A group of middle school students chattered excitedly as Christopher Patrick led them up a dim, narrow stairway to the top of the control tower at the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport Saturday morning.
They followed Patrick, an air traffic controller, until reaching a room where huge windows offered a panoramic view of the city and the runways below. One of Patrick's colleagues was talking with a pilot over the radio — and soon, a small plane launched into the air, eliciting quiet "oohs" of admiration from the young visitors.
The middle schoolers were among about 80 children and teenagers who visited the airport Saturday during an event meant to introduce them to careers in aviation. They took turns touring the tower and hearing from pilots, Federal Aviation Administration employees, airport administrators, security personnel and others about how they help get planes off the ground and passengers safely to their destinations.
The attendees ranged between 5 and 18 years old, and many of them were African American — an audience that organizer Joyce Burges especially wanted to reach.
Burges, a member of the Baker School Board, got the idea for the event on a recent flight to Portland.
"The pilot was this African American woman," Burges said. "I was so excited — I had never met someone black who was a pilot."
The two struck up a conversation, and the pilot agreed to put Burges in touch with some of her colleagues from around the country who would be willing to come to Baton Rouge and speak to young people about their jobs.
Though many science- and technology-based careers are heavily promoted to middle and high schoolers these days, aviation — despite its reliance on lots of high-tech equipment — doesn't get the attention it should, Burges said.
"We want to make them aware that there's ... hundreds of jobs in aviation that they can get engaged in," said Floyd Miles Jr., national president of the Black Pilots of America and squadron commander of the Civil Air Patrol at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. "Anything from being a pilot all the way through aircraft maintenance, dispatch, administration, airport operations, airport design and management."
People interested in aviation careers are in demand, said Mike Edwards, administrator of the Baton Rouge airport.
"Across the whole industry, we're seeing a shortage of that up-and-coming talent pool to fill the positions with all the baby boomers retiring, especially with pilots," Edwards said.
Training to be a pilot can be pricey, costing as much as $150,000, he said. But the upside is that "you're going to be highly desirable in terms of employment" because of the pilot shortage.
Angel Black, an air traffic controller based at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., talked about her job, which has taken her around the U.S. She got her start in the U.S. Navy and later moved to the FAA, at one point working as a controller for Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
"A lot of people don't necessarily think of air traffic control — what's behind the scenes. I feel like it's a hidden industry, but it's important," she said. Without controllers, planes can't take off or land.
In the control tower, Patrick explained how controllers like himself communicate with pilots before leading the group of middle school students, who attend Impact Charter School in Baker, downstairs to a dark room known as the "dungeon." The only light there comes from screens displaying various maps that are monitored by controllers.
Patrick told the students that controllers can't afford to get distracted. If someone was to look away for just a few seconds to check their cellphone, for example, there could be dire consequences, like a crash.
"This kind of job, it's 100% dedication," he said. "It's a very serious job."
Sixth grader Ta'Mori Daniels was intrigued.
"It was very cool to see all the planes and how they control them in the air," she said. "It was really fun to get an inside look to see how it all happens."
Karsten Brown, a Catholic High School senior who is working to get his private pilot's license and is preparing the enter the U.S. Air Force Academy, helped younger children at the event build planes using disposable plates. He was eager to share his love for flying with others.
"It gives you a different perspective of the world," he said. "When you see everything from up in the air, it really changes the way you look at things. It's a very humbling experience."