tanks, comparing the airplane to an automobile to help young students make connections. Some airports even keep a decommissioned aircraft for students to climb inside and learn how the controls work. If an aircraft on your field becomes too costly to repair, ask that it be donated to the airport for educational use.
Second, make a list of everything your airport offers the community. Do you have a maintenance shop? Flight school? Civil Air Patrol squadron? Law enforcement aircraft? News helicopters? Do medical flights come in? Do utility companies use your airport as base camp for inspecting utility lines? Consider each and every organization on your field, and ask other airport personnel if they can add anything to your list. Then, think about what each entity offers, condensing it to a one- or two-sentence description that can be sprinkled throughout the field trip to explain your airport’s relevance to the greater community. Remember: if you use “industry speak” like IFR and VFR, you will lose the students’ interest. Try to keep descriptions simple and compare items to things they have experienced.
Third, gather information on educational and employment opportunities in aviation. I tell our visitors about our local flight schools, discovery flights, a community technical college that offers aircraft maintenance training, and state universities that have degrees in aerospace. I also mention air traffic control training through the FAA and other organizations.
Fourth, consider the number of students your local schools are likely to bring and plan ahead. In our area, a typical field trip size is two busloads, which is a lot of kids! We have three airport volunteers teaching in different areas (one by an aircraft, one in a maintenance shop, and another in our lobby) and we rotate the attendees. If you don’t have helpers, start with preschools or after school clubs. They come in a small bus and are more manageable in size.
You’ll also need to determine whether you will offer field trips for free or charge a nominal fee. We used to host school groups for free until teachers told us that other local field trip venues in our area charge an average of $5 per student. Now that we host several thousand visitors each year, we charge a small fee that goes in a separate airport checking account that we use, along with other funds, to improve our airport for visitors.
Lastly, consider creating a resource for educational groups to learn more about field trips at your airport. We put information about our field trips on our website so if people call, we can refer them there to answer all their questions. See: http://www.greenvilledowntownairport.com/FieldTrips.html
Hosting visitors at our airport has had many lasting positive effects as more and more non-aviation-oriented community members learn about our airport and its contributions to their community. In difficult times, we have found support in our community…We also like to think that we are inspiring people to take up flying and join our industry.