Aspen aeronauts learn to fly around the world as part of second annual flight challenge

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Left to right: Aspen student aeronauts Will Pryor, Kat Kowar, and Julia Burwell practice a takeoff and departure procedure for the second annual Round the World Flight Challenge.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

This afternoon, two teams of Aspen middle and high school and Country Day School aeronauts will have spent roughly 48 consecutive hours piloting two aircraft across the world as part of Aspen’s second annual Round the World Flight Challenge.

The two flights took off from Liberia at 4 p.m. on Friday and are scheduled to arrive in Key West, Florida — after mandatory fuel stops in Africa, Singapore, Russia and Reno, Nevada — by 4 p.m. today.

While the Embraer Phenom 300 planes may not be real, the students’ piloting experience via flight simulators is about as real as it gets, said Aspen High School director of aeronautics, Greg Roark.

The competition between the red and black teams also is real, Roark said.

“These kids take this pretty seriously,” he said. “There’s a winner and a loser, and these kids know which kids know which side of the coin they want to be on.”

Just like in the cockpit of a plane, two pilots — a captain on the left and a first officer to the right — navigate each simulator at all times, Roark said.

The pilots switch positions as captain and first officer every 30 minutes for two hours until two new pilots take over.

With 41 students split equally between two teams, each student must serve as pilot for at least two two-hour shifts.

The key players, however — including Roark and the two captains of each team — remain on site for the duration of the two-day competition, which is held in the Aspen School District aerodrome.

Located in the basement of the middle school, the aerodrome is near the printer room, in which Roark parked an air mattress, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep throughout the challenge.

When Connor Coyle, one of the black team’s captains, saw an opportunity to take a nap, he opted instead for the weight room.

“I’ll be tired, but I’ll make it,” Coyle said, recognizing how unique the schools’ aeronautic program and opportunities are.

“It’s pretty different than anything else you could do in high school,” Coyle said. “For people like myself who are interested in piloting and engineering, getting hours now and having experience out of high school both building and piloting a plane will set me apart from the rest of field, whether it’s an employer or college.”