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Flights Of Fancy

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With a rustling whomp, the red, purple, and green parachute--attached to the ParaPlane by a web of thin suspension lines--is driven backward by the force of the propellers. Slowly, the now rigid canopy, its leading edge a honeycomb of pockets designed to trap air, rises like a Technicolor jellyfish. Soon, it looms above the pilot's shiny white helmet, casting a long shadow against the grass on this bright, clear summer morning.

As instructor Rich Castle gives the thumbs up, the pilot shoves the throttle all the way back, and the engines respond with a highpitched, whining vibrato. Slowly at first, then picking up speed, the ParaPlane rolls across the uneven turf, its tricycle gear bouncing across a few ruts. Then it leaps into the cornflower sky above New Jersey's Burlington County Airport.

Moore's eyes are riveted on the ParaPlane as it makes light of the law of gravity, clearing a stand of trees and banking off to the left over the concrete runway used by more conventional flying machines. For one thing, the pilot is Moore's brother, Brian, and this flight is Moore's birthday present to him. But he also is paying strict attention to the craft's every bob and weave for completely selfish reasons: The next time the ParaPlane takes to the air, he'll be in the sling.

For Kevin Moore, 34, a 10-year teacher at the Jefferson Township Middle School in Oak Ridge, N.J., it is all part of a long summer of flights of fancy. He will endure barrel rolls in an open-cockpit biplane, fly a sailplane over New Jersey's Eagle Ridge, float soundlessly above the Delaware Water Gap in a hot-air balloon, and feel the faith-affirming yank of a parachute harness against his skinny body. Courtesy of a $5,000 grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Moore is indulging a lifelong desire to "slip the surly bonds of earth.''

Although there are risks, none are so dire, in Moore's view, as the risk of growing stale. For this teacher, flight is more than an individual passion. It's the focal point of Jefferson's 8th grade gifted and talented curriculum.

Gifted students, Moore points out, often aren't challenged by conventional classes. It is his challenge to find ways to enhance their creativity--but those ways aren't always clear.

As a child, Moore always looked up when a plane passed overhead. On a cross-country run in college, he remembers staring up at huge transport planes as they flew into the nearby McGuire Air Force Base. "I couldn't help it,'' he says. "I mean, it was the size of those things, and the fact that they were up there.'' Moore also has transmitted his head-in-the-clouds mentality to his son. "One of the first words he learned was 'moon,'' he confesses.

So it seems that one way to stimulate creativity in his students should have been obvious. But it really wasn't, until one day when the answer virtually fell from the sky.

"Three years ago, when I was trying to come up with the 8th grade unit, the administrators said to cover as many topics as possible, and emphasize math and science,'' Moore recalls. "That summer, I was working at a carpentry job, and I spent two or three weeks doing a series of decks along this road that was parallel to the flight path of the Hackettstown [N.J.] airport.

"Every day, there was a guy out there practicing takeoffs and landings. I'd hammer, then stop and look--whoosh! Hammer and look--whoosh! After weeks of watching this guy repeatedly take off and land, came to me: How about aviation?

"I started thinking about all the things it would include--mythology, biology, language arts, history, all sorts of social studies.'' And, he adds, the program's science and technology applications were obvious.

With minimal guidance from Moore, his students build kites from scratch and launch model rockets. Riding an exercise bike hooked up to a simple computer flight simulator, they capture some of the excitement of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Daedalus Project, the first successful human-powered flight program. Moore challenges them to calculate the relationship between a butterfly's body weight and the size of its wings. The students also examine the biology of flight in visits to the National Zoo.

But the curriculum also draws on the humanities. For example, after reading some of the classics of aviation literature, such as The Bridges At Toko-Ri, students debate the effectiveness of wartime air power or the vulnerability of aircraft carriers, and in a unit on mythology, they ponder the ups and downs of Icarus. On the annual class trip to the National Air and Space Museum, each student is responsible for researching a particular exhibit, then giving a brief lecture to the rest of the class-- and to other museum visitors. They also read a history of French ballooning--in French.

It's an ambitious program, one in which students are not obliged to take part. Nevertheless, Moore has no problem filling the seats. Students have come to understand there's more to the class than the body/wing-size ratio of bugs. "I could care less what the answer is,'' says Moore. "It's the process of figuring it out. In their biology labs, they do a lot of neat tasks, but the answers have been predetermined. Well, in the insect lab, I look for a lot of creativity and problem-solving. I don't give them cookbook science. I say, 'solve the problem.''

It was to solve a problem of his own that Moore turned last spring to the Dodge Foundation, which makes annual grants to teachers in the Morris County, N.J., schools for projects designed to enhance their skills and broaden their horizons. For Moore, there was one problem with the gifted and talented program: His horizons weren't broad enough. He wanted to boldly go where he had never been before.

"Everything I've done has been armchair aviation, really, very passive, never firsthand,'' says Moore. "But as a result of this experience, I'll be able to teach with perspective. I'll be very excited about all these things I've done, and very excited to share it with the kids. I think my unit on gravity will be a lot different if I can show them my slides and tell them about my adventure parachuting. We have some really neat course materials about gravity and falling, but I can't think of anything neater than me telling them about when I jumped out of an airplane.''

All of which has led Moore to this small airfield, south of the Delaware River, where, in a few moments, he will be carried aloft in this loudly whirring contraption.

Strapped tightly into the pilot's seat, he will fly solo in the ParaPlane after only a couple of hours' viewing of a videotape lesson. Because the ParaPlane is such a simple, forgiving craft, it's one of the few--if not the only--aircraft that can be flown solo the first time. The ParaPlane sails along at a leisurely 26 miles per hour, and the ram-air sport parachute--a smaller version of the kind used to drop tanks into battle zones--provides its own margin of safety should something go wrong. As the film's narrator cheerfully explains: Push the foot pedal left to turn left; push it to the right, and the craft gradually banks to the right. Press the throttle all the way back to go up; nudge it forward to come down. Wilbur and Orville should have had it so good.

Moore, tugging the helmet over his cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, is trying to remember the videotaped instructions when someone reminds him of the waivers clause in one of the legal documents he signed earlier--the ParaPlane is, after all, an experimental aircraft. It's the part that absolves the ParaPlane's manufacturers of all responsibility in the event of a fatal encounter with "hidden holes, clods of dirt, power lines, and poisonous snakes.''

"Poisonous snakes?'' he shrugs. "I can see hitting a power line, but a poisonous snake?''

Instructor Rich Castle is all business as he straps Moore into the seat. As Moore checks the two-way radio in his helmet, his thoughts are focused on obeying Castle's instructions, his Reebok sneakers hooked into the foot pedals, his left hand on the throttle.

Castle picks up a few blades of grass and rubs them between his thumb and forefinger, watching as they spiral to the ground as an indication of wind speed and direction. Everything looks O.K. as he speaks into the radio: "Throttle up.'' Moore jams the throttle home.

The parachute rises above the ParaPlane and sways from side to side like a palm tree in a stiff breeze. Then the wheels leave the ground.

After a few minutes in the air, Moore prepares to guide the small aircraft into a lazy figure eight, several hundred feet above the airfield. He listens for Castle's instructions, then executes the maneuver smoothly. After an unhurried flight around the landing strip and over the hangars, their sheet-metal roofs shining in the sun, Moore's long-awaited ride is almost over.

The nasal whine of the engines becomes louder as the ParaPlane sails in for a landing. Then Moore cuts the engines, returning the field to the quiet chirping of birds, and the parachute drops to the ground behind him.

Miraculously, Moore is not green or blue, or any other noxious color.

"I wasn't frightened at all up there,'' he says, a self-satisfied smile forming on his lips. "There are too many things to think about. The sensation is fabulous. You seem to become part of the medium you're flying in. You're up there, you're looking around, and you don't seem to be in anything.''

Sort of like Daedalus, someone suggests.

"Just so long,'' he replies, "as it wasn't Icarus.''

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