Plainwell Middle School eighth-grader Mason LaDuke enjoys his flight west of Otsego. Visible out Mason’s window are the Kalamazoo River and M-89 in Otsego Township. Students (from left) Michaela Rice, Rose Hunter, Tasia Clark and volunteer Barb Goodwin get a tour of a plane.  Planes taxi in after taking a group of students for a ride. Students Alli Kline (left) and Jayden Guarisco are ready for takeoff with pilot Donald Wolf.

Sky no longer the limit for Plainwell middle schoolers

Daniel Pepper, Interim Editor

It’s one thing to hear your teacher explain the principles of physics which allow a wing to lift a hunk of metal weighing thousands of pounds into the air—provided it’s shaped correctly.

Students from Plainwell Middle School have been learning such things in science class for a long time. On Monday, May 19, however, a group of them got to put their knowledge into practice with a flight in a small plane starting at the Plainwell Airport. 
“Just looking down and seeing you’re on top of the world,” said seventh-grader Drake Witt, explaining what he liked about flying. 
Witt said he wants to be an airline pilot and has flown in small planes several times. He said being around airplanes had really spiked his interest in the idea of a career in the air, which he’s had in mind since fourth grade.
The flights were part of the larger Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy being created at the middle school and accomplished by partnering with the West Michigan Flight Aca­demy. 
The academy aims to be a “school within a school” and offer interested students “...a project-based learning environment and opportunities for students to use critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration—all 21st-century work place skills.” 
The STEM academy aims to provide special courses allowing students to research, design, innovate and collaborate. It will feature specifically designed courses for sixth- and seventh-graders and enrichment courses for eighth-graders.
Ginger DeVillers of the flight academy has been doubling up with Plainwell science teacher Lisa Wininger to teach students. 
DeVillers said, “I’ve been going to Plainwell Middle School one day per week. We’ve been connecting their math and science to aeronautics-related topics.” 
The students have been able to take a field trip to the flight academy in Grand Rapids and use their Federal Aviation Administration-approved flight simulator. 
Flight academy founder Patrick Johnson said the partnership with Plainwell was very positive and fit with his original idea in founding the academy with an eye toward reaching a wide variety of kids and teaching them about flight, as opposed to just those who are going to learn to fly themselves.
“I thought, ‘What’s another way to reach kids?’” Johnson said. “I looked around and said ‘Let’s do it differently.’” 
Wininger said the flights had been widely anticipated by the students. 
“I think only one has been up in a private plane before, so it’ll be a new thing,” she said. 
Physics learning, especially, has been helped by relating it to flight, along with other subjects. 
Wininger said, “I think the kids are stunned by how much math is involved in flying.” 
Fifteen students took the opportunity to ride two at a time in a small plane flown by a volunteer pilot from the flight academy. 
Eighth-grader Mason LaDuke took one of the early flights. 
“It was cool,” LaDuke said. “It was definitely rougher than I thought.” 
Patrick Bekker of Grand Rapids, a former airline pilot who’s volunteering at the academy, explained a brilliant sunny day like Monday created a lot more choppy and rough flight, because the ground in open areas warms up in the sun quicker than the tree-covered parts, creating differences in air temperature which are experienced in the airplane as a series of big bumps. 
Bekker and the other pilots flew a circuit, taking off from Plainwell and flying west to the Bittersweet Ski Area, then turning northeast and passing over the US-131 Motorsports Park near Martin and then heading east to Pine Lake, where they made the turn to come back to the airport, giving a view of Plainwell as it appears from the air.
LaDuke said he signed up for the opportunity because he thought it would be fun and it lived up to his expectations.
The flight academy will also offer a pair of summer programs in Plainwell for students from all around the area in July, one for beginners and one for advanced students. Visit for more information. 
The school’s flight program had one dedicated fan who offered some advice to the school administration. 
“I think the school should keeping doing this, I just think it’s a good program,” said Drake Witt, the aspiring pilot. 


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