New curriculum to take flight in idle aircraft

St. Paul students, aviation enthusiasts celebrate FedEx’s “learning jet” gift to STEM school.

Dignitaries waited with students, and a marching band prepared to play, as St. Paul’s classroom of the future descended from a cloudy sky on Tuesday.

“There she is,” teacher David Barrett exclaimed, and seconds later, the Boeing 727 freighter was landing — its final flight complete to a new home at St. Paul Downtown Airport.

The jet, a gift from FedEx Express to the Minnesota Association of Women in Aviation, is the 77th aircraft to be donated by the company for educational use, and is to be transformed into a stationary classroom used extensively by students from Farnsworth Aerospace Magnet School on the East Side.

There, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum is a main draw for students, and familiar ground to Dean Davis, 13, an eighth-grader who leaned coolly against a fence as the freighter taxied to a stop at Holman Field. The lettering under the captain’s window revealed the jet’s name to be Timothy.

Davis said that he was impressed with the 727, but that it was the potential of the classroom — with rows of desks and on-site flight simulators — that excited him most.

“To work inside a plane — not many people get that experience,” he said.

The jet’s interior is empty for now, and the floor still has the rollers that eased the loading of package-laden containers. It is hoped that the classroom will be complete by April, said Steve Hurvitz, project manager for the “learning jet.”

The classroom is being funded by a $100,000 federal grant, part of an effort to encourage students — females and minorities, in particular — to pursue STEM careers. Through the project, children will learn about all fields of transportation. The four simulators will offer samples of what it’s like to fly a plane, operate a river barge or drive a truck, said Ray Rought, a learning jet board member and a former director of the office of aeronautics at the state Department of Transportation.

Beth Rush, a senior contracts administrator for FedEx Express, said Tuesday that the 727 jets, with their three engines and three-person crews, are being replaced by more fuel-efficient models, such as the Boeing 757. The plane donated on Tuesday first was flown as a commercial passenger plane by Braniff Airways in 1979. FedEx acquired it in 1990 and named it after the son of an employee. That child, now 32, is a construction worker in Grand Rapids, Mich., Rush said.

The jet logged more than 40,000 flight hours before it was decommissioned on Tuesday with ceremonial blasts of water from two St. Paul fire trucks.

In a ceremony later, St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva spoke of the pride that Farns­worth students have in their school and of the need to educate children about careers in aviation.

One student who toured the plane, Mariana Noyola, 7, the sister of Dean Davis, was not yet sold on its value: “It kind of smells like a zoo,” she said.

But her father, Harold Noyola, described it as a fine addition to the Farnsworth experience. Aviation, he said, has universal appeal, “no matter what race or what culture. It brings the kids together.”

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036



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