SANDPOINT – The difference in their ages can span more than 50 years, but their shared love of flying easily overcomes the generation gap.
This summer, the Young Eagles program once again linked kids, pilots and planes as youngsters ages 8-17 climbed aboard an aircraft for a bird’s eye view of the world below. In many cases, the experience creates the pilots of tomorrow.
The free flight program was launched by the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1992, after interviews with thousands of pilots across the nation revealed they had fallen in love with flying as kids. The seed was planted, they said, because some understanding pilot had encouraged their ambitions by taking them aloft for the first time.
“Young Eagles started when older pilots realized we need to have some young pilots coming up to take our place,” said Annie Orton, Young Eagles coordinator for the Sandpoint Chapter of EAA.
“We flew 52 kids this summer alone – 36 of them on one Saturday morning,” she added. “We had eight airplanes going in and out, in and out.”
The planes were flown by volunteers Barber, Jan Lee, Ted Farmin, Roger King, Don McIntosh, Barney Hall, Chris Popov, Rick Orchard, Jeff Bock and Don Hanes – pilots who made an average of four flights each on that busy Saturday, all in their own planes and on their own dime.
“Until recently, I never had enough pilots for all the kids we had,” Orton said. “But it worked out really good this year.”
The interest from youngsters isn’t limited to specific states or regions, the coordinator explained. When it comes to flying, youthful excitement has swept the nation.
“Young Eagles started with the goal of flying a million kids,” said Orton. “So far, they’ve flown more than 2 million.”
Outreach to area churches and scout troops and the program’s visibility at the Sandpoint EAA’s annual fly-in event are the main vehicles for signing up interested kids. After meeting their pilot, the passengers do a walk-around of the aircraft, where they learn about its functions and features before buckling up for their ride. The 20-minute flights follow a suggested route laid out in pilots’ briefings beforehand.
“But they can customize it if a kid wants to fly over his house,” the coordinator said.
Ted Farmin, one of the volunteer pilots, has been a mainstay in the program, according to Orton. That might be because he started young himself.
“He’s been flying since he was on his dad’s lap,” she said. “He’s always there, always ready to fly kids.”
Both Farmin and Orton were impressed with a Young Eagles participant who showed more than the usual amount of interest in flight. A stellar student and three-letter athlete at Sandpoint High School, Maggie Kirscher worked at the airport and applied for grants and scholarships to help pay for her pilot’s license.
“Ted and I realized she was someone special,” said Orton. “She was a natural at flying and she was so bitten by the bug that she went on to become a missionary pilot.”
Not content to stop there, the former Young Eagle continued her studies and now is seeking commercial pilot certification.
“In a year-and-a-half, she will be eligible for any job in flying,” Orton said. “And she’s only about 20 years old.”
More than just a one-time joy ride, the program opens the door for interested youth to pursue the dream of flight. All participants receive a logbook and password to enroll in a free computer ground school course. Upon completion, they get a voucher for a free flight lesson, as well as a Young Eagles certificate signed by the pilot who first took them up and by the honorary chairman of the organization.
The latter signatures have included names such as founding chairman Cliff Robertson, actor Harrison Ford, sound barrier-breaking test pilot Gen. Chuck Yeager, and current co-chairmen Chesley Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles – the pilots who made the US Airways “Miracle on the Hudson” landing in 2009.
According to the EAA, the program is making a difference in developing, not just new pilots, but flight professionals of every stripe. Young Eagles now account for about 3,000 flight instructors, 2,000 flight mechanics and 400 air traffic controllers nationwide.
Locally, Young Eagles are supported through money raised at the Sandpoint EAA’s fly-in breakfast, which usually generates about $2,000 for student scholarships.
Orton can be found signing up youngsters for free flights at that same event. She does not, however, join the ranks of the pilots who take the kids up. Her Piper Cherokee 140 – souped-up to 170-horsepower so she can climb the Rockies – is reserved for somewhat more mature passengers.
“I only fly old people – anybody who asks me,” said Orton, who, at 83 years old, is an active member of the United Flying Octogenarians. “I’ve given many older people their first flight. I flew a 98-year-old lady who was just thrilled about it.”
For more information on the Young Eagles program, visit the Experimental Aircraft Association website at: www.eaa.org
To find out more about signing up for future free flights with the Sandpoint Chapter of EAA, e-mail Annie Orton at: AOL99PILOT@gmail.com
To learn more about Sandpoint EAA and its schedule of monthly meetings, visit the local chapter online at: www.1441.eaachapter.org