PEYTON, Colo. — There is a teacher, students, and tests, but at Falcon Aerolab in Peyton, the school bell is the sound of a Cessna taking off.
“I’d pay a million dollars to be 13 years old again, to take this class,” says Mark Hyatt, who lived out his own Top Gun dreams as a vice commandant in the Air Force. “Back in 1965, I flew and it was wonderful. I really loved it — caught the bug.”
Now, he’s sharing that dream with others who feel a need for speed. His one-day-a-week STEM program teaches kids about aviation mechanics, eventually putting them in the cockpit and in the air.
“I’ve been driving vehicles pretty much my whole life. It’s not too different from that, other than you can go upside down occasionally,” said 15-year-old Eli.
Before the students can go inverted, they start on the ground with bikes, taught by tinkerers at heart, and work their way up to larger engines and flying lessons.
“I’ve been touching mechanical things since I’ve been a small child, out of necessity. So I’ve handed on everything and formally that I’ve learned to them, so that they don’t have to learn the hard way,” said Aerolab aircraft mechanic instructor Mike Vidovich. “I’ve been very in awe of what they’re doing.”
The enrichment classes have taken off, from 15 enrolled Aerolab students in 2017 to 700 signed up for next year across the state. The program is free to kids, funded through per pupil revenue from the Colorado Department of Education, though there is a lab fee of $350 per student with scholarships available.
Hyatt encourages others to start similar passion projects for Colorado’s students, even offering to coach teachers on how to get started. His focus, he said, is to keep the state at the forefront of aviation technology and job creation.
“Colorado needs young people to fill Colorado jobs in the aerospace industry," he said. "Our job is to inspire them, train them, educate them, for these great Colorado jobs.”
Andrew, 15, caught the flying bug as a young child and joked his mom wanted a safer career path.
“My mom’s always like, ‘Why do you have to do something that scares mom?’ And I’m like, 'Because I like it,'” he said.
“I’ve had their parents say they want to take the class. I think that’s hilarious,” Vidovich said, laughing.
Like any course, there is a final and a class project. In this case — build an airplane from scratch. But the main goal is to inspire kids and show them a future in mechanics.
Andrew said his dream is to be an aviation mechanic, using what he learns at Aerolab in his professional future.
Eli said being a pilot is plan B if his music career doesn’t pan out.
“It’s definitely a back-up plan," Eli said. "One, being a musician, but that’s pretty risky business to get really successful in, so I got lots of back-up plans going.”
When the course is over, students raise a mechanic’s rag as a ceremonial nod to what they’ve learned in the workroom and a look forward to the next mission.