Tori, 12, and Lauren, 11, are 2,000 feet in the air somewhere east of downtown, or so they’re told to imagine. The co-captains are seated in front of Redbird control panels — a blinking mess of knobs and buttons — as their instructor points out a landmark in front of them.
“See that funny-looking building? Aim to fly over there,” the instructor says.
The young pilots aren’t actually in the air but in a flight simulator — at least for now.
“They just kept saying, ‘Are we getting on a plane? Are we gonna fly a plane?’ And it’s just like, ‘No, please no,’” said their chaperone, Thomas McCargo.
Fifty Baltimore City campers ages 10 to 14 participated in Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport’s summer youth initiative this week. They got a behind-the-scenes look at airport operations, customs and TSA management, and spent a day at the Community College of Baltimore County to check out its robust aviation program.
The airport partnered with the Baltimore City Department of Recreation & Parks to bus campers from six rec centers — Cecil Kirk, Harlem Park, Dewees, Greenmount, Solo Gibbs and Walter P. Carter — for five days of activities. It marks the seventh year the airport has organized summer fun and enrichment for city students.
“You will get access to parts of the airport that folks who work here might not even get to see,” said Ricky Smith, the airport’s executive director and CEO, in an address to campers at the program’s Monday kickoff breakfast.
A Baltimore native who grew up in Reservoir Hill, Smith honored the airport’s namesake, West Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, in his remarks. He said he hoped the legacy of the famed civil rights attorney who became the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court would inspire the campers.
“That’s what we want to do for these kids, push them and inspire them,” Smith said.
Maryland’s assistant secretary of transportation, Tony Bridges, also made remarks at Monday’s opening breakfast. He and other officials hoped the tours and access might spark an interest that could set campers on a path toward a career in the transportation field.
“If you want to work in transportation, if you want to, maybe, take Ricky’s job, and you know, run this place,” said Bridges, encouraging the campers to make the most of the week.
And there was plenty to keep them busy. On Monday, airport workers closed off a secondary runway to air traffic so campers could take a ride down the tarmac on the massive snow-removal equipment. Tuesday brought an inside look into gate and security operations.
And some campers said the real fun started Wednesday at CCBC. Kids worked the controls of the school’s multiple flight simulators, flew drones and took quick lessons in robotics.
Jane Toskes, a veteran pilot who volunteers at the school helping students on the simulator, said this year’s group of students was particularly engaged with the test flying. She hopes it might encourage some to think about taking pilot lessons or studying aviation science, noting that the simulator does a great job of recreating what it’s like to be in the cockpit.
“They’re not airplanes, but they are really good at training on things like procedure,” she said.
Tori and Lauren, the young pilots from Harlem Park, had a pretty good handle on the procedure. They traded off main control as they soared over downtown and veered into alignment for the digital BWI on the multiple screens in front of them. Coasting was easy, but landing would be more of a challenge.
“Steer with your feet, OK, now a hard left foot, hands in your lap,” said Toskes, guiding Tori and Lauren as they descended to the tarmac.
The two pilots touched down just short of the runway on the grass, but Toskes told them that was OK. They had landed safely, and they’re young — they’ve got plenty of time to practice until they’re 16, the age when, Toskes said, they can start flying real planes by themselves.
“Wow, I love being a pilot,” Tori said as she relinquished the controls and stood.
Most campers who spoke with The Baltimore Banner during the week, including Tori and Lauren, said they wanted to be doctors or veterinarians. After a ride on the simulator, though, the pair both said they’d consider flight lessons, even if just to make flying a hobby one day.
A doctor, a veterinarian, a pilot — why not all of the above? The sky’s the limit.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.