Eleven-year-old An Nguyen jammed her forefingers into her ears and closed her eyes so tight her forehead wrinkled.
“I didn’t know the wind was going to be so strong,” the Milam Intermediate School fifth-grader said Thursday, shouting over the roar of a UH-1 Huey helicopter taking off at the front of the school. “There’s all this wind and leaves are flying. And it’s big.”
Nguyen was one of about 610 fifth- and sixth-graders who watched the Army National Guard chopper taking off from in front of the school.
The appearance of the helicopter, which is used primarily to transport military personnel, served as the grand finale of a sixth-grade science unit focusing on aviation.
Sixth-grade students from both Milam and King Intermediate got a close-up look at a helicopter last month, when members of Tupelo’s 185th Aviation Unit brought the chopper to the school. Representatives from the aviation programs at several area universities also talked to students during the two-day event.
“They got to get right up in there and play around with the controls,” said Maj. Bo Barksdale, who is charged with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the 185th Aviation Battalion. “The kids really seemed to enjoy that. I think they had a lot of fun.”
But that visit left students wanting something more.
“A lot of the kids said they enjoyed what they were doing, but what they really wanted was to see a helicopter actually taking off,” Barksdale said.
And so on Thursday, after about a month of planning, Milam students got their wish.
“It was neat,” said 12-year-old Colin Lindley. “We learned about the accessories on the plane and how it uses the blades at different angles to fly. It can go up to 145 mph. I really didn’t know it could go that fast.”
Another helicopter fact grabbed the attention of James Lee.
“I didn’t know the plane could just hover like that,” the 12-year-old said. “It was wild to see this plane in the front of the school. That’s something you don’t think you’ll ever see – not right in front of me at school – but there it was. It didn’t have to move around, it could just hover there, landing slowly.”
Barksdale said landing a helicopter in the cramped residential district wasn’t a problem.
“There was no problem finding space to land,” he said. “That’s one of the advantages of a helicopter. The only problem we had was that it’s very dusty out here. The dirt and grass got kicked up during the landing. But it wasn’t a big problem.”
Barksdale said he hopes to be part of similar landings in the future.
“I’ve been flying for over 10 years now and chills still run up my spine every time I see one of these things take off or land,” the father of four said. “And to see these kids – to see how excited they get – it’s exciting. And there’s so much peer pressure at this age. I hope by being involved in something like this, maybe some of them will see the value of working hard in school. I hope they’ll have an interest in aviation.”