Real maths takes flight . . . virtually

27th March 1998 at 00:00

A United States Air Force F-16 fighter directs a giant C-141 transport plane to the city of Tikrit in northern Iraq, navigating above the featureless landscape while tracking the weather, refuelling in mid-air and watching for enemy aircraft.

"Set your heading to 1-8-0. That's 1-8-0. Do you copy?" the radio crackles. "Copy, heading 1-8-0 degrees," the pilot replies, preparing for a landing with a cargo of supplies.

A typical day in the skies above the Middle East? Not really. The youthful voices on the radio are those of eighth-grade students using state-of-the-art US Air Force flight simulators safely anchored to the ground in the southern state of Georgia.

"What we're trying to do is show these kids some real-world applications of the maths and science they've been learning," said Bob Dubiel, spokesman for the Warner Robins Museum of Aviation, which co-ordinates the programme in co-operation with the Air Force and the local schools. "And they'll be learning things here that will supplement their knowledge, such as navigation, weight and balance of an aircraft, fuel usage, weather, teamwork. Then they get in and do the flying."

There certainly have been no complaints from students. The eighth-graders who were the first to test the program worked with real Air Force pilots, planned a humanitarian aid mission, and spent a day behind the throttles of simulators equipped with the latest Pentagon software.

"It's an excellent motivator," said their teacher, Barbara Finley. "They were amazed at all the maths that was used in the planning of the flights and the landing. They realised that all the stuff we do in class was really useful."

Beginning in the autumn, 12 simulators will be linked up at the museum, allowing 40 students to work together on imagined reconnaissance or relief flights they can watch on cinema-sized screens.

Many of the youngsters in the area already have connections to the Air Force, which has a huge base in Warner Robins. Some of the pilots who visited Ms Finley's class were parents of her students.

"They came out and explained how maths and algebra connected with their job," she said. "It brought reality and excitement to the class."

Jon Marcus

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