THERE WASN’T A CLOUD in the sky above the Camden church steeple, nothing but the vapor trails of commercial airplanes fading back into the blue.
Under the roof of St. Anthony’s of Padua on River Road, down past the church pews and the basement’s drop ceiling, a Cherry Hill businessman stood in the darkened, makeshift cafeteria, holding a microphone and asking about 50 students whether they ever dreamed of being up there in the sky.
Ira Weissman wants kids to fly.
“Who’s been in an airplane before?” Weissman, dressed in a shirt and tie, asked the St. Anthony’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
Weisssman’s pitch for joining the Catholic Partnership Schools’ Aviation Adventures Club was a persuasive one, particularly for the boys. He showed videos of airplane acrobatics, the corkscrews and loops that wow crowds at air shows along with videos of minorities who made a name for themselves, found fame up the air, like the Tuskegee Airmen.
“How many of you want to do that?” he asked.
Nearly all the kids, even a teacher or two, shot their hands up.
Weissman’s been flying now for about four decades, turning a love of model airplanes as a boy into a passion for recreational flying. He works as a business consultant but spends his spare time flying light aircraft, mostly Cessnas and occasionally gliders.
“It’s opened up some doors and allowed me to meet people I’ve never expected to meet. It’s something I care about and something I have a passion for,” Weissman said. “I also have a passion for helping the kids too.”
The inspiration, Weissman said, came when he listened to a guest speaker, a young pilot named Jessica Cox, at a convention for aviation enthusiasts in Wisconsin. Cox has no arms and uses her legs and feet to pilot airplanes.
Cox’s story was one of the videos Weissman showed the St. Anthony’s students.
“Having been in Camden quite a bit, I noticed there were a real lack of role models,” he said. “Too often, it’s the sports stars or the rock stars or actors or actresses.”
The program has been offered to students of schools in Camden and surrounding areas for about five years now. It runs from February until about May and includes field trips, instruction and guest visits by pilots and others who make a living in the aviation field.
Aviation, Weissman reminds the students, is not just about being a pilot. There’s an endless array of associated jobs, everything from mechanic to air traffic controller, along with the engineers who build the planes.
There are approximately 43,000 jobs at Philadelphia International Airport, he told the students in Camden, and both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have major facilities in the area.
“You want to talk about science fiction and the future. It’s right here in our backyard,” he said.
No student has soared higher than Randy Nunez in the Camden Aviation Adventures Club. Nunez, 13, is in eighth grade at St. Joseph Pro Cathedral School in the city.
“I just like to be in the air,” Nunez, a Deptford, Gloucester County resident said. “It’s really a wonderful thing.”
Nunez took his first flight in a small aircraft in May, a Cessna 172. It wasn’t his first time in an airplane, but it was definitely his first time in the cockpit, in charge.
“They let me take control for about an hour,” he said. “It was pretty awesome.”
The thrill of being thousands of feet up above the earth aside, Nunez said he’s also interested in the nuts and bolts of airplanes and it’s getting harder for him to imagine a future without aviation.
“I think I would like to be part of the manufacturing end of it,” he said.
Weissman’s been impressed with Nunez’s drive, how the kid’s made goals for himself, reached them and then set the bar higher. Last summer, for example, Nunez took it upon himself to apply for an all-expense paid spot at the Tuskegee Airmen Youth Aviation Camp at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.
“We’re trying to get these young people to dream and give them something to aspire to,” Weissman said. “He was one of only 30 youngsters and he got accepted and went. The fact that he even applied was great.”
Nunez’s mother, Luz Caraballo, said her son’s acceptance to the camp was a joyous occasion in the household.
“Oh yes, the family was very, very proud,” Caraballo said. “He was the only high school student accepted into the program. That was a big deal.”
Nunez is about to start another season in the Camden aviation program and afterward, he has a whole host of South Jersey Catholic high schools to pick from. Once he picks one, Nunez said he’s going to get an aviation program started there.
“Aviation just grew as a passion for me. I see it being a big part of my future,” Nunez said.
Nunez has widened his circles and stepped into a different community through aviation, and that’s one of the values of the club, said Weissman
“One of the reasons why young people are so attracted to the gang life is because it gives them a feeling of community. The aviation community is a real community, though,” Weissman said. “You don’t get to be a part of it unless you really want to be there.”
This sense of community was stressed in the basement of St. Anthony’s church, and also how serious it can get up in the sky. It’s that commitment to being serious, of leaving immaturity on the ground that makes some students cut out for the program, Weissman said.
“It requires work. It requires dedication,” he said. “It requires good grades and it requires, most importantly, good behavior.”
When Weissman’s presentation was over, he handed out applications and aviation maps, asking the students to break out in groups and try to find Camden on the map.
“We have to find the bridges,” a male student said, his finger tracing up and down the Delaware River.
The kids seemed interested in the small task and some at least seemed taken in by the larger possibilities presented by the program if they catch the aviation bug.
Above the short ceiling and above the church pews and steeple, there was a limitless sky with nothing but airplanes in it and Weissman said they could all get there.
“I can’t promise you, but I’ll do my darndest to get you a flight in a small aircraft when this program’s over,” he said. “We get paid back when we see the smiles on your face when we land.”