National AEO School: 20 Years of Learning, Networking
Walking where astronauts have walked was one of the highlights for 75 Civil Air Patrol members from all eight regions and 28 wings when they gathered on the Florida Space Coast for the 2023 Civil Air Patrol National Aerospace Education Officers School.
The school, marking its 20th year, gives aerospace education officers, or AEOs, the chance to learn about their position’s duties and responsibilities. This year, as in many years, aerospace education members joined the AEOs for hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities and field trips to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center.
The CAP members were treated to behind-the-scenes tours, guided by Lt. Col. Gary Dahlke, rocketry expert and Florida Wing assistant director of aerospace education.
“Standing on Launch Pad 39B and touring the Vehicle Assembly Building were some of my favorite experiences at the National AEO School,” said Lt. Col. Michael Castania, New Jersey Wing director of aerospace education, one of the school’s presenters.
The week of learning began with the opportunity to view an early morning Cape Canaveral SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, which could be seen from the hotel property. Classes began later that same morning at Patrick Space Force Base.
Cocoa Beach was also the site of the first CAP National AEO School in 2002, said Jeff Montgomery, CAP’s director of aerospace education, who began the school with the assistance of many volunteers, including Lt. Col. Dave Garner, Tennessee Wing director of aerospace education, and Lt. Col. Mike McArdle of the Wisconsin Wing, national aerospace education officer.
“Since the beginning of the school 20 years ago, the attendees have increased their knowledge of the duties of an AEO, the requirements necessary to be successful, as well as learning more about the many programs and resources available to them to help accomplish the AE mission at their squadron, group, wing, or region,” Montgomery said.
“Also, I’m sure the attendees found the networking, field trips, and hands-on activities to be educational and fun additions to the overall annual agendas.”
The school moved to Pensacola in 2004, where it remained through 2019. After a one-year break during the COVID-19 pandemic and a year with an online National AEO School, the event was held in-person again in 2022, when it returned to Cocoa Beach.
Twenty years of successful schools is the result of many volunteers in addition to Garner and McArdle, Montgomery said, citing “many, many terrific contributions throughout the years” by Col. Nick Ham, Oregon Wing commander, and Lt. Cols. Randy Carlson of the Colorado Wing, Dahlke of the Florida Wing, Frank Roldan of the Michigan Wing, E.J. Smith of the Nevada Wing, and Sherwood Williams of the Wisconsin Wing.
Montgomery also praised CAP’s national aerospace education staff “for their dedicated efforts and hard work over these many years of providing top-notch, wonderful education, and training for the AEOs and AEMs.”
One of the participants who has found the training helpful 2nd Lt. Beth Crane, AEO for the Florida Wing’s Homestead Air Reserve Base Cadet Squadron . Crane wanted not only to better understand her role as an AEO but also “to become inspired about the possibilities for enhancing my effectiveness within my squadron and community,” she said.
“I have loved the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other experienced AEOs as well as brainstorm with those new AEOs who are eager to inspire their home squadrons,” Crane said.
Ham, the Oregon Wing commander, delivered a presentation at this year’s school. He has attended at least seven previous schools and recommends the school to AEOs and educator members.
“The course work is great, and you build relationships with other AE members – taking pieces of everyone’s AE programs,” he said.
Before becoming wing commander in August 2020, Ham served as AEO for the Oregon Wing's Salem Composite Squadron, director of aerospace education for the wing, and deputy chief of staff for aerospace education for the Pacific Region.
Montgomery is grateful for everyone who “over the years … took time out of their busy lives to attend the schools in hopes of increasing their knowledge and expertise,” adding that “I trust that all of you found the National AEO School to be a worthwhile endeavor.”
Dahlke, who has attended and given presentations at more than a dozen National AEO Schools, “highly recommends” it.
And as a tour guide for the site visits, he enjoys sharing his personal experiences from the numerous jobs he has held in space exploration.
“My reward is seeing AEOs and (educator members) coming away with a better understanding of aerospace and then gaining the tools to share that information with their cadets and students,” Dahlke said.
Ham found selecting his favorite experience at the 20th National AEO School difficult. “It’s hard to choose,” he said, “between working with the national staff, seeing the Falcon 9 launch or touring the Vehicle Assembly Building, and, of course, walking the same ground as astronauts.”