By Leann Jorgenson of Alexandria
Aviation seems an impossible dream for many, but there is a place in Alexandria where those dreams can become possible thanks to the passion of Paul Clark.
At the entrance of the Chandler Field Airport in Alexandria, there is a nondescript building right by the entrance with a small sign that says, “On Wings Like Eagles.” Inside is the Wings of Eagle Aviation Learning Center, a non-profit organization that is funded completely through private donations.
I have been back to On Wings Like Eagles several times and I find young people with enthusiasm and engagement on learning flight dynamics, building models, problem solving and trying out airplanes in a wind tunnel that looks a lot like a fan with chairs around it. The pride and energy of the people is contagious.
My most memorable visit was the first time I went with my grandson. As my grandson and I first entered I was focused on the two-seat construction in front of a flight simulator and the paper airplane resting on the table in front of two computers. My grandson’s eyes were drawn upward as he was taken with the fighter pilot helmet resting on a ledge above the workspace. Both of us had lots of questions. This place is a workshop of wonders ranging from a simple paper airplane to a complicated computer design table.
The Learning Center is the work of Paul, who recently moved to Alexandria. Paul had a vision for what could be possible for encouraging young people to become interested in aviation. I have stopped by the Learning Center several times and each time I was amazed at a new item added or idea being developed. He has offered several aviation dynamics, Young Eagles and exploring aviation courses. He said he was thinking of including some courses for adults, too.
I asked Paul how he decide to start the Learning Center? And if he had a firm idea of what he wanted or if the workshop emerged as each stage was completed?
“I wouldn’t use the term ‘start’ to describe the beginnings of On Wings Like Eagles. It was more like I was ‘led’ to it through a lifetime of seemingly disconnected experiences,” said Paul. “In the Christian faith, we believe that God, our Creator, orchestrates the events of our lives to guide us in the direction we were meant to follow. Also, that the lessons we learn along the way prepare us for the next steps in our journey. And that is certainly the case with the Learning Center. I would have to share my entire life story with you to gain the same perspective on just how perfectly woven that fabric of many colors is. Suffice it to say that the concept of On Wings Like Eagles is not my own creation.”
The evolution of On Wings Like Eagles started years ago in California.
“Some years ago, I joined EAA chapter 526 in Auburn, Calif., and started a project to design and build my own experimental aircraft. My involvement with that organization exposed me to everything that would eventually follow. There were many personal hardships along the way, including the loss of my first wife to breast cancer, which tempered the journey and prepared me for what was to come.”
Aviation has always been a way of life for Paul.
“Aviation has literally been in my blood since the time I was born,” he said. “My father was a decorated Air Force combat pilot whose career spanned the Cold War era from the Korean War right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He flew fighters, reconnaissance planes and tanker aircraft. He finished his career as the lead tanker pilot that kept the fabled SR71 spy plane fueled for super secret missions all over the globe.”
Paul said he essentially grew up in the Air Force.
“My father would frequently bring us along when he was conducting flight simulator training and I could fly the Air Force’s training simulators before I could even drive a car,” he said. “My father was my primary inspiration and my greatest supporter. He passed away a few years ago and it is his combat helmet and air medals that you see on display in the Learning Center.”
Paul’s first plane ride came in a high winged GA (General Aviation) aircraft when he was four years old. He was sitting on his father’s lap.
“While growing up, my younger brother and I spent nearly all our free time building and flying balsa wood and plastic model aircraft and watching every minute of every space flight and every aviation TV show we could find,” he said. “We built model rockets as well and even built a full scale, working, spacecraft instrument panel simulator from surplus components taken from an Atlas ICBM training facility that was being dismantled.”
He was destined for a career in aviation... but it wasn’t meant to be.
“In high school, I had planned on attending the Air Force Academy with hopes of eventually getting into NASA,” he said. “That is, right up until my eyesight failed me at the end of my sophomore year. Nearsightedness would keep me from pursuing an aviation career.”
Paul went a different direction.
“When God closes one door, he always opens another. It was at this same time that I discovered I was especially gifted in the science of Electrical and Computer Engineering,” he said. “So I made a career of it, in the Silicon Valley, doing advanced research and product development for companies such as Hewlett Packard (HP), Honeywell and a dozen others. And there were many other startup ventures along the way, too, some successful, some not so. I could write a book about all of the places I have been, the people I have worked with and the projects I’ve participated in during my career. One of the brilliant scientists I worked with at HP Labs used a phrase that always stuck with me. ‘The only way you can successfully predict the future is to create it.’”
It would be many years before Paul had the opportunity to get back to his childhood dreams of an aviation career.
“Marriage, my engineering career and parenthood all demanded every available moment of my time. However, I became motivated after a couple of my college classmates were accepted into the Space Shuttle program as payload specialists. I had the qualifications to apply to the Astronaut Training Program plus the backing of one of the directors at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who was familiar with my robotics research work at UC Davis. But I soon discovered that the divorce rate for astronaut candidates was in excess of 70 percent and I made the decision not to risk my family’s welfare on a childhood dream.”
Instead, Paul chose a path that kept him closer to home.
“I joined a local EAA chapter (526 in Auburn, Calif.) and began work on designing my own experimental aircraft,” he said. “At the same time, I started flight training for my PPL at a flight school in nearby Lincoln, Calif. Our EEA chapter was a very active one. Over 100 members were busy building some 30+ aircraft projects of all shapes and sizes. And the chapter was very active with Young Eagles (flying 400+ students a year) and especially active at KidVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc. Every summer, a group of 10-20 of us would travel to the grand airshow for a week and volunteer in the KidVenture pavilion to work with hundreds of young students exploring the science of aviation. Mind you, this crowd of EAA staff that I was mentoring me had extensive aerospace engineering backgrounds. For example, one individual was a retired Boeing engineer who designed the wings for the Airforce’s C141 cargo jet. He was also one of Boeing’s chief test pilots for the 747 jumbo jet. Another person was a retired NASA engineer who designed the rotor blades for the new Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. And there were others who were retired engineers and military test pilots from Edwards Air Force Base including Col. Bud Anderson, one of America’s leading WWII fighter aces.”
The group was also populated by many other WWII, Korea and Vietnam vets who saw combat during some of the darkest days of America’s history.
“It was an honor to be accepted as part of this group and, given my childhood background, I felt right at home with them,” he said.
But life was about to take another turn for Paul.
“The plans of men are no match for the plans of our great God,” he said. “No sooner did I entrench myself in these endeavors the Lord challenged me with the deaths of five of my closest family and friends over a short six-year time span. Most died from long bouts with cancer including my own wife (breast cancer). Each death was more devastating than the last. And each one caused me to halt my aviation activities to provide the care they needed. And after spending years caring for my wife during her first round of treatments and yet again during the reoccurrence of the cancer that would lead to her death, I developed cancer myself. Ironically, in her final months, our roles were totally reversed. She spent a few of the last months of her life caring for me and shortly afterwards, she died herself. So it was a difficult time. And I found myself broken, lost and unable to move forward.”
The turning point for Paul came the night of my wife’s first birthday after her passing.
“I had what I call my ‘Lieutenant Dan’ moment from the movie Forrest Gump. I found myself literally yelling at God the Creator that He had better explain what He was doing to my life or He was going to lose me forever. And in the silent moments that followed, I received the answer I needed to hear. It was simply that it was my wife’s time to go and God was using that to get my attention. And the message was simple. ‘I led you into the valley of the shadow of death, follow Me and I will show you the way out.’ I surrendered to that calling.”
These challenging and life-changing events, along with Paul’s marriage to his second wife, Eileen, that followed a couple years later, set him on a path that brought him to Alexandria.
“The pieces of the puzzle were now in place. All I had to do was put them together,” he said. “And that’s how the On Wings Like Eagles Aviation Learning Center was born.”
What are Paul’s hopes for On Wings Like Eagles.
“The Learning Center itself is somewhat modeled after the KidVenture experience at EAA headquarters in Oshkosh, Wisc., with some of my own changes that I adapted from other places. About once a quarter, I host a day camp for kids ages 8-17 here at the facility in KAXN (Chandler Field Airport) where students and parents can spend the day exploring aviation activities. For example, some of the projects are activities like building an aluminum wing rib or learning to Rivet or using a Computer Aided Design tool to create your own airplane design or building a small glider model. There is also an indoor flight range where students can pilot drones and R/C helicopters or flight test their model designs. I even have an R/C helium blimp you can fly around the lab. And there is of course, our flight simulator, just to name a few of the activities available. We also just added a 3D printer that I am now working to integrate into the program.”
Paul is constantly looking for ways to enhance the experience.
“I wanted to provide an environment where students would be constantly challenged each and every time they visited. Exploration is such an important ingredient in the learning process and I wanted to provide the students with plenty of options,” he said. “So I created a variety of exercises to choose from, each one from a different engineering discipline. The format is laid out as a collection of projects that take about 45 minutes each to complete. And the students can engage them in any order that they choose.
And from time to time, he will mix things up...
“We will occasionally simulate a real world work environment where students will tackle a complex engineering task by working together as a team,” he said. “For example, this past fall, a group of 12-14 year old students worked together to design their version of the next generation Space Plane for NASA. We built a full sized mockup of the 6 man crew cabin and modeled their design using the flight simulator programs XPlane and Airplane PDQ. Using the simulator, they each got to fly a simulated mission of the spacecraft as a Test Pilot. They came up with some very clever concepts during the design process. For example, they chose to use a new hybrid jet-rocket engine that is propelled by jet fuel and liquid nitrous oxide. That design proved capable of launching their delta winged space plane from a standing start on Runway 31 here at KAXN and reaching an altitude close to 120,000 ft before gliding back for a landing. That’s pretty amazing for a group of motivated middle school students on their first attempt.
“But what makes On Wings Like Eagles truly special is that I have been blessed with the funds to be able to offer this experience to students at no charge. And equally blessed with a wonderful group of local volunteers from EAA, the MN Civil Air Patrol and other civic-minded aviation enthusiasts who whole heartedly support the work I have been given to accomplish here.”
Paul’s hope is that the Learning Center will continue to grow in both the depth and the breadth of what it can offer students and adults.
“I will soon begin construction on that aircraft design I started some 20 years ago,” he said. “And I plan to offer that project as an opportunity for local EAA members to participate in the build process by holding ‘open door’ sessions once a week. I would also like to expand the day camp offerings to every other month and maybe hold one session that is a full week in length during late summer or early fall. There is also the possibility of someday holding after-school sessions a couple of times a week to focus on tutoring STEM fundamentals in a practical application setting. Only God knows where this is all leading, my task now is to simply follow His lead and to watch what happens next.”
Paul has been pleased about the location of On Wings of Eagles.
“Finding a proper building space for the Learning Center proved to be more of a challenge than I expected,” he said. “But Kreg Anderson, the Airport Manager at KAXN, was instrumental in helping me find the ideal solution. The facility we are located in now, near the FBO, is the perfect fit for our fledgling operation.”
Paul has offered four day camps so far with participants ranging in age from 8 to 17. Each camp session is different so returning students are exposed to new concepts.
“The first session focused on metal work and activities included fabricating components for wings out of aluminum sheet metal. The second session focused on flight simulation and pilot training. The group engineered the next generation Space Plane for NASA and constructed and flew test models of the design using the simulation tools available here in the third session. In the last session we taught the fundamental theories of flight to a group of largely middle schoolers and had them design and fly their own model airplanes,” said Paul.
The next scheduled session will be June 10 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Paul hasn’t determined what the activities will be at this point.
“We will just ‘wing it,’ he said. “Pun intended.”
Paul encouraged parents and students to stop by anytime they are at the Alexandria airport and say hello.
“Come in, check out the facility, and sign up for one of the upcoming sessions. I am here quite frequently but not necessarily at all hours every day. I’m retired now... ha!... so my life is full of many other activities besides just On Wings Like Eagles.”
Last summer, at the age of 64, Paul completed his private pilot training that he started more than 30 years ago.
“It’s been a long journey and I can say without a doubt that the good Lord was with me every step of the way,” he said. “As I said before, I do not know where this is all leading or how far it will go but I sure am enjoying the trip.”
On Wings of Eagles is located at Chandler Field, 2604 Aga Drive, in Alexandria.