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2023 National AEO School Celebrates 20 Years of Learning, Networking

July 17, 2023

Entire class of AEO School stands in front of the classroom building at Patrick Space Force Base

Story by Ginny Smith/Photos by Capt. Bob Roberts, Susan Mallett

Walking where astronauts have walked was one of the highlights for 75 Civil Air Patrol members from all eight regions and 28 wings, who gathered on the Florida Space Coast earlier this summer for the 2023 Civil Air Patrol National Aerospace Education Officers School. The school, which celebrated 20 years this year, gives Aerospace Education Officers (AEOs) the chance to learn about the duties and responsibilities of an AEO. This year, as in many years, Aerospace Education Members (AEMs) joined the AEOs for hands-on STEM activities and field trips to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. AEOs and AEMs were treated to behind-the-scenes tours, guided by rocketry expert and Florida Assistant Director of Aerospace Education Lt. Col. Gary Dahlke.

“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 (DAE), who attended the school and was one of its presenters.

The week of learning began with the opportunity to view a Cape Canaveral SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, which could be seen from the hotel property early on the morning of June 12. 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 CAP’s Director of Aerospace Education Dr. Jeff Montgomery, who began the school with the assistance of many volunteers, including Lt. Col. Dave Garner, Tennessee Wing DAE, and Lt. Col. Mike McArdle of Wisconsin Wing, National AEO.  “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 COVID and a year of virtual 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. “Thanks to Lt. Col. E J Smith (Nevada Wing), Lt. Col. Randy Carlson (Colorado Wing), Lt. Col. Gary Dahlke (Florida Wing), Lt. Col. Frank Roldan (Michigan Wing), Lt. Col. Sherwood Williams (Wisconsin Wing), and Col. Nick Ham (Oregon Wing), for all of their many, many terrific contributions throughout the years,” he said. “Also, thanks to the entire NHQ CAP/AE 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 those who has found the training helpful is 2nd Lt/ Beth Crane, AEO for Homestead Air Reserve Base Cadet Squadron in Florida, who attended the school to better understand her role as AEO.  “I also wanted 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. “I'm better prepared for our squadron's upcoming Subordinate Unit Inspection now, as well.”

Col. Wm. Nick Ham, Oregon Wing Commander, attended and presented at this year’s school. He has attended at least seven prior schools and recommends the school to AEOs and AEMs. “The course work is great, and you build relationships with other AE members – taking pieces of everyone’s AE programs,” he said.

Director Montgomery is grateful for everyone since 2002 who has decided to attend a National AEO School. ”I want to say thanks to all the AEOs and AEMs, over the years, who took time out of their busy lives to attend the schools in hopes of increasing their knowledge and expertise at being an effective AEO or AEM,” Montgomery said.  “I trust that all of you found the National AEO School to be a worthwhile endeavor.”  

Dahlke, who has attended and presented at more than a dozen National AEO Schools, highly recommends the experience. As tour guide for the site visits, he enjoys sharing his personal experiences from the numerous jobs he has had in space exploration. “My reward is seeing AEOs and AEMs coming away with a better understanding of aerospace and then gaining the tools to share that information with their cadets and students,” Dahlke said.

For Ham, it was difficult to select his favorite experience at the 20th National AEO School. “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.”

Members of the class stand in front of a static display
Two members on the class work at a hands-on lesson activity with a Pringles can
Members of the class pose by rocket display at Cape Canaveral
Two class members work at a table on the electricity kit
Members of the class stand at the Vehicle Assembly Building


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