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Listen | This class is ‘First in Flight’

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Caroline Parker: Every state across the country has a small 6 by 12 inch aluminum token that speeds along the highways, and sits just beside the tailpipe. These signs may depict your state’s most iconic feature or boast a phrase that says this is ours, and no one else’s. 

In Minnesota, you have 10,000 lakes, and in Scenic Idaho, some very Famous Potatoes.

License plates have become more than motor vehicles registrations, and they represent something your state is profoundly proud of. Here in North Carolina the majority of our vehicles have an illustration of one of the most important snapshots in aviation history. With American beach grass blowing in the wind, a sketch of the Wright Brothers fateful first flight, on Dec. 17, 1903, is the centerpiece to our North Carolina license plate.

Orville and Wilbur Wright changed the course of history by flying the first powered airplane in Kitty Hawk, less than a mile from the North Carolina coast. 

And now, 120 years later, using the same aviation principals, a class of juniors and seniors at First Flight High School in Dare County are building a modern plane within eyesight of the Wright Brothers’ runway – with hopes to eventually fly it.

Admiral Joey Tynch: I like to joke that if I was driving to school every day, to teach these kids how to fly it would be a piece of cake. 

Caroline Parker: This is the class’s instructor Joey Tynch, a retired Rear Admiral who served in the United States Navy for 33 years. 

Admiral Joey Tynch: But I’m a Navy admiral transitioning to air framer building an airplane with them. So I come, I study at night and prep in the day and get here to help build. 

So I really am thankful for Dare County Schools for letting me have this job. I grew up in northeastern North Carolina in Chowan County. We were farmers, I joined the military and we were gone for 33 years and to come back home, and to be able to help and motivate 22 high school kids here in northeastern North Carolina is just tremendous for me.

Caroline Parker: And motivate he does. This is Seth Yaeckel, a junior at First Flight High School. He was astonished with aviation and aerospace and saw this class as a good opportunity to explore the topics with his instructor.

Seth Yaeckel: Admiral Tynch, he’s an inspiration really He’s born and raised in northeastern North Carolina, grew up on a watermelon farm is what he tells us, and how he didn’t really have much and just his whole story about him becoming a Navy admiral, it’s just it’s really inspiring. And it just proves that we can really do whatever we want to accomplish if we apply ourselves, and this class is a really good opportunity to learn and grow.

Caroline Parker: Luke Rubino, a senior, joined the class because he is ready to grow too. He likes creating things, but has never been exposed to this type of skill building. 

Luke Rubino: I saw it on the class options. I thought it was really interesting because I like new experiences. And this is the first ever class. And it’s kind of cool that we’re building an airplane where the Wright Brothers first built theirs.

Luke Rubino: It’s a cool to see our progression, since we’re doing hands on and it’s all hands on work, too. So it feels like real life and not school.

Caroline Parker: Dr. Shannon Castillo is the director of career and technical education and administrative services for Dare County Schools. The district’s assistant superintendent over the summer asked if anyone had ever heard of a program where kids in high school build an airplane and then fly it. 

She quickly found a curriculum that would help give the idea wings. It is called Tango Flight. And it is an aviation-focused curriculum that exposes students to the disciplines of aerospace, electrical, mechanical, manufacturing and design engineering. And while getting that exposure, it provides students with the tools and mentors to build a two-seat airplane.

Mentors are a huge piece of the puzzle, and when we visited the Aviation Lab, there were three joining class that day. Here is Admiral Tynch again. 

Admiral Joey Tynch: I have right now five local mentors from the community who help, and they’re just tremendous. I have two gentlemen who are in the remote control flyers club here on the Outer Banks. One’s a retired contractor, the other one’s a PhD engineer. I have a descendant of the family who met the Wright Brothers when they arrived on the Outer Banks. I have another retired Navy pilot like myself, and we just got a new mentor in, who’s built three kitplanes in his past, and he’s just bringing a tremendous kind of technique on the construction techniques. 

Caroline Parker: Inside the Aviation Lab, we meet one of those mentors, Jim Davis. He was a residential building contractor who had his own business and built for 45 years on the Outer Banks.

Jim Davis: I’m a mentor and just an aviation enthusiast. And I fly radio control airplanes. And love aviation all the way around. And I recently retired and I got a call from school asking me if I wanted to be a mentor. So perfect after retirement, I said yes. And here I am.

So it’s a nice change from building houses to building airplanes. I love it.

Caroline Parker: The Aviation Lab, which sits on the Wright Brothers National Memorial campus, is noisy with work and tools.

The school district reached out to partner with the Park Service once they found Tango Flight’s curriculum, and it’s been a solid collaboration from the beginning.

Here is Admiral Tynch again, speaking to the partnership with the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Admiral Joey Tynch: National Park Service, who’s just a tremendous partner to work with. They built themselves this lab that we’re working in, and provide us these spaces. And the good grace, for me bringing 22 teenagers over here every other day to work, they are tremendous partners with what they’ve done.

It’s so perfect, it’s so hand in glove that we’re building this airplane, what we consider the first airplane built in Kitty Hawk since the Wright brothers here on the site.

Caroline Parker: From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like this aviation program got off the ground because of these strong and plentiful partnerships. There is the collaboration between the school district, Tango Flight, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. And within the Aviation Lab, along with constructing an airplane, relationships are building between an Admiral turned instructor, local mentors, and twenty two students. 

We hope this class continues to soar, and look forward to returning for take off. 

This was a production of EducationNC. Our organization was established to be an independent source of news – providing data, and analysis about education for the people of North Carolina. In short, we tell the stories happening in our state’s classrooms and involving our state’s students. You can find all of our coverage at

“Hey, have you ever heard of a program where kids in high school build an airplane and then they get to fly up in it?”

This is the question Assistant Superintendent Steve Blackstock poised to leadership at Dare County Schools in the summer of 2023. Dr. Shannon Castillo is the director of career and technical education and administrative services, and she remembers the conversation vividly.

“After we all picked up our jaws (off the floor) and laughed, that next morning, I did some research and stumbled upon Tango Flight. And at the time, there were no programs in North Carolina. In fact, I think the closest program was up in northern Virginia,” she said.

Tango Flight is an aviation-focused curriculum that provides students with the tools to build and fly a two-seat airplane, exposing them to the disciplines of aerospace, electrical, mechanical, manufacturing, and design engineering.

Castillo sent an email to inquire about the program, and made sure to mention the proximity of her district to the Wright Brothers National Memorial (WBNM).

Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, NC. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

First Flight High School is in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and across the street from the birth place of aviation.

Within a few hours, Tango Flight had contacted Castillo.

“Once we talked to them, and found out the whole ins and outs of what Tango Fight is, and the curriculum and the hands on building of a Vans RV-12, and what they believe as far as with the power of the mentors, and the local volunteers that have the aviation background to bring to the students, it was a win-win.”

Dr. Shannon Castillo, director of career and technical education and administrative services at Dare County Schools

After securing the curriculum, the school needed not only a location to hold class, but a place to build an airplane. Castillo searched up and down the beach, but she knew it only made sense that it happen somewhere in the vicinity of where the Wright Brothers first took off.

Dare County Schools reached out to their neighbor, the National Park Service (NPS), who quickly agreed to partner with the program. The NPS converted a two walled shed on the WBNM property into an Aviation Lab for the First Flight students.

The Aviation Lab on the Wright Brothers National Memorial campus. Caroline Parker/EducationNC.

The collaboration with WBNM continues as park rangers share the history of the Wright Brothers with students. “It’s important for our students to know the history and how they’re remaking history,” Castillo said.

She continues by saying, “They are building a modern plane, but the science behind flight is the same.”

Students and mentor Jim Davis working on the plane’s vertical stabilizer. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Other key factors in the success of this program are its teacher and the mentors that come to every class. Aviation Instructor Joey Tynch is a retired Rear Admiral who served in the United States Navy for 33 years, and his enthusiasm for the class and students is infectious.

“I want these students to go after their dreams really, and that’s what we talk about, literally every day.”

Joey Tynch, First Flight High School’s aviation instructor
First Flight High School’s first aviation class, with instructor Retired Admiral Joey Tynch. Caroline Parker/EducationNC.

Currently the aviation class has five rotating mentors that include aviation enthusiasts, retired general contractors, and engineers, who are invaluable hands-on help. Each mentor works with a group, helping advise with directions, answer questions, or be another pair of eyes during the build.

The First Flight students will be constructing the airplane over two years, and at the end of class, FAA certification pending, the plane will take to the same skies as the Wright Brothers, students in tow.

Behind the Story

Thanks to the Wright Brothers National Memorial and park ranger David True.

Caroline Parker reported, produced, and narrated this audio story. The cover artwork for the audio story was created by Lanie Sorrow.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.