ON BOARD PILATUS Hurrying to get home from school, Erin Hill tossed her duffel bag in the back of her waiting ride and settled into her seat.
But this trip home had nothing to do with a car ride or a yellow school bus. Hill's weekly four-hour commute to Eau Claire takes her up among the clouds at 5,000 feet as part of a program that flies deaf and blind students in Wisconsin home on the weekends.
"It always feels like time flies. But, I wish I could get home earlier," Hill signed to her friend Crystal Dale, a schoolmate from the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.
The girls' school bus is actually a $3 million, single-engine, nine-seat Pilatus PC-12. Organizers say the transportation program, supported by tax dollars, saves students and staff time and is cheaper in the long run than keeping schools staffed over weekends.
The program operates from Wisconsin's only two residential schools the School for the Deaf in Delavan and the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped in Janesville.
Other states also use planes to transport students at public residential schools, said School for the Deaf administrative assistant Sarah Benton.
They include schools for the deaf or blind in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota.
In Wisconsin the students use two state planes that take off on Fridays from the airport in Janesville, about 30 miles southeast of Madison.
One takes a 1,324-mile, 4 1/2-hour trip to the north, with stops in Phillips, Superior, Siren and Eau Claire. A second goes west, dropping students off in Rice Lake, La Crosse, Red Wing, Minn., and St. Paul, Minn. They return on Sundays.
Transporting the students by plane cost $198,000 in the latest fiscal year, said Jerry Landmark, the state Department of Public Instruction's state schools administrator.
Before the planes were used, many students were bused home from Delavan or Janesville, even if they lived hundreds of miles away.
School for the Deaf interpreter Judy Wright was one of those who spent an exhausting 16 hours on the bus making sure the students reached their destinations.
"The staff would meet at four in the morning in the dorm. You'd take pillows and blankets," Wright said. "They spend more time with their family, and the kids are not so tired," said School for the Deaf superintendent Alex Slappey.
The novelty of flying home instead of taking a bus has worn off for most of the students.
Hill, a sophomore who plays volleyball and is a cheerleader at the School for the Deaf, has traveled home by air most weekends since the eighth grade."At first I felt sick to my stomach; now I'm used to it," she said.
On the Net: Wisconsin Department of Transportation: www.dot.state.wi.us
Wisconsin School for the Deaf: www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dlsea/wsd/index.html