As the USS Midway Museum’s education department continues to rebound from the impact of the pandemic on Southern California schools, its youth programs and leadership team have launched two new programs. The Leadership ARCH workshop and an Aviation Overnight event both featured a brand new, innovative piece of programming dubbed “Flight Deck Ops.”

“Flight Deck Ops is an activity built to encourage critical thought, to stretch imagination and creativity, to test teamwork and communication skills, and to provide outside the box fun for participants,” said Tina Chin, Midway’s director of education. “The goal of the activity is simple – clear the runway of the USS Midway flight deck within ten minutes – but it’s the scenario and multiple parameters that added the spice.”

The Leadership ARCH workshop kicked off this winter by hosting 42 Army JROTC students from Parris High School, while the Aviation Overnight course was attended by 104 San Diego children and their families, as well as a number of scout groups.

The Flight Deck Ops uses a massive 10-foot print of the USS Midway’s flight deck, along with several wooden cutouts of historically accurate helicopters in relation to the size of the deck.

“These resources help create a scenario that mimics the conditions that commanding officer of USS Midway, Capt. Larry Chambers, faced during the military evacuation of refugees from Saigon as part of Operation Frequent Wind in 1975,” said Tina. “Confronted with the difficult situation of a flight deck packed with aircraft, compounded by other restricting factors, these young participants had ten minutes to figure out how to clear the runway of the flight deck by any means necessary to allow a small plane carrying a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot and his family to safely land. It was a perplexing problem they needed to work as a team to solve.”

During the inaugural Leadership ARCH workshop, the JROTC students tackled the Flight Deck Ops challenge with surprising tenacity and enthusiasm.

“The students took to Flight Deck Ops like ducks to water, immediately developing strategies and offering critique and encouragement to each other as the time quickly ticked down,” said Samantha Hunter, Midway’s youth and leadership program specialist. “My favorite part was the moment the students realize they have to think outside the box to make this work. It was fun to watch them argue too, but nothing beats that ah-ha moment when they figured it out.”

It took the student nine minutes to determine the actions they thought needed to be taken. They determined that the only way to quickly clear the flight deck for the small plane to try to land, was to push some of the helicopters over the side of Midway and into the ocean.

“For me, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least try to help that family,” said one of the participating students.

Once the activity was completed, Chase Odell, Midway’s youth and leadership program manager, shared the true story of Operation Frequent Wind. The Flight Deck Ops challenge mirrored the same ethical conflict that Capt. Chambers, who later retired from the Navy as a rear admiral, faced nearly 50 years ago. It was presented to the students to not only test their critical thinking, but to test their own beliefs and values. The students weighed their options heavily, accompanied by some heated discussions, but ultimately the group came to a consensus that human lives were more important than any career or pieces of aviation hardware.

The students made the same difficult decision Capt. Chambers made to push millions of dollars’ worth of helicopters over the side of the ship.

“This wasn’t just some made up, impossible story,” said Chase. “This was real life and the historical Midway connection was that Capt. Chambers understood the consequences of his decision. Kids need to know that they will also face difficult situations in the future that will require difficult decisions. Maybe not as drastic, but still as important to them.”

A few weeks later, the Flight Deck Ops conundrum was put into action for a second time during the first Aviation Overnight event of the 2024 season. Although this particular program had a much younger audience than the leadership workshop, the challenge was again a success with all the guests.

“The kids were really exercising their listening skills and patience,” said Rachel Cremering, Midway’s overnight program coordinator. “I was impressed by what I saw from them.”

The group was having so much fun that when the exercise was completed, one of the younger participants joked, “Can we throw the real planes off the flight deck now?”

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