Several Hudson High School students helped run the Flying Vikings event at the Angelina County Airport on Saturday that enabled mentally and physically disabled children to fly in small craft airplanes for free.

The students are part of an aviation program at the school that provides a career pathway into robotics and aviation. On Saturday, attendees of the event were aided by the students who volunteered their time to help the kids into airplanes, facilitate crafts and learn about the airplanes.

The aviation program has run for a few years now and is helping students engage in math, science and engineering in a new way. Many of them balance advanced school courses, extra-curricular activities and the aviation program. Most are only freshmen and sophomores, but there are a few older students as well, they said.

“With school and our extra curricular activities and this, it can be a lot. It’s hard,” said Baylee Ward, a 15-year-old freshman at Hudson who is one of two high school students who are now able to fly the planes. She started the program when she was in 7th grade, she said.

“It can be a lot, but it’s still worth it.”

The two freshmen’s ability to fly is rare and early compared to what protocols are usually followed, Mark Dunn, an organizer of the Flying Vikings event, said.

“Cullen (Merrell) and I started off with a passion for this just right off the bat,” Baylee said. “This class really just opened up an opportunity for us to get closer to the world of aviation.”

She said her first flight was indescribable.

“She’s exactly right with that,” Cullen Merrell, a freshman and the other student now able to fly, said. “My first flight was with the (Experimental Aircraft Association), or Young Eagles flight. It makes you realize that it just feels right to be in the air.”

Cullen said it was an out-of-body experience.

Emma Burgess, a sophomore, struggles with forcing herself to sit down and take notes to learn the material, she said. She would rather be flying the simulator, she said. She had the hardest time understanding airspace and is working on a better understanding of the equipment she needs to know before she’s allowed to fly.

“I agree with Baylee,” Emma said. “Especially because all of us are in advanced classes, or at least a good amount of advanced classes, on top of like — me I’m dealing with basketball and physical therapy, on top of this class. I have to take notes at home and it’s the same for Baylee and Cullen.”

The biggest challenge is that taking on the aviation program is a lot, they all agreed. But once they get it, it’s worth it, Baylee said.

“You have to want to do it. You can’t just think it’s an easy class; you have to actually want to do stuff,” freshman Josh Young said. “It’s a class you go to to work hard and to get to this level where you are flying.”

“It’s hard to make them leave and go to the next class,” Carla Ladner, the teacher who started the program at Hudson, said. “We hope that next year it is multiple periods, not just one period.”

The program began with the students learning the basics of physics and math. they were creating paper airplanes and advanced to building robots, drones and shooting rockets. They pushed for the advancement to flight simulators, and eventually real flights.

In the time since it has started, they’ve been given rein to look for more intense and demanding projects on their own and bring them to the classroom, Ladner said.

“We have a lot going on. We want a hangar, we want an airplane, we want them to build their own and fly their own, avionics, engines, we want it all,” Ladner said. “And they’ll be the ones to do it. You watch. They’ll be the ones to accomplish every goal we’ve got set.”

They have had full support from the district, the students and Ladner agreed. Whatever new project they would come up with, the school found a way to get them the money or tools they needed.

“They never stop,” she said. “Every day it’s ‘Hey, I saw this’ or ‘Hey, can we do this?’ They’re the brightest, eager, they’re very eager. ... There is no limit to their drive, their want, their energy.”

Jess Huff’s email address is

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