Keanan Carlson had always been fascinated with how a little bit of wind can lift tons of metal into the air.

"It was all just very weird to me," he said.

This year, the 17-year-old junior is learning the mechanics of flight in a new aviation and aerospace course at White Bear Lake Area High School.

The class, in which students learn the beginning stages of flying a plane, is one of just a handful of its kind in Minnesota.

It's made possible by the fundraising efforts of John Marzitelli, whose son, 17-year-old Patrick Marzitelli, died in 2010 after he was sprayed with jet fuel while working at the Anoka County Airport.

After being sprayed, he sent a text message to his girlfriend: "I just got blasted with some jet fuel." She responded, "Are you OK?" He said he was coughing and wheezing, "but I think I'll be OK."

He was later found by a coworker on top of a fuel truck with his face in an open hatch. Paramedics said he was dead at the scene. An Anoka County Sheriff's spokesman later said he died from fume-related inhalation.

Patrick was a student of Peter Pitman at White Bear Lake Area High School and had expressed to him early on that he wanted to be a pilot like his father.

"He had a quiet sense of inquiry," Pitman said. "He was deeply absorbed."

Pitman approached John Marzitelli at the visitation following Patrick's death and proposed the idea of offering an aviation class at the school in Patrick's memory.

Marzitelli raised $6,000 through a golf tournament last year which he gave to the school to purchase aviation textbooks and a flight simulator.

"I think this is a great way to keep my son's legacy alive," John Marzitelli said.

Pitman worked as an air traffic controller for 20 years before deciding to become a teacher. He also teaches math, earth science and space science courses.

Students say he has an energetic teaching style that can make what looks to outsiders like a series of numbers and charts compelling.

"He's really engaging and knows what he's talking about," said Uchenna Omeoga, a 16-year-old junior.

Pitman hopes students go on to get their private pilot's license, although that can be expensive, he admits. It can cost up to $140 an hour to fly a plane, Pitman said, and an aspiring pilot needs 40 hours of flying to get a license.

Pitman has paired up students with local pilots to ride in a private plane in recent weeks.

By the time the class is over, students should be prepared to take the pilot knowledge exam, the first step toward receiving a private pilot license, Pitman said.

"We're providing the impetus for them to continue," Pitman said.

Already, at least three of his students have been accepted into flight schools.

Even if students don't get their license, Pitman hopes they see career opportunities in flight that can range from baggage-handling to flying a plane for the military or managing an airport.

"Piloting is the thrust of the course, but of course, that's not all there is to the flight industry," he said. "I'm hoping it's not just an opportunity to have fun, but that it'll also pay off for these kids in the long run."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-925-5032 Twitter: @DaarelStrib