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Local student graduates from Aviation Challenge
aviation pic
Turlock student Sophia Guerino (far left) and her Mach III Aviation Challenge classmates stand attentively at the programs graduation ceremony. - photo by Photo Contributed

While many high school students have been enjoying their vacation at the beach or hanging out with friends, Pitman High School junior Sophia Guerino decided to spend the summer chasing her dreams at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s Mach III Aviation Challenge.

Aviation Challenge opened in 1990 in Huntsville, Alabama, and uses fighter pilot training techniques to engage trainees in real-world applications of STEM subjects. Students sleep in barracks designed to resemble military bays.

An aspiring Navy Fighter Pilot, Guerino saw the five-night program as an opportunity to develop career skills for her future profession. The Mach III Aviation Challenge, which consists of trainees ages 15-18, uses simulated, realistic combat scenarios and hands-on activities to give participants an understanding of the basics of flight physiology and wilderness survival.

In one such exercise, Guerino and her fellow trainees slid down a 150-foot zip line to simulate a parachute water landing. Guerino also told of exercises that included constructing a makeshift shelter out of a parachute, building a fire that would burn for at least seven minutes and a SEAL Ops Mission that required Guerino and her teammates to trek through the forest to save an operative, all while avoiding capture by guards. The SEAL Ops Mission was Guerino’s favorite part of the program.

“Throughout the week, my team and I had a really hard time with teamwork, and most of the kids in our group didn’t get along,” said Guerino. “The SEAL Ops Mission really brought us together and we worked as a team to complete it.”

Guerino described how she and her team traversed through the forest of Huntsville, sometimes having to crawl their way through thorns and tall grass. Ultimately, Guerino and her team failed their mission, however, they didn’t walk away empty-handed.

“Even though we failed, we came out with a lot of new skills,” said Guerino. “It was a lot of fun.”

Along with exciting, hands-on activities, Guerino was also able to practice take-offs, landings and air-to-air training thanks to flight simulators. Trainees were also able to prove themselves as the best pilot in a head-to-head simulated fighter pilot scenario, known as the Top Gun competition.

“You go through a lot of fighter pilot stuff that’s more military-based,” said Guerino.

Participants in the Mach III Aviation Challenge were also able to earn one hour of college credit from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in the course Introduction to Aeronautics.

Along with the program’s other trainees, Guerino graduated from the Aviation Challenge program with honors. Guerino was able to save up money to attend the Aviation Challenge thanks to donations from her family and friends, as well as money saved from her job at local restaurant La Mo. This was her first year attending the challenge, and she hopes to return next year.

“Now I know a lot more about aviation and skills needed to survive,” said Guerino. “I learned a lot about teamwork and that’s the biggest skill I can take away. When it comes down to it, life is really about teamwork and you can’t go through it alone.”