PreFlight Camp Introduces Girls to Aviation Opportunities

By Scott Spangler on September 20th, 2021

Meeting at U.S. Air Force survival school in 2007 and reflecting on the unexpected opportunities that introduced them to aviation, Liz Greene and Kristen Franke conceived an idea that became the nonprofit PreFlight Camp whose mission is to make girls 11 to 14 aware of aviation and its career opportunities.

“We’re past the point of receiving negative feedback. Gender representation is turning around in medicine, engineering,” said Franke. “It just lacks exposure, reaching out to half the population is what the aviation industry desperately needs. You can’t be what you can’t see!”

The founders didn’t know flying was an option because they’d never been exposed to it or had someone explain the opportunities to them. For Franke, it was an ROTC officer at the University of Missouri who urged her to take all the pilot tests.

“I just wanted a job. My grandfather was an Air Force pilot who flew heavy airplanes, but he died when I was 5, so he wasn’t an influence,” she said. “My grandmother took me to some air shows, but the thought of becoming a pilot never entered my head. When the recruiter encouraged me to take the pilot tests, I didn’t know about the 10-year commitment. Take the tests, he said, you can change your mind later. So, I did, and I owe him for encouraging me to try something I never considered. Nobody told me I couldn’t do it; it just never occurred to me.”

Greene’s story is similar, Franke said, and they bonded during their weeklong overlap at survival school and sustained their friendship over time and distance. Greene was a C-21 and KC-10 pilot stationed at Ramstein, Germany, and Franke was a C-17 pilot out of Charleston, South Carolina. “We went to Ramstein all the time.”

The founders left active duty in 2014 (Franke now flies the Airbus 221 for Delta and the C-17 for the Air Force Reserve and Greene flies for Hawaiian Airlines) and met in South America, where Greene was on a four-month travel journey. “I had some time off, too, so I flew to Colombia, went for a hike, and cruised from Cartagena to Panama on a chartered sailboat.”

It was during that trip that Greene delivered her “brain baby” that became the PreFlight Camp, said Franke. “I was just the enabler. “We didn’t know flying was an option for us initially, we fell into it, and we thought, in the spirit of the WASP legacy, sisterhood, and as role models, we could do better for the next generation.”

PreFlight Camp debuted in 2016 as a six-day, overnight camp held at Texas State University in San Marcos. The following year the founders participated in EAA AirVenture’s AeroInnovate business accelerator. As a 501c3, PreFlight Camp was the first nonprofit booth at EAA and received an Aeroinnovate grant.

The camp returned to Texas in 2018 and 2019. After the pandemic standdown in 2020, it adapted as a day camp at Colorado Skies Academy in Centennial, Colorado, and 12 campers and two junior counselors participated from July 26-31, said PreFlight’s president and board chair Morgan Mitchell. The camp counselors, recruited through social media and word of mouth, are (like the four-member board) all volunteers.

“Flexing to the day camp option instead of the overnight was great and we didn’t have any problems,” said Franke. “Colorado Skies Academy enabled us to hold almost all of our activities in the large cafeteria with garage doors. We kept the garage doors open whenever we were holding camp and the campers and volunteers were required to wear masks if they were unvaccinated.”

As it has at preceding camps, the week consists of lessons, hands-on activities, and introspective discussions in Aircraft Components, Aerodynamics, Weather, Weight and Balance, Communication, Navigation and Goal setting.

“We close each activity with an introspective question to help the girls think about what they are interested in. The four forces of flight is an example; related to life, what drags you down, what lifts you up, and how do you keep them in balance? Ultimately, PreFlight gives girls the courage and confidence to look around the corner, to do something different,” said Franke.

“We were also able to take all the campers on a tour of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs where they got to tour the airfield and campus, sit in a glider, use the simulators, and hear from some awesome female pilots that work there,” she added.

“At the end of camp, they all got a discovery flight with a female CFI provided by Aspen Aviation and learned how to preflight the plane. While they waited their turn for the discovery flight, they had the run of the Exploration of Flight Museum as well as the opportunity to check out 2 T-6’s that flew in from Randolph AFB, Texas. To cap it all off, Col Kim Campbell, (first female solo demo Thunderbird pilot, now retired) spoke to the girls during graduation,” Franke said.

“We liked the day camp format so much we’ll probably stick with it for the foreseeable future. We plan to hold camp in Colorado in 2022 as well as tentative plans to hold a second day camp in Texas.” And efforts to grow the organization continue as well, seeking funding to support multiple camps and pay staff. Ultimately, the people behind PreFlight Camp “focus on quality, not quantity,” said Franke.

Mentoring campers is an open-ended commitment. “The mother of an Indian girl who attended our inaugural camp called us and said her daughter, who wants to be an engineer, also wants to be an astronaut; what classes should she take in high school? We didn’t know, but we found someone who did.”

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