Dover Air Force Base part of school outreach mission

Col. Chris Karns, director of public affairs for the Air Mobility Command headquarters, visited Dover Air Force Base Friday to discuss the AMC’s initiatives of expanding opportunities at schools that are located around their bases in order to reach more potential future airmen. (Special to the Delaware State News/Staff Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne)

DOVER — When Col. Chris Karns looks at the high quality of education that is offered at several schools around Dover Air Force Base, he sees an opportunity to expand the base’s mission.

Col. Karns, director of public affairs at Air Mobility Command (AMC) in Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, said that increased outreach to schools around Dover will allow the Air Force to compete in a highly competitive job market and recruit and retain the highest caliber of airmen.

Improving communication, cooperation and gaining outreach between Dover’s military and its local community is why officials from the AMC will return to Dover AFB in November, along with civic leaders from across the country.

“We’re looking to travel (to Dover) in November and we’re going to bring civic leaders from across Air Mobility Command bases to get insight into the Dover mission-set and, at the same time, look at ways that Dover has been very effective in terms of partnering with the civics,” Col. Karns said, in a visit to Dover on Friday afternoon.

“Two of our concerns in the Air Force as it relates to a current pilot shortage, retaining airmen for the future, is to ensure that we figure out license reciprocity and education.”

Col. Karns said studies show that when airmen are being recruited, a strong education system for their children is especially important when it comes to signing and retaining them.

He said Dover AFB and the surrounding school districts in its area are a model that is working together particularly successfully.

“When you look at Delaware and when you look at Dover, the education’s good,” said Col. Karns. “When people are assigned to this area, family members look at the education and they’re quite pleased with the quality of it.

“That doesn’t hold true at some of the other Air Mobility Command bases.”

He pointed to the 89th Airlift Wing in Washington, D.C.

“That base is responsible for Executive Airlift to include flying the president of the United States,” Col. Karns said. “When you look at the school district — northern Virginia schools are very good — but when you look at the school district that supports Andrews Air Force Base, it’s not rated very well.

“If you go to GreatSchools.org and look at the ratings out of 10, the schools are primarily rated around 2.8. If you’re playing baseball that’s good. If it’s the quality of education for your child, it’s in need of improvement.

“Quality of education is important to airmen and it’s a critical retention tool.”

Quality of education important to airmen

He said it’s that reality which causes service members and their families to flock to better school districts, incur out-of-pocket expenses for private education, settle for existing circumstances or make difficult career-impacting decisions.

In a 2017 Military Times poll, airmen indicated the quality and availability of K-12 education was a key factor in their decision on whether to continue serving.

A total of 70 percent of those polled asserted that moving to a new assignment created disruption and educational challenges, 35 percent said quality of education was “a significant factor” in a military family’s decision to remain in service and 40 percent said they would decline “career advancing” assignments if educational needs failed to meet their standards.

Col. Karns said the Air Mobility Command acknowledges those facts and is ready to expand on its different programs at schools located around AMC bases, including Dover.

He added that the data demonstrates that family readiness, where education is a key component, can impact military readiness if long-term solutions are not put into place.

That is why the AMC is increasing its focus on promoting what it calls its’ STEAM program – which stands for increased focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics — at schools near its bases.

Numerous STEAM events and programs known as “flying classrooms” have taken place this year at Air Force installations across AMC.

“We’re looking to partner with schools in new and different ways,” Col. Karns said. “What we’re looking to do is also partner with Dover Air Force Base because they already do great work in terms of working with the schools but are looking to take it to a new level through various initiatives.

“One of the initiatives that we implemented in December of 2017 was a concept of flying classrooms.”

He said those flying classrooms allow students onto a military installation and give them face-to-face lessons.

“What we’re looking to do is become much more creative in terms of how we go about connecting with schools where we’re seen as active partners,” said Col. Karns. “These flying classrooms will look at the science behind airlift and we’ll have an instructor on the plane that’s educating students.

“A couple of bases have already explored and implemented this flying classroom, and right now it’s with the Civil Air Patrol, JROTC and ROTC.”

A benchmark program at Dover

Dover AFB has already been involved with what Col. Karns called “a benchmark program” toward the Air Force’s new outreach initiatives.

On July 19, airmen at Dover hosted a group of 24 future pilots as participants of the Aviation Character Education (ACE) Flight Program for a tour of the sprawling air base, where they saw the air traffic control tower, radar approach control, aircrew flight equipment, spoke with some of Dover AFB’s officers and pilots, toured a C-17 Globemaster III and visited the Air Mobility Command Museum.

Students of the Aviation Character and Education Flight Program sit inside a life raft during their tour of Aircrew Flight Equipment on July 19 at Dover Air Force Base. The life rafts are able to hold 25 people and are a mandatory item aboard mobility aircraft. (Special to the Delaware State News/Airman 1st Class Zoe M. Wockenfuss)

However, the ACE Flight Program is much more than just a tour. The joint effort between the Air Force and Delaware State University is working to combat the growing pilot shortage affecting the Air Force.

It provides the students with initial flight training in civilian aircraft and offers a structural environment that provides exposure and education on military careers in aviation.

During the three-week long camp, students received 15 hours of flight instruction and five to 10 hours of simulation instruction when culminated with a solo flight.

“When we come back here in November we want the other civic leaders from across Air Mobility Command bases to understand how this came about,” Col. Karns said, about the ACE program at Dover. “The commitment to working with Delaware State to basically help people see a place for themselves in the Air Force.

“When you look at the tremendous diversity that this program represents, and also when you look at the ages that the Air Force is exposing people to flight and develop that passion for it, this program is one of the model programs that are within our command.

“We’ve got high schoolers involved, JROTC, university involvement, and you had Air Force involvement, and that interactive nature of it culminated with a solo flight.”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only 5.7 percent of Air Force pilots are women, 1.7 percent are African-American and two percent are Asian.

Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Stephen W. Wilson speaks with trainees from the Aviation Character Education Flight Program at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 1. The ACE program, which was a joint effort between Dover Air Force Base and Delaware State University, is a unique mentorship and motivational program for high school students and Air Force cadets. (Special to the Delaware State News/Wayne A. Clark)

Of the 24 students that participated in the ACE Flight Program, there were 11 high schoolers, eight Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets and three second lieutenants.

“We have a wide spread, from age to ethnicity to gender,” said Lt. Col. Kenyatta Ruffin, Division Chief of Outreach and Engagement to Air Force Aircrew Crisis Task Force, “and I think that’s the strength of America and that’s definitely the strength of our Air Force.”

William Charlton, ACE Flight Program DSU liaison, said the students learned many lessons besides just flight training during their training.

“The character lessons helped establish a baseline for the students,” Mr. Charlton said. “It was meant to help them better understand themselves in an effort for better interactions between other students, their leadership and later, when they are in leadership positions themselves.”

Maurice Ellis, a certified flight instructor at Delaware State University, felt a bond with the inaugural ACE participants.

“Not only did I have the opportunity to fly with them as an instructor, but as a young pilot myself, I was able to relate to them,” he said. “It was not too long ago when I was in their shoes, faced with the same choices and difficulties that they had to face. While flying with some of these pilots, many who had very little experience with flying, I knew immediately they all had tremendous potential.”

The pilots graduated from the first ACE program on Aug. 4.

“Participating in the Air Force’s inaugural ACE Flight Program in Dover, Delaware, has been life changing,” said Notre Dame University AFROTC cadet Jill Ruane. “It was truly a blessing to have been given this opportunity. I am eternally grateful to DSU and all of the Air Force cadre for their tireless work to make this program a reality.”

Promoting through the arts

Col. Karns also stressed the importance of the ‘A’ in the Air Force’s STEAM initiative. It doesn’t stand for ‘aircraft,’ but rather, ‘arts.’

Gen. Carlton Everhart, of the AMC, has partnered with civic leaders with ties to education to inform them of future initiatives and said he recognizes the gap that exists among the arts in many school districts.

For instance, AMC’s two bands performed in 141 schools last year, showing students that not every person who enlists in the Air Force aspires to be a pilot.

It wanted the students to realize that there are jobs for all kinds of people in the Air Force, whether it be as a trumpet player, a doctor, nurse, or aircraft maintainer.

“The good thing about the bands is people may have an association with them that may be different than with a recruiter,” Col. Karns said.

The Air Force has the bands, new video strategies and is also exploring developing a character designed by former Phillie Phanatic Dave Raymond associated with “delivering hope and relief,” for the younger set.

The STEAM outreach hopes to educate an estimated 12,000 students and potential recruits about the Air Force and AMC while offering valuable educational experiences related to the creative arts.

Col. Karns said the intent of the new initiatives is to “demonstrate a commitment to complementing local education while recognizing the role of military family readiness in mission success.

“At the same time, interaction with airmen in schools will help students and educators gain insight into Air Force opportunities, which will help recruit new airmen.”

Then eventually, he hopes those same students will eventually decide, “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder …”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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