From Peter Pan’s fairy dust to the broomsticks of Harry Potter, the ability to fly has inspired the imagination of young people for generations. Although obtaining magical superpowers is unlikely, area kids can get a taste of the thrill of soaring through the air thanks to the Santa Barbara chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Young Eagles program.
Founded in 1952 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, by flying enthusiasts, the EAA began essentially as a flying club. Over the past 60 years, it has expanded its aviation advocacy vision to include 1,000 chapters worldwide and several aviation programs, including Young Eagles, which introduces youths ages 8-17 to the wonders of piloting an aircraft, free of charge. Since the program’s launch in 1992, more than 1.7 million Young Eagles have flown worldwide.
The program accomplishes this by sending Young Eagle participants into the sky with a licensed pilot in a single-engine airplane. However, they do not merely sit in the copilot seat and watch the pilot at work; instead, the youths take the controls themselves as soon as the plane levels out over the Santa Ynez Valley, flying the craft under the careful supervision of the experts. After the flight, the youngsters receive a real pilot’s logbook with the details of their flight, a certificate, and a coupon code for a free online ground-school course from Sporty’s Pilot Shop, and their names are entered in the organization’s master logbook.
Getting kids excited about flying is one of the program’s main goals. With the commercialization of airline travel and the ever-increasing hassle associated with airports, flying in a plane has lost much of the sense of excitement, romance, and adventure it once possessed, according to Carl Hopkins, president of the Santa Barbara chapter. “There’s airline transportation, and then there’s flying,” he said. “The EAA wanted to bring together a bunch of people who recognized that difference and that love of flying and who wanted to share that love with kids. And hopefully by doing so at least some of them would go on to become pilots.”
In addition to cultivating future aviators, the program is about inspiring youth and giving them a new perspective of themselves and the world around them. Many of the participants in the program come to the EAA through charities such as A Different Point of View, for at-risk children, and American Charities, which works with foster children. Many of them, Hopkins said, have never been in any kind of airplane before, much less flown one themselves. “They get up in the air and look down at the Earth, and that really is a different point of view. You really do see things differently from up there,” Hopkins said. “The first thing that they do is just, ‘Wow!’ Look how little that is and look at the road and look at this,’ and they’re just looking at all these things.”
The program is certainly successful in opening young minds to the joys of flight. One recent participant, Jacob Grasson, is now enthusiastic about the possibilities of a career in piloting. “I would hope to be a pilot because it was such a fun experience,” he said. “It’s something that I’d be interested in doing every day, and it would be something that it wouldn’t be hard to go to work to, rather than sitting in a cubicle grueling through the day.”
But the flight has an even more important effect on these Young Eagles. It alters their way of seeing not only the world but also themselves. As Hopkins pointed out, “It’s a huge boost in their self-esteem and their self-confidence. They went, ‘Wow, I did that. I flew that airplane!’”
For more information, visit youngeagles.org