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Students get FIRED UP at O'Hare

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

How many students can say they have gone on a field trip and assisted firefighters in extinguishing a raging “airplane” blaze.

Twenty-three students at Finley Junior High School in Chicago Ridge can boast just that after attending a College and Career Ready event field trip Friday at O’Hare Airport. The trip was planned through the efforts of Laura Grachan, principal at Finley Junior High, and American Airlines.

The eighth grade students filled out a survey earlier this year asking them what careers would interest them. Grachan said that eighth-graders are usually the first selected because they will be attending high school soon and are beginning to think about future careers. Two seventh grade students also took part in the field trip because of how they responded to the survey and the interest they showed in aviation.

“A number of these students showed an interest in flight and jobs at an airport,” said Grachan. “That’s when I began to look into it.”

Grachan contacted officials at the airport and soon was discussing ideas with administrators from American Airlines. She was surprised to learn that not only does American Airlines hold such field trips, but the students would also get an opportunity to visit an air traffic control tower, view and later assist in putting out a fire of a mock plane, and take a tour of a modern American Airlines aircraft.

After a morning bus ride to O’Hare, faculty members and students were greeted by Adam Retzler, senior specialist of tooling for the airlines’ aircraft maintenance division. He fielded a number of questions from the Finley students. Retzler pointed out that some aircraft can fly as long as 16 hours without stopping to locations such as Beijing or Shanghai, China.

The students were led on a tour of the air traffic control North Tower. Students had a panoramic view of all sides of the airport. They had an opportunity to view the control panels the air traffic controllers have to handle every day to allow aircraft to take off and land safely. Air traffic controllers continue to work unless winds reach as high as 88 miles per hour. When that occurs, the air traffic controllers then evacuate the tower.

Retzler said that nearly 500 to 800 flights take off daily for American Airlines at O’Hare. Pilots have a mandatory retirement age of 65. However, Retzler pointed out that the veteran pilots are more experienced and get to choose which flights they want.

American Airlines also has charter flights for the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks. The airlines have also helped deliver supplies to Haiti when it was hit by a devastating earthquake several years ago. Retzler told the Finley students that an average American Airlines aircraft travels about 600 miles per hour.

The students and faculty were then taken to an area near another runway and were met by firefighters from Engines 655 and 659. Students had an opportunity sit in the front seat of the trucks. They were then led off to an area where an iron mock-up plane was located. The mock-up is then lit from underneath with propane gas that ignites a fire. The firefighters took many of the students with them to put out the blaze. Students got an opportunity, with the direction of firefighters, to assist in putting out the blaze.

The firefighters have three minutes to respond to an aircraft fire.

“They are still talking about it,” said a delighted Grachan about the Finley students turn as gunners putting out fires.

The firefighters use this exercise for field trips and to instruct recruits in putting out a fire. Students also had an opportunity to view another mock structure that is designed to instruct firefighters in putting out a fire inside an aircraft. The firefighters also try to save as many lives as possible. After exiting the mock aircraft, a fire was programmed to occur along one of the wings and a tire as the kids looked on with interest.

The students, faculty and other guests then were served lunch and listened as Chip Long, chief pilot and director of flights at O’Hare, talked about his Air Force training that resulted in him later becoming a commercial pilot.

The day concluded with a tour inside and out of one of American Airlines’ new planes, a Boeing 787. The plane features the latest in technology and goes through 600 pounds of fuel an hour, according to Retzler. Students toured the expansive interior and got an opportunity to sit in first class and the cockpit.

Grachan was appreciative of the efforts of Retzler and Long in explaining aspects of the airlines and aviation in general. The Finley Junior High School principal said preparations for the field trip took two months. Evita Garces, who heads the Mid Line, MTC, Central Division, Line Division for American Airlines, helped to make the trip become possible. Nichole Lombardi, an executive assistant to Garces, played a major role as well, said Grachan.

The tour of the North Tower was arranged through the cooperation of Jim Johnson, a coordinator for Air Transit for the North Tower.

With the success of the field trip, Grachan hopes to revisit O’Hare again. This time, she would like to expand the field trip to include some parents. This way they can see what interests their children.

“What happened was what I hoped would happen,” said Grachan as the tour was coming to a close. “When we were coming here kids were saying what colleges they want to go to. This can help get them ready for college. This is hands-on education.”