Kaeston McNeill

Kaeston McNeill, 9, of Poncha Springs stands beside a Kaman Seasprite helicopter at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. Kaeston is wearing the “Right Stuff” award he received for his accomplishments during the program.

Kaeston McNeill likes to go fast.

The Poncha Springs 9-year-old races half-midget race cars and recently returned from Aviation Challenge Mach I, a Space Camp program, in Huntsville, Alabama.

His ambition is to be a Naval aviator when he grows up.

Kaeston said his interest in flying and Space Camp was piqued when his family visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida when he was 5 or 6 years old. Since then the family has visited other NASA sites, and Kaeston has visited several of the space shuttles on display in different parts of the country.

Last year, Kaeston went to a Space Camp day program in Colorado Springs. This year, as a 9-year-old, he was eligible to go to the full camp in Huntsville.

He earned the money to go to the camps by selling light-up rings at a concert in Grand Junction, where his mother had a table set up to sell her items.

At a dollar per ring, he was able to raise the money needed.

Aviation Challenge Mach I is an aviation-based program that uses fighter pilot training techniques to engage trainees in real-world applications of STEM (science, technology engineering and math) subjects. Students sleep in quarters designed to resemble military bays.

The program is specifically designed for students who have an interest in military aviation and the mechanics of flight.

Students learn principles of aviation and put their knowledge to the test in a variety of flight simulators.

Taking the role of fighter pilots, Kaeston and team ran control systems and scenario-based missions as well as trained in water and land survival, a press release stated.

Kaeston said he especially liked flying the simulators and playing a combat game on them similar to capture the flag.

The most challenging part of the week was the water survival portion.

At the end of the week Kaeston received the “Right Stuff” award, named after the Tom Wolfe novel about the early space explorers and test pilots.

He said he was surprised when he received the award, which is given for “perseverance and drive in leading fellow trainees to accomplish their goals and complete their mission.”

Even though he said he missed his parents and brother during the week away from home, Kaeston said he wants to go back to the camp next year and every year until he’s 18, which is as far as the Aviation Challenge Mach program goes.

He already has his eyes on the sky, having taken a flight with Zech Papp, manager of Salida Airport at Harriet Alexander Field.

He said he wants to start flying lessons when he is 12 and hopes to have a pilot’s license when he is 15.

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