They approached from the northeast, their blades whirling, their powerful engines announcing their arrival before they were sighted.
As they descended, the wind generated by their massive blades was strong enough to flip over a small section of bleachers at the Greenville Park Leadership Academy in Hammond.
For more than two hours this past Friday, the cockpit of a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter served as the classroom for Greenville students during a visit that proved to be as enjoyable as it was educational, not only for Greenville staff and students but also for the servicemen who are stationed at the Hammond Northshore Regional Airport.
“I think it’s good to show the kids and to inspire them,” said serviceman Wyatt Smith. “As a kid you don’t really think you can do stuff like this. And then you get some average people out there like me and everyone else on this aircraft and there is nothing special about us.”
Greenville Principal Bobby Matthews said the Black Hawk visit was the brainchild of himself and Assistant Principal Ann Parmentier. Matthews said the two were discussing ideas as to how to motivate the students and create excitement for the second semester when Parmentier mentioned her husband was a Black Hawk pilot.
She suggested that having a crew visit would offer a chance for the students to learn how the lessons they are learning in science can be connected to the real world.
All 416 students were able to visit the helicopter and speak to the crew during their recess period, an opportune time because Matthews is committed to not losing class time.
“So the idea was for kids to go on their recess and explore the helicopter for fun,” he said. “They were so excited. It takes a lot to get me excited about something, but when I saw how excited these kids were I actually got excited because they were so excited about having an opportunity to explore that helicopter and to see it function close up.”
Matthews said many of his students will likely not have a chance to experience or see something such as the Black Hawk, even at the bi-annual Hammond Air Show.
“They won’t have the opportunity to get to that side of Hammond,” he said. “To have them be able to touch something like that was wonderful.”
Tangipahoa Parish Superintendent Melissa Stilley said the day also presented an opportunity for students to be up close and personal with the staff and to be able to spend time inside the pilot’s seat. More important, however, she said students were exposed to areas on which they can focus when they graduate, in terms of STEM and education pathways.
“I think it opens up their horizons to a lot of different areas they normally don’t have access to,” Stilley said. “They can see they can do this, and there are a lot of related fields that offer opportunities.”
Matthews said the visit had two purposes. The first was for the seventh and eighth grade students to be made aware that there are many avenues and pathways opened by exploring a career in the Army. He said students were able to meet the servicemen and to hear them tell their stories and how they ended up being able to operate the helicopter.
“It gave the kids an opportunity to hear what is out there for them,” he said. “To have (the students) explore firsthand and to hear (the servicemen’s) testimony with their lives I think was powerful and was one of the goals.”
The second purpose was for younger students to take what they are learning in the science classroom and apply that knowledge to the challenges pilots facing while flying, as Matthews said, “through the clouds.”
“They could learn how all of this plays a role in operating a piece of machinery in order for all of those men to serve and support us and also stay alive while doing it,” he said.
Matthews said the staff and students were excited and the day capitalized on its intended purpose – to get people motivated and prepared for the second semester as well as for learning.
“To have it happen around such a unique event was powerful for everybody,” he said.
Smith was moved by the way the students gravitated to the servicemen, eager to hug them and share high-fives.
“It was good to see them excited about something,” he said.
Visiting a school via a Black Hawk was a goal of Smith since his own school days, when he watched his father, who was also a helicopter pilot, do something similar.
“This was awe-inspiring and what I’ve been working toward, to lead someone else and to inspire them,” he said.