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As a girl growing up in South Ozone Park, Estrella Ham remembers, she would stand in her backyard and watch the bellies of planes landing at nearby JFK airport as they flew over. "I'd try to see if I could guess what model and what airline they were," she says.
When she first heard about Aviation High School, an 83-year-old school housed in an L-shaped beige-and-green Art Deco building in Long Island City, Ham was drawn to it. "I wanted to come because I thought flying would be a good career," she says.
Each year the school's name seduces many New York City eighth graders who come upon it, printed in bold, in the Directory of New York City Public HighSchools, and dream of a life of flight. Some don't bother with the fine print that describes Aviation's curriculum, a rigorous, FAA-sponsored program that prepares students to become licensed airplane mechanics, not pilots. Yet in the end, many of these students—Ham included—end up embracing the aviation industry's oily underside.
The Aviation school day, though earthbound, is novel. First-year students spend their afternoons in the school's academic wing, where they sit in chair desks in classrooms decorated with educational posters and flags, studying traditional subjects: history, math, English, and chemistry. But they begin the day in the shop wing, which is filled with the sounds of drilling, riveting, welding, shaving, sawing, and—loudest and most pervasive of all—banging on metal.
Ham traded the uniform she'd worn at Our Lady of Grace, the parochial school where she'd attended middle school, for a pair of white coveralls stamped on the back with Aviation's green-wings logo, along with safety goggles and orange noise-protecting headphones. For her first project, building a small model airplane from scratch out of sheet metal, she stood at high worktables in her freshman shop; Aviation's shop teachers, most of them either current or former airline mechanics, enforce a no-sitting rule for students.
"If you're sitting down, it means you're not working," says one current Aviation senior. "They treat you like you're working for them and they teach you the hard realities of life really fast."
Very few women work as aviation mechanics—far fewer proportionately than students at Aviation, where girls account for 14 percent of the student body. When Ham entered Aviation in 2003, girls accounted for only 7 percent of Aviation's student body. The increase bodes well for a corresponding change in the industry—12 percent of all airplane mechanics in the United States are Aviation alums.
One of these is Evita Rodriguez, who graduated from Aviation in 1998. At age 27, Rodriguez holds one of the most powerful aviation mechanical positions in New York: station manager for the 166 American Airlines mechanics at LaGuardia. But just one of her staffers is a woman. Women account for only two of the 350 American Airlines mechanics at JFK. Other airlines have similar numbers.
Rodriguez, who says she arrived at Aviation as a "prissy girl" with no taste for, say, dismantling broken coffee makers, now has to fight the urge to crawl under planes with her mechanics. (In her current job, she has to wear suits.) But she readily acknowledges the drawbacks of the field—for men and women both. Because most work on airplanes is done in the off hours, even mechanics who've worked for the same airline for 20 years may have to work nights. "You're outside in the cold when everyone is sleeping. When you're 21 or 22, all you want to do is go clubbing, and I was out there changing an engine in the rain." She encouraged her younger sister, who also graduated from Aviation, to enroll in nursing school; her sister took that advice.
One reason aviation mechanics is a suitable focus for a large public school—and a reasonable course of study for teenagers who aren't sure they want to become mechanics—is that the skills required to fix an airplane are highly transferable. Aviation mechanics believe that someone who can master the complex systems of an airplane can fix anything. Students at Aviation also know that there are aviation doctors and aviation lawyers—in the words of a current senior, "There's a whole aviation world." Shop instructors are fond of listing the career tracks of Aviation graduates they know—dental hygienists, physical therapists, electricians who work for Con Edison or the MTA. One shop instructor has friends who worked as amusement-park technicians at Disney World. Everyone seems to have heard about Aviation graduates who work as pastry chefs.
Ham knew that many Aviation graduates become pilots, too. "If you're going to be flying, you should know what you're flying in and how to fix it if it breaks," she says. She threw herself into the school's shop curriculum as though it were an extended ground school.
In her sophomore year, she learned how to cut, shave, and bend a more rigid grade of sheet metal into a coffee-table-sized model of an aileron, or wing flap. Junior year, she rose at 5 a.m. to make it to school by 7, learning how to weld jet engines and studying airplane electronics. (For Aviation juniors, the school day begins at 7:15 a.m. and ends at 4:15 p.m., a schedule that's necessary for accommodating both an increased load of shop classes that year and standard academic classes. An Aviation junior's school day is the longest in the New York City system.) After school, Ham went to track practice or reported for duty at Aviation's ROTC wing.
This year, after graduating as salutatorian of her class, Ham is a "super senior" at Aviation's small annex campus at JFK airport, where she is forewoman of her shop class. Each year, 25 Aviation graduates are invited to participate in a fifth-year program at JFK that's dedicated to preparing them for an FAA licensing exam for certification to work on airplane engines.
It's a shift that also puts Ham in the same building as her father every school day. An immigrant from Taiwan, Huan Ham worked his way up to manager of three McDonald's stores in Manhattan, and in 1988 he bought the house where he and his family live in South Ozone Park. The Hams' backyard is in the flight path of JFK's runway 13-L—the runway that served the Concorde for many years. (Its arrival each day signaled 5 p.m.)
When Huan Ham lost his job at McDonald's in 1992, he bought a 200-acre coffee plantation in Honduras—Estrella's mother's native country—and began importing coffee and selling it in a small shop at JFK. He named the business Star Mountain Coffee, after the English translation of his older daughter's name.
Estrella Ham grew up in the male-dominated milieu of the airport—freight forwarders, air-freight brokers, cops, and truckers made up the majority of customers at the family store—but it still didn't prepare her for Aviation High School. Ham speaks carefully about her adjustment her first year, when she was one of just two girls in her first shop class, acknowledging it was difficult. "I wasn't used to guys calling girls out," she says.
Everyone at Aviation has noticed that a disproportionate number of girls at the school have leadership positions. This year, all the officers of Pegasus, an honors society for shop classes, are girls. Last year, Ham was third in a line of female wing commanders of ROTC, which is the largest and most respected extracurricular activity at the school. The first-term wing commander this school year, Ana Sanchez, says of girls at Aviation, "We deal with something the boys don't deal with. We have to prove ourselves. It's not going to be just as easy for me to pick up a tire as it is for a boy who weighs more than I do and is taller than me and is stronger than me, but I'm going to have to get the job done eventually."
It's possible that the girls' disproportionate leadership in extracurricular activities has come about because high-achieving girls, perhaps even more than high-achieving boys, feel compelled to prove themselves in as many ways as possible. Shop classes are one equalizer—a few girls I spoke with described their satisfaction when their projects are consistently more stable or more precisely hewn than their classmates'.
Aviation's ROTC is another. "We teach the cadets that it doesn't matter if it's a young lady or a young man leading the unit," said Sergeant Nephtali Robles, who co-coordinated Aviation's ROTC chapter during the period Ham served as wing commander. "They can look and see their ribbons. Cadets have to earn those ribbons."
Ham earned the honor of wearing the red cord that marks the position of wing commander by participating in virtually every activity connected with ROTC, including serving in the color guard at the opening ceremony of a Mets game and participating in a drill-team routine in which several cadets circled around a boy and threw rifles over him as he lay on his back, spinning his own rifle. "She was really proficient with a rifle," says Sergeant Robles.
"I started to feel more comfortable at the school," Ham says, "as I got more involved in ROTC."
At the annex, students wear sky blue work shirts sewn with two rectangular navy blue breast patches—one that reads "JFK Annex," the other embroidered with the student's last name and first initial—and a small American flag patch over the left shoulder. Pat Duignan, who is so fresh from his job as an electrical specialist at United Airlines that he still wears a United jacket marked with his last name, teaches a daily morning class in engine maintenance. Students do their shop work in a gymnasium-sized space that's framed by two rows of exposed jet engines, including one with a shell coated with Federal Express's signature purple.
Ham's crew, number six, includes Carla Rodriguez, who next year will begin college at SUNY Stony Brook, where she plans to study environmental science. "I don't want to sit down in an office in my job. I want to be outside and doing things," she says.
Around 1 p.m., annex students disperse to their internships across the airport. (Sixteen of the 24 go to Delta, which runs a special program for them.) Ham's internship is in the air traffic control tower, where she monitors the system that provides weather updates for pilots and, with the alacrity and speed of a Vegas card dealer, sorts light green strips displaying coded flight information for recently arrived or departed planes into two piles, one for large aircraft, the other for small ones.
She took the internship with the idea that understanding how the tower communicates with pilots would also ultimately help strengthen her piloting skills, but an ancillary benefit is the view—of takeoffs, landings, and the Manhattan skyline. "You can see everything up there," she said. The tower even provides an aerial view of runway 13-L.
Since students at the annex cannot participate in extracurricular activities on the main Aviation campus, Ham has had to give up ROTC. With the added free time, she's decided to pursue a pilot's license. Last month, she completed a solo flight from Republic Airport on Long Island to Groton Airport in Connecticut with a stop in Poughkeepsie along the way.
On St. Patrick's Day, the air traffic controllers celebrated with the girl they call "Star" after her father called to tell her she'd received a thick envelope from the Air Force Academy. When Huan Ham tells people the news, he speaks with awe about the dollar value of the scholarship—$387,000. "More than a Hummer!" he says.
"She made it," he says. "That little thing did it."