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Ellsworth Middle School fifth graders get sky-high math lesson from pilot who's former graduate

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ELLSWORTH -- If the fifth graders in Mrs. Sallander's class at Ellsworth Middle School think they may never need some of the math skills they're being taught, Ryan Streifel is out to prove otherwise.

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Streifel, a pilot for Southwest Airlines, has shown the students in that class and others in Mr. Owen's, Mrs. Mory's and Mr. Weghorn's classes at EMS how he uses math, as well as geography and science, to do his job. As a volunteer for the airlines' Adopt-a-Pilot program, he performed some of his typical cockpit calculations in front of a young audience Wednesday, accompanied by a computer, projector and screen.

"Which is more efficient at moving passengers, a car or a 737?" he asked in the morning class, proceeding to confirm through math it's the latter, at least whenever any significant distance is involved.

The 1995 local high school graduate was in his fourth week of a return to the district to present the program. He reminded the youngsters what he'd taught them in a previous session about the weight of a gallon of fuel in pounds (6.7) before figuring for an imaginary trip in a "Shamu" from Orlando to Denver. The effort involved taking the plane's empty weight (85,362 pounds), then adding in the amount of fuel on board (31,000 pounds), the weight of its 128 passengers (at an average of 195 pounds each for 24,960) and the weight of cargo in fore and aft compartments (2,307 and 2,095 pounds, respectively) to determine whether the flight could be made safely.

Collectively, the class came up with a total of 145,724 pounds and, because 154,000 pounds is the maximum for the craft, their response was a resounding "yes!"

Streifel followed similar mathematical processes to demonstrate how the plane could land at Denver without jeopardizing the landing gear's 128,000-pound capacity (the key was burning off around 20,000 pounds of fuel during the flight) and when the descent would have to begin to be on target for the runway (103.5 miles out). Along the way, he taught that a plane burns less fuel and is more efficient the higher its altitude (ideal cruising altitude is 40,000 feet) and descent occurs at a rate of 1,000 feet for every three miles flown forward.

"Air traffic controllers radio us and give us the okay," he agreed with Sallander about assistance to pilots.

She quizzed her class on topics like ascent being the opposite of descent and accepted a sample of multiplying fractions from their guest in the spirit of preview--that particular math operation isn't in her lesson plan until later this school year, she explained.

Read more in the print version of the Pierce County Herald Feb. 27.

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