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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Aviation High School: Plane Crash Rocks Students

Students and staff work through tragedy and continue to pursue dreams of flight.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Editor's Note: In fall of 2013, Aviation High School moved into a new campus and changed its name to Raisbeck Aviation High School. Founding principal and CEO Reba Gilman moved on and assistant principal Bruce Kelly became Principal/CEO in the fall of 2014, as the school celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Seattle's Aviation High School, whose unusual curriculum was featured in Going Sky High (October, 2005), was struck by tragedy October 15 when two students and a volunteer pilot were killed in a plane crash.

Brittany Boatright, who was fifteen, and fourteen-year-old Kandyce Cowart took the first flight of the school year with the Experimental Aircraft Association's Young Eagles program, in which private pilots volunteer to give youths the experience of flying. The plane, owned and piloted by Eugene Hokanson, of Mercer Island, crashed for undetermined reasons near its would-be landing site, Paine Field, in Everett, Washington.

The flight, one of forty-eight scheduled that Saturday by the Parent-Teacher-Student Association, was an extracurricular activity not required by the school, but Aviation High CEO and principal Reba Gilman says almost every student had chosen to participate. Although the remaining flights that day were canceled after the crash, Gilman says the tragedy has not dampened the school's dedication to flying. "Our commitment to the school is going to be even stronger than before," she adds.

Aviation High, a public school that opened just last year, offers an intensive science and math curriculum, plus seminars in such topics as the history of flight, aircraft design, and the mechanics of piloting planes. Some students choose the school because it is a small, rigorous learning community, while others -- like Boatright and Cowart -- dream of becoming pilots or astronauts. Aviation High has 200 students in grades nine and ten and will add two more classes of one-hundred students each as the current students matriculate, then stabilize with a 400-member student body.

Gilman says that, since the accident, many students already have expressed their determination to fly again. One boy, who was airborne in another plane at the time of the crash and heard the air-traffic controller's emergency calls, decided to take his flying lesson as scheduled just four days after the accident.

The four-seater Piper Cherokee 140 carrying Hokanson, Boatright, and Cowart took off from Boeing Field just after 9 A.M. It touched down at its turnaround point in Everett, less than an hour away, then clipped a sign at the end of the runway and went airborne again, says Jim Struhsaker, senior air-safety investigator with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The plane flew about a mile away, then clipped an 80-foot tree and crashed into an empty construction site nearby, bursting instantly into flames. Struhsaker says preliminary results of his investigation into the cause of the crash should be available within a week, but final results could take three to five months.

Gilman recalls the two girls, both from Burien, Washington, as intellectually curious and warmhearted. Cowart's favorite subject was science, Boatright enjoyed writing, and both wanted to become pilots.

Despite the grief over the girls' deaths, Aviation High is treating the incident as an isolated tragedy, says Gilman. (These are the first fatalities among the 1.2 million children Young Eagles has flown since its founding in 1992.) The school has brought in grief counselors and chaplains from local fire and sheriff's departments to work with students and staff, and, at a community meeting the day after the crash, Cowart's mother urged families not to feel guilty or dismiss their dreams, Gilman says.

"If there were a football game and someone was killed, you wouldn't cancel the next game," Gilman says. "It goes on."

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