The Aviator

By Roger Friedman — February 17, 2006 9 min read
Margy Natalie earned her wings the same year she entered the classroom. Now, the Virginia teacher is mixing both passions as part of a unique parternship with the Smithsonian's air and space museum.
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The small, motorized propeller is spinning quickly, its three blades blending into a single blur. But despite the smooth motion, there’s something wrong. The connections to the power source are good and the speed is more than ample, but the propeller seems as effective at levitating its pint-size cargo—a small wooden beam—as a house fan trying to lift a loaded bookcase. A young man in a uniform stands watching, a baleful look in his large brown eyes.

“What’s different about your propeller from the ones you saw on the museum floor?” asks Margy Natalie, the flight instructor. Holding the failed attempt in her hand, she points out the flatness of the propeller, which is made from poster board.

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The high school senior, on a field trip with his Air Force JROTC class from Virginia, quickly catches on. After adding some twist to the blades to better enable them to catch the wind, the plane soars skyward in the student’s next trial. And another aeronautical engineer is born.

Or not.

“We can teach them [just] a couple of things during the 90 minutes we have them in our classroom. ... Can we set off a spark? Absolutely,” says Natalie. The diminutive teacher is wearing a blue NASA flight jacket festooned with a dozen space-related patches and pins—an effort to bump up, in her words, the “cool factor.” Of course, the same accouterments can be purchased at the gift shop not far from Natalie’s classroom at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, where she is one of two public school teachers on full-time loan to the facility.

A 45-minute drive from the nation’s capital, Udvar-Hazy is a 10-story-tall mishmash of aeronautical artifacts. Inside is everything from an open-cockpit ultralight once used by California police to keep a bird’s-eye view on the beach to the gleaming Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The center is also home to the space shuttle Enterprise, both wings now partially removed by NASA scientists trying to understand the Columbia disaster. Walking amid this traffic jam of hundreds of famous spacecraft, rockets, satellites, and other machinery resting on the floor or tethered to the ceiling is a flight junkie’s dream.

It’s certainly Natalie’s. The 47-year-old has been a certified pilot for as long as she’s been teaching. She even owns her own airplane—a blue 1950 Ryan Navion B that matches her jacket. Natalie has attended space camp and lists four airports as her favorite places in the world. She gets a gleeful lilt in her voice when discussing the finer points of a Packard Merlin V-1650-7 V-12 inline engine, and she says things like “I go for an airplane with a nice-looking wing” without any degree of self-consciousness.

Natalie's classroom features hands-on experiments intended to reinforce learning standards. "We have to have it make sense to the people who make the rules, not just get kids excited," she says.

The unusual arrangement—public school teachers serving as museum educators—has placed Natalie and a colleague from a neighboring county in the two-year-old facility’s classrooms, where they teach the 26,000 students from across the country who visit on field trips each year. The educators also develop curricula, create docents’ scripts, and work with colleagues from their home districts. “The teachers have been here from the start, and they’ve helped instill that sense of inspiration and education in everything we do,” says Major General Joseph Anderson, a retired Marine and fighter pilot who serves as the center’s associate director.

Now in the third year of what was supposed to be a one-year teacher-in-residency, Natalie has cornered every astronaut or flier who’s entered the building. She helped organize the center’s first fly-in and talked her way onto the B-17 Liberty Belle for a short, yet memorable, hop from Dulles to nearby Manassas. She’s also having a hard time imagining returning to a normal classroom once this stint ends.

“I love to come in around 9 a.m., before the museum’s open,” she says. “There’s no one here, just you and the airplanes. They almost talk to you. And that’s what I try to get across in the classroom.”

Natalie began this morning’s class with the North Stafford High School Air Force JROTC with a line that sounded exceedingly rah-rah: “I’m Mrs. Natalie, I’m a Fairfax County teacher, and I have the best classroom in the world!” But even the most cynical in this group of 30, clad in ill-fitting dark-blue blazers, have come to accept the earnestness with which the statement was delivered. Perhaps they’re awed by their surroundings—dozens of models of airplanes and space shuttles, a Mars rover poised to crawl across a countertop, and a full-size replica of a spacesuit. It could be they’re excited to be in a class where one of the stated rules is “duck and cover” to avoid the flying objects used to demonstrate principles of flight. Or maybe they’re just happy to be off the school bus after the hour-plus trip up Interstate 95.

Located outside of Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which features such aviation artifacts as the Enola Gay, is home to two public school teachers on loan from nearby districts. They develop programs and teach the 26,000 students who visit the museum each year.

Whatever the reason, they’re listening intently to Natalie’s PowerPoint presentation on the Wright brothers, which quickly leads into a lively discussion of such higher-minded aeronautical concepts as aspect ratios and angles of deflection, the teacher prompting them along with constant pop-quiz-style questions. At one point, they exit the classroom’s side door and step into the museum’s enormous hangar to examine some of the earliest cloth-winged examples of attempts at flight—successful and otherwise—to gain inspiration for their own models.

The group then returns to the classroom to design, build, test, and refine their propellers. Natalie’s thrilled that the handful of young women in the class account for three of the four successful designs. And no one seems to mind that the students have gone well over the allotted time, cutting into their lunch in the museum’s pristine (and pricey) McDonald’s. “They really got into it, didn’t they?” Natalie asks a visitor, as pleased as if she’s just nailed a landing in bad weather, after the students reluctantly gather their propellers and head to eat.

What Natalie has landed is a unique gig—in place at both Udvar-Hazy and another Smithsonian facility, the National Museum of Natural History’s Naturalist Center in Leesburg, Virginia. “Most museum/school collaborations are short term, project-specific arrangements,” says Schroeder Cherry, deputy director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that provides grants for educational projects. “It is unusual for a district to dedicate a full-time teacher to a museum for curriculum development and instruction.”

Both the Loudoun and Fairfax county districts in Virginia signed on in 2003, nearly a year before Udvar-Hazy opened to the public. “We were able to show them the state-of-the-art classrooms, the air and space artifacts, and our strong desire to include them in designing our school programming,” says Doug Baldwin, the center’s chief of education. “They took the bait.”

To provide inspiration for high school classes designing propellors, Natalie walks outside her room to show off real-life examples. The airplanes, she says, "almost talk to you. And that's what I try to get across in the classroom."

So did Natalie, who began her career as a substitute teacher in 1993 after being a stay-at-home mom for many years. Jobs in special ed and mainstream classrooms followed, and Natalie had been teaching science and math at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia, when she heard about the Smithsonian post. She applied about a week and a half before the new school year began and was hired the Friday before teachers were supposed to report for work.

Envisioned as a professional development tool by the Northern Virginia districts, the two county-paid instructors teach visiting students, create standards-based programs, and serve as resources for other local teachers. Students visiting the museum take such classes as “paper airplane design” and “forces of flight,” which cover aeronautics, and “mission to Mars,” which highlights space exploration. Natalie is also developing a multimedia project tying the creation of the nation’s airmail system to state middle school standards involving history and business. “It has to be more than just some cool images,” she says. “We have to have it make sense to the people who make the rules, not just get kids excited.”

Museum work is a constant struggle for balance. Anderson jokes that preservation-minded curators would prefer to keep visitors out in the parking lot, while the folks on the business side would rather make them walk through the McDonald’s and the gift shop on their way in and out. The teachers, he says, help everyone find the middle ground and focus on what’s important. “It’s always a challenge, but at that moment when they reach a child, you can see it click,” he says.

The only place Natalie seems more at home than her frenetic, flight-friendly classroom is in the air. She and her husband, Ron, a computer programmer and self-proclaimed technology geek, store their bright-blue single-engine plane at the sleepy regional airport in Culpeper, Virginia, an hour’s drive from the suburban sprawl that encircles the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Natalie and her husband, Ron, own a blue 1950 Ryan Navion B single-engine plane, which they fly out of a small airport an hour's drive from the museum. "It's pretty much our only hobby now," she says.

A series of corrugated tin buildings of various shades of blue and a full-length glass phone booth just outside the main office help give the entire complex a late-1950s feel. Operations are surprisingly unstructured: no need to file a flight plan, no control tower to communicate with—just take off whenever you like (as long as there’s not another plane landing at the same time, which, given the sporadic air traffic, isn’t all that likely). If you need something, ask Kevin the mechanic. The only strict rule: If you happen to end up heading directly for another plane, veer right.

As Natalie takes to the air on this blustery, overcast day, there’s not much to see—just sections of Virginia forest, assorted farms with their affiliated patchwork of fields, a few Colonial-era estates and their more recent million-dollar imitations, and the not-so-distant Blue Ridge Mountains, obscured by a low-lying haze. Nearing Lake Anna, Natalie counts the bridges to try to identify the home of a museum coworker who waves every time she sees a bright-blue plane overhead.

Flying has a calming effect on Natalie. Today’s ride is a bit bumpy, but nothing like her initial experiences in the air. “The first time, I kind of tricked her,” says Ron, smiling broadly under his bushy mustache as he relays the story from the copilot’s seat. “He asked me if I wanted to go look at the leaves,” Margy continues. “I thought we were going for a drive.”

Clad in matching black leather jackets and sunglasses, the couple laughs. “Then we hit the turkey buzzard and got a big hole in the wing,” Ron continues—not exactly the kind of thing a first-time passenger in a small plane wants to hear. Yet the couple continued flying (once the wing was fixed), and Margy wound up getting her pilot’s license the same year she entered the classroom as a substitute teacher, a career that took her to several schools and, ultimately, the museum. The idea was that the loaned educators would spend just a year there before returning to their home schools, but Natalie and her Smithsonian colleagues quickly discovered that there was a steep learning curve, so the program was extended to two years; she was later asked to stay another year to stagger the teachers’ departures.

Baldwin, the center’s education director, would like to see the arrangement made permanent. “The lifeblood of any museum is repeat visitation,” he says. “We have to ... make sure that there’s something new to see and learn every time a class comes in here. They should be able to come back 10 years in a row and get a new experience each time.”

So he’s seeking a grant to fund a permanent teaching position—a position that Natalie would eagerly apply for. “I waited for this place to open for a long time,” she says. “And now that I’ve been here, I can’t really imagine having to leave.”

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