Students in the Fort Smith School District Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Program got to partake in a unique experience earlier this month.

The cadets traveled to Robinson Maneuver Training Center in North Little Rock with their instructors to participate in the JROTC Cadet Leadership Challenge, an annual JROTC training camp, June 3-8, according to a news release provided by retired Lt. Col. Jason Meharg, senior army instructor for the Northside High School JROTC Program. They were among more than 400 JROTC cadets from 25 Arkansas schools and 18 Memphis-area schools who took part in the camp.

Retired Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steve Thomas, army instructor for the Northside High School JROTC Program, said a total of 25 cadets from Northside and Southside High School, all sophomores and juniors, attended the camp. These same cadets were also given the opportunity to ride in a Black Hawk helicopter before heading home.

Thomas said he submitted an air mission request to the Arkansas Army National Guard Aviation stationed at Robinson Army Airfield in April. It was approved at some point after Memorial Day.

"As a former Black Hawk pilot myself, I thought it was a unique opportunity for them to get to fly on a multimillion dollar aircraft, a motivation for them as students ... to go and do things, that that opportunity was there for them and actually get to live that experience and maybe look up front and get to say, 'Hey, you know, I could do this one day,'" Thomas said.

Meharg said riding in the Black Hawk helicopter was also a reward for the cadets for going through the JROTC Cadet Leadership Challenge after they were selected to go.

Among the activities the cadets participated in at the camp were an obstacle course, a land navigation course, survival skills, a 40-foot tall rappelling tower, a water safety course and a best platoon competition.

"The six-day residential camp provides a safe, disciplined and structured environment where cadets get to interact with cadets from other schools, their JROTC instructors and National Guard soldiers," the release states. "Cadets compete individually and as small teams against other teams from their own school and those from other schools. The events are designed to teach not only individual self-confidence, but also leadership skills in leading and being responsible for small group performance."

Thomas said the cadets from Northside and Southside High School were taken to the airfield immediately after their graduation ceremony on June 8. They received a tour of a parked Black Hawk helicopter prior to the helicopter rides. They were also briefed by an instructor pilot on the Black Hawk helicopter's capabilities, its combat mission and other topics.

The helicopter rides lasted about 18 to 20 minutes, Thomas said. The 25 cadets and three instructors present were divided into three groups, or chalks, with one instructor to each group. One group rode in the Black Hawk helicopter at a time.

The cadets were strapped in a 4-point harness while inside the helicopter. The doors were open, which allowed them to see everything during the flights.

"They got to fly at treetop level across Camp Robinson, and then they left the camp and flew out to Pinnacle Mountain, which is between Conway and Little Rock, and then they flew from Pinnacle Mountain directly over to War Memorial Stadium, where they did a low pass over it, and then came back around and passed the state Capitol, and then came back ... out to the base," Thomas said.  

Thomas said the cadets were flown at 500 feet above the ground once they left Camp Robinson. 

The cadets were transported back to Northside High School by bus after the helicopter flights. When asked how this opportunity fits in with the Fort Smith School District Army JROTC Program and its purpose, Thomas said he thinks it is an integral part because the organization's mission as JROTC is to help young people become better citizens.

"And what better way to do that than to give them an opportunity to, you know, to see some of the potential career paths they want to take," Thomas said.

Thomas said the JROTC program instills values such as loyalty, duty, service, respect, honor, integrity and personal courage into the cadets, and the program rewards the ones who commit themselves to it.

Meharg said the opportunity was also a chance for the cadets to see a group of men and women who are serving their country and living the core values Thomas described.

"And they see what true citizenship and teamwork and accountability's all about in a ... helicopter ride, and so it was a pretty neat experience," Meharg said.