For Hunter Warmack and Eli Garcilaso, juniors at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, it felt like they were sitting in the cockpit of an actual fighter plane and flying it during their simulation classes at the National Flight Academy in Pensacola, Fla., last month.

Both students are enrolled in the new Naval Junior ROTC class offered through Washington High School, and both are planning to enter the military, so six days at the National Flight Academy provided them a small feel of what real life in the U.S. Navy would be like.

The simulator classes were some of the most exciting moments of their week, Hunter and Eli agreed.

“They would give us a mission, like the Coast Guard wants us to find these boats,” explained Hunter, son of Charles and Terri Warmack, Washington. “And we’d have to plan our mission . . . to go in a certain direction, a certain degree, turn right at a certain degree, stay at the same altitude, same speed and all.

“Another mission might be we have to go save passengers off a ship that’s sinking. So they’d give us the mission, and we’d have to plan it out,” he said.

Eli, son of Cris and Scott Garcilaso, Marthasville, said initially the experience was almost too intimidating.

“At first, I thought it was pretty complicated, and intimidating — flying the aircraft was really intimidating,” he said.

Hunter agreed. “All of it was a mess to begin with,” he said. “We couldn’t fly or anything. We kept crashing into the ground.”

All of it was exciting, though, they said, “eye-opening” and “worthwhile.”

“It definitely did increase me wanting to join (the military) because I thought it was fun,” said Eli, whose father serves in the Army Reserves and brother, Zach, is stationed in Italy with the U.S. Air Force. “It definitely encouraged me to continue on that path.”

“I thought it was a really good taste of how naval life would be,” said Hunter, who is more interested in Navy SEALS and special operations than flying.

“I don’t think I actually want to fly, instead be in the special operations, but I did see what it would somewhat be like.”

Opportunity Knocks

Lt. Tim Raines, who is the instructor for the new NJROTC program in Washington and vice president of youth programs for the Navy League St. Louis Council, saw Hunter at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Washington riverfront and asked if he would be interested in attending the National Flight Academy and also if he knew of anyone else who would be in the NJROTC class that fall who might like to attend.

So Hunter extended the offer to Eli.

Lt. Raines had recruited a total of 48 St. Louis area students (male and female) to attend the academy. In addition to the two Borgia students, he had 22 cadets from the Cleveland Junior Naval Academy, a magnet school in St. Louis; 14 cadets from the NJROTC program at Riverview Gardens High School; and 10 cadets from the Navy League’s Naval Sea Cadet Unit.

He had raised enough money by soliciting local businesses and corporations to pay all of the tuition costs ($1,250 per student) and travel expenses for 48 students.

“I felt very blessed to have this opportunity where I was able to work with the Gaylord Foundation, Express Scripts, the American Legion and the Navy League,” said Lt. Raines of the major donors. “They were so instrumental in coordinating the funding, and then Boeing and Enterprise did it on the back end by giving money directly to the schools and then the schools gave us scholarships.”

A total of 106 cadets from across the country attended the National Flight Academy in July.

National Flight Academy

The National Flight Academy is a program of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation Inc. Its in-residence program is offered on the virtual aircraft carrier, Ambition, located adjacent to the National Naval Aviation Museum on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.

The National Flight Academy is a 102,000-square-foot, four-story structure, complete with accommodations for up to 108 students who are referred to as Ambition Experimental Pilots or AXPs.

The interior of the facility is modeled after a modern air-craft carrier, complete with Ready Rooms, Intelligence and Operations Centers and extensive simulation space.

“Students are given the opportunity to take charge as the watch captain and tactical coordinator, helping their fellow squadron-mates command and control virtual aircraft flown by their peers in up to 42 networked flight simulators,” the website reads. “The Command, Control, Communications, and Coordination element designed to be absolutely critical to achieving mission objectives — will be experienced in six Joint Operations Centers.

“Here a squadron of 12 Ambition Experimental Pilots (plus their dedicated facilitator) are placed in charge of coordinating missions that have been previously planned with their sister squadron.”

Accommodations on the Ambition were not cramped at all, the boys said. There were six cadets to each room with space for lockers and desks.

Their days began at 6:30 a.m. and they had one hour of personal time before breakfast was served at 7:30 a.m.

In the morning, the AXPs wore a T-shirt that represented their squad with their group sign on it. For bottoms they wore khaki or dress shorts.

The morning hours were filled with various light activities, like watching a Blue Angels performance. Unfortunately, a pop-up thunderstorm and lightning canceled the show the day the AXPs were scheduled to watch it.

After lunch the AXPs took their main classes, which included learning to fly the simulator and planning missions.

“They applied Google Earth to the simulators so since we were taking off at Pensacola, Fla., we would actually be able to fly to Tampa, Fla., and there would be buildings and such you could see,” said Hunter. “You couldn’t see details, like people walking on the ground or anything, but you can see boats in the water and buildings on the ground.

“It was detailed enough that it felt real.”

Eli, who wants to be a pilot, said learning to fly with the simulator was the best part of the program.

Hunter agreed, but he also had a lot of fun with the JOC — Joint Operations Center — class where the cadets talked with the pilots flying the simulated aircraft to help them if they got off track or were going the wrong way.

“It was fun because once they get their mission accomplished, you can say you were a part of that, helping them out,” said Hunter. “It shows that the pilots aren’t the only part of a mission. There’s a lot of background help too.”

With each mission, the AXPs worked together to create a master plan, flight map and debrief following the completion of every mission. Each mission is designed to test AXPs’ mental agility, preparedness, and communication skills, while demonstrating the importance of teamwork and goal completion, the website notes.

Graduation Ceremony

A graduation ceremony was held at the end of the program. Each group’s leader took a turn at the podium, calling out AXPs’ names and call signs, which was a nickname that the rest of the group assigned them.

Hunter’s call sign was “Fuzzy,” and Eli’s was “Speedy.”

The call signs were given to each AXP by the fellow cadets in their group based on something about that person or a kind of silly play on their name.

One AXP who was good at math was named “Trig,” for example. Another was “Notso,” which was a joke because her last name was Sharp, so she was “Notso” Sharp, said Hunter. One female cadet had the call sign “Doughnut” because she wore her hair in a bun.

The ceremony also included awards, personal recognition and inspiring activities. Guest speakers included a U.S. House representative from Florida, who spoke to the kids about motivation;

Astronaut pilots who talked about the space program and told the students how specific lessons they are learning in school are used in the space program; and finally, the commanding officer of the Blue Angels addressed the students.

Looking back, both Hunter and Eli said attending the National Flight Academy made them feel better prepared to start the NJROTC classes this year. They also were more excited about the program.

NJROTC Program at WHS

There are currently 65 students enrolled in the new NJROTC class at Washington High School — five students from St. Francis Borgia and 60 from WHS.

Lt. Raines admits he had higher expectations for the number of students from Borgia.

“My first class is dedicated to Borgia students,” he said, explaining it is offered at 7:30 a.m. before school starts (zero hour), so the Borgia students have time to get to their school before classes begin for the day.

The 65 students are spread across three classes, held zero, first and second hour.

Any student is welcome to enroll in the NJROTC class. It’s not just for students who want to go on to enlist in the Navy or any branch of the military, said Lt. Raines.

“Even those who don’t want to be here, those are the ones I really want to teach because this class can help them so much,” he said.

The NJROTC class is designed as a yearlong program. It’s not something that students can pick up at the semester break.

“My job is to teach and to educate citizens on what the Navy is about,” said Lt. Raines. “Not to have them serve their country or go into the Navy, but to educate them about what we do because there are so many citizens out there who have no clue.

“The class is about developing leadership, character, ethics, patriotic citizens, courage, commitment . . . and ownership which turns in to pride,” he said.

The NJROTC students are referred to as cadets.

Uniforms funded by community donations have been ordered, and the cadets will be required to wear them one day a week, on Wednesdays. Those who choose to can wear the uniform five days a week to earn extra credit, but they will have to adhere to strict guidelines.

“They will have to be inspection-ready to get that extra credit,” said Lt. Raines. “They also have to wear it with integrity, the values, the customs, the courtesy and traditions . . . they need to wear it in the proper way and act with proper decorum when they’re wearing it.”

One of Lt. Raines’ first goals with the new NJROTC cadets is to organize a color guard unit that can perform at community events and football games. They will carry all of the flags for all of the branches of military service.

Lt. Raines noted that all of the cadets have started the year at the same rank, but he will promote them as they earn it.

Promotions will be based on academic performance, fitness test, motivation and leadership skills, he said.

The cadets have been assigned three books for the class, including Naval Science I and a Cadet Reference Manuel, all of which are theirs to keep.

Mondays and Wednesdays are set up as classroom training.

The students answer in-class questions and will take tests using a Classroom Performance System (CPS) that has wireless connectivity. Students input their answers on small, palm-sized response pads that look almost like remote controls.

“It automatically tallies their answers, tabulates their answers,” said Lt. Raines, noting he even takes attendance using this device.

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are set aside as drill days. The cadets will be out on the parking lot or in the gym learning columns, formations, left and right face and more.

Lt. Raines, who lives in Eureka, said he has been impressed by the Washington community, not just for its generosity in raising $36,000 to pay for the cadets’ uniforms, but also its patriotism.

“This unit would not be here if it wasn’t for the citizens of Washington and the donations they have given,” said Lt. Raines.

“The purchase of our uniforms was almost $20,000.”

Each cadet would have had to pay $250 for the uniform if it wasn’t for the donations from groups like the Washington V.F.W. and the American Legion, the Lions Club, Washington Rotary Club, Elks Club, countless individuals and many businesses who gave donations.

“I’m just amazed and thankful that the citizens are such proponents of the program,” said Lt. Raines.

At a recent conference in San Diego, the Washington program was used as a success story for the Navy. They asked how he did it, and Lt. Raines told them that’s just how the community is.

“Washington was extraordinary for the patriotism showed by the citizens — the veterans and the community to know what this program can bring,” he said.