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Taking Flight

Capital campaigners for Pensacola's National Museum of Naval Aviation are counting down for their next launch -- an attempt to build a 245,000-sq.-ft. addition for a National Flight Academy that they hope will spark interest in science and technology.

Construction will start next month if the group can reach its goal of raising $36 million. It was recently $9 million short.

The project will nearly double the size of the museum -- one of the three largest air and space museums in the world and one of Florida's top museum attractions. More than 60% of the latest expansion, the museum's fourth, will be devoted to the Flight Academy. Initially, it will offer weeklong learning experiences for 3,600 students, beginning in 2007, over a 14-week period.

With its Boeing flight simulators, wind tunnels and cockpits, and aircraft-carrier-styled berthing, the academy will be one-of-a-kind, says retired Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman, president since 1993 of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, the support organization and fund-raiser for the Navy's museum.

The Flight Academy's mission is to generate enthusiasm among seventh- through 12th-graders about math, science and technology, says Fetterman -- "preparing our young people for the challenges of the 21st century."

"We're going to sneak a whole lot of learning in while we're having fun in aviation," says retired Navy Capt. J.J. Coonan, Flight Academy director-designate. A former jet pilot and commanding officer of Pensacola Naval Aviation Schools Command, Coonan has spent the past four years as director of education for the museum's Flight Adventure Deck -- a smaller-scale test run for the Flight Academy that offers middle- and high-schoolers a daylong introduction to the world of flight.

Aviation-related corporations and former aviators have contributed generously, says retired Rear Adm. Skip Furlong, a partner in a consulting firm hired by the foundation for fund raising.

Furlong recalls his first and most successful solicitation, a visit to former World War II naval aviator Jack Taylor, founder of Enterprise Rent-a-Car -- named after the USS Enterprise, a carrier from which Taylor once operated. "I went to meet with him in St. Louis, dressed up in a World War II aviator's flight rig, complete with gloves, cloth helmet, goggles and a Mae West. He just bellowed when he saw me." Taylor gave $12 million.

Math teacher Charlene Kincaid, a National Science Foundation award winner on loan to the museum from Santa Rosa County Schools since 1996, predicts the academy will be a great learning tool, based on her experiences teaching at the Flight Adventure Deck.

"We've heard kids say, 'I didn't know math could be quite so much fun.' "