The idea of a summer camp as a place for archery or swimming seems pretty quaint as 13-year-old Iris Sanchez climbs into the cockpit of an AW139 helicopter and looks over the control panel of the roughly $10-12 million bird.
Iris and her fellow campers – Elvia Mejia and Hillary Wong, also 13 – had listened with a mixture of awe and perhaps youthful confusion as Ryan Thomas, a ground instructor for Leonardo Helicopters, raced through the daunting checklist of what a pilot needs to know, from hydraulic fluid levels to forward air speed.
Now Iris had bulky headphones on and – with the giant blade turned off, of course – operated the control stick that moves the large rotary gears atop the helicopter, the same model used by Air Force pilots from Italy to the United Arab Emirates.
"It's nerve-racking," Iris confessed after her moment in the hot seat.
Welcome to one of the most unusual summer camps in the Philadelphia region – the Leonardo Helicopter camp, where 10 lucky rising eighth graders fly over the Great Northeast during a packed week where high-tech learning goes into heavy rotation, and happy campers learn how choppers are manufactured and flown.
For these kids from Northeast Philadelphia's St. Martin of Tours School – each selected for the free camp as a reward for being a top all-around student – the week is not only fun but also an early glimpse into future career opportunities, and not just in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills needed to design and build the whirlybirds.
"They love it — it's opened their eyes to so many different things they wouldn't [otherwise] experience," said Chuck Pavonarius, an eighth-grade teacher at the parochial school who accompanied the campers. "Will they all be helicopter pilots? No. But if they want to go into law, they have lawyers here. If they want to go into engineering, business — that's all here."
For the Italy-based Leonardo, the camp is an opportunity for the world's ninth-largest defense contractor – which mostly flies under the radar here in Philadelphia despite employing close to 550 people at its main American helicopter facility – to give back to the community and maybe spark the imagination of future employees. The 10 kids even start their week with a mock interview in its human resources department.
"It's about science and technical stuff but more about the practical piece of it," said Bill Hunt, CEO of Leonardo Helicopters' Philadelphia division, who grew up in Bustleton and graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School. "It's a way of taking what they learn in school and applying it to the job. …"
He urged the kids "to live this moment, enjoy this moment. … This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Although the 15-minute helicopter flight over their school and home neighborhoods is clearly the camp highlight, the teens spend most of their time learning just how much work goes into getting one of the choppers off the ground, with sessions on design, manufacturing, and even the complex supply chain, taught by Leonardo staffers.
This is the fourth year for the free camp for St. Martin's students, chosen because their school is closest to the plant.
Inside the large hangar where the helicopters are assembled on Red Lion Road next to Northeast Philadelphia Airport, students learn how Leonardo's new AW609 TiltRotor, which combines elements of a chopper and an airplane, is built. The campers want to know how the helicopters make it out of the hangar (driven out, through large openings at either end) and whether they can be used for search-and-rescue missions (yes, with special lights and loudspeakers).
"I want one of these," says Luis Chavez, gesturing at the AW609. "It looks more modern and sophisticated."
It costs $25 million, his teacher, Hilary Strang, tells him.
"I also want to be a doctor," Chavez adds.
But other students are thinking about a career in tech, and the camp may have pushed them a little closer. "I'm really interested in engineering," said William DeLeon, 13. He said the camp has "been great, nothing but fun. … I got to see a helicopter land."
The real thrill came Thursday when three groups of the campers each took off for their short flight, a thrill that CEO Hunt admitted even most of the workers at the plant have never experienced. "I've worked here 12 years, built over 530 helicopters — and flown three times," he said.
Some of the kids seemed a little nervous, and pilots Jason Court and Doug Edge worked to put them at ease by showing off the elaborate nature of the preflight safety check, making sure the rivet lines are straight and that every nut and bolt is securely in place. "It's kind of monotonous, but safety is always first," Court said.
Soon, kids and teacher were seated in the eight-person helicopter, their headphones snug, and – after briefly hovering, it was tail up, nose down and off they flew. As they passed over St. Martin of Tours School, workers streamed out of the building and waved.
"It was good," Luis said afterward. "It's really crazy. I was starting to feel sick, but I didn't vomit. When you're going up it feels like a roller coaster. When you turn, it feels like you're going to fall out."
"It was peaceful at times, then you'd get so scared when they were turning and dipping," Elvia added. "It felt like you were falling."
Would she do it again?