EAA Young Eagles - Producing our future aviators - Airplanista Aviation Magazine Feature Story

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This aviation magazine article was originally published in the October, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

By Dan Pimentel
Airplanista Magazine Editor

Each day, some of our “senior” pilots will not have their medical certificate renewed, and the aviation family loses a few more licensed pilots who buy airplanes, fuel and $100 hamburgers. In an age where general aviation is being hammered from all directions with threats to our flying freedoms, it is critical that we as a community work to bring young people into the system as fresh student pilots.

In this special report, Airplanista looks at this topic from two angles. We present an in-depth look at EAA’s Young Eagles Program, and also introduce you to Amy Jens Hansen, who at 12 years old, already knows she’ll soon be one of those future student pilots.

When you ask 1,000 current, licensed pilots what one thing we in the aviation community should be doing to help preserve the future of general aviation, 999 of them would answer that we need to take more young people flying. And that one other pilot? He wouldn’t have time to answer the question because he’s headed out to the airport to take a neighborhood girl up in his Skyhawk...it’ll be her first GA flight ever.

Actually, that dramatization is only slightly more colorful than research data from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) shows. In 1991, EAA surveyed long-time members to determine the association’s future priorities, and nearly 92 percent said EAA’s primary objective should be to involve more young people in aviation. From that information, EAA’s Young Eagles Program was developed, and it was officially introduced in Washington, D.C. in May, 1992.

Taking a young, impressionable kid flying in our glorious, magical flying machines is a thrill many pilots enjoy. To look over in the right seat and see a wide smile, eager eyes and a soaring soul when a kid takes their very first small airplane ride is one of aviation’s most golden moments. To know that you might very well be lighting the fire that eventually burns hot enough to propel that future pilot to earn his or her private pilot’s certificate is a gratifying feeling that we should all experience as much as we can.

Many pilots freelance in this capacity, randomly finding young people to take flying. But for about 42,000+ aviators like EAA members Fred Stadler and Larry Durst, it makes sense to fly these introductory flights under the umbrella of the Young Eagles program, a highly successful and mature curriculum that provides maximum excitement for the young person while organizing tasks for the pilot. To date, the program has been able to introduce 1.6 million young people to aviation, with their names all placed in EAA’s “world’s largest logbook.”

Young Eagles is a polished, well-developed program that offers much more to the young person than just a pleasant airplane ride. Once a young person completes their flight and earns their very cool Young Eagles Flight Certificate, they become eligible for some amazing benefits, including free EAA student membership, free electronic copies of EAA Sport Aviation Magazine, free admission to over 300 science and technology museums, free access to Sporty’s® online Complete Flight Training Course (a $215 value), and other EAA member benefits.

Stadler and Durst are the top two Young Eagle pilots in the program, measured by flights given. These two pilots are the “Eagle Kings,” and exemplify the true meaning of “paying it forward,” which is the fundamental theory behind the success of Young Eagles. Both pilots have aviation hard-wired into their souls, and their contributions to this article are meant to help other pilots understand the importance of introducing the next generation to the sky.

Let’s take a closer look at what motivates Stadler, and the Durst’s, Larry and his wife Maxine, who is a vital part of the couple’s Young Eagle success story.

Fred Stadler - 4,659 Young Eagles flown

“Aviation has always been enjoyed by a tiny fraction of the population, but may never have been as threatened as now,” says Fred Stadler, a long-time Young Eagles pilot and also volunteer pilot at EAA’s Pioneer Airport. “Any pilot who enjoys the freedom we have in American aviation should seek ways to protect that freedom. And the most basic way to do that is to ensure that the majority of the public that is not directly involved with aviation is supportive, or at least tolerant of our interests.”

The Young Eagles program, explains Stadler, provides a “structured way to present the benefits of aviation in a direct and personal way not only to the young people, but also to their parents.” While a major goal is to stimulate future pilots, he is quick to note that the program has other important benefits.

“Young people are smart and quickly know what they like when presented with experiences.” Stadler said. “A high percentage of the Young Eagles I fly have never been in any sort of airplane. If they and their parents simply become “aviation tolerant,” that’s a positive effect from the program. There also is some value in a young person seeing that an adult, not a relative or teacher, is interested in sharing something with them. Hopefully that sets a standard for volunteerism that may yield benefits for society in the future.”

The flights are much the same for young people at both ends of the Young Eagles age envelope, which is 8 - 17 years old, but the conversations during and after the flights often vary a lot. “At age eight,” Stadler says, “young people can be very smart and remarkably insightful, although they may not be able to articulate their thoughts completely. With these younger kids, I emphasize the fun and discovery aspects of the flight, and with older ones I take extra time to make sure they and their parents know what they can do right now to pursue an aviation interest.”

Stadler’s chosen means to reach the public is to fly Young Eagles flights primarily in RV-6s and GlaStars, although he has used his Cessna 310 for the mission too. And these flights are far more than just a casual joy ride to poke holes in the sky, when you think it through as thoroughly as Stadler has.

“Planning a Young Eagle flight should start with deciding what ‘take-away points’ you want the Young Eagle to derive from the discussion and flight,” he said. “I’ve focused my expectations to two primary messages: I want the Young Eagle to decide that flying is fun and I want them to realize that they can do it. Those objectives drive every aspect of my preflight discussion, the flight itself, and the discussion afterward. On my first Young Eagle flights, I probably tried to explain too many different things. I’m sure I was excited to share my enjoyment of aviation and I wanted the Young Eagles to know everything about the airplane and the flight. I’ve since worked to focus my comments on information that will be interesting and useful for the Young Eagle.”

Stadler starts a flight by having the Young Eagle touch the plane, sometimes on the guise of inspecting it to find what it is made of. Often their parents may have told them not to touch anything and while he wants them to be cautious with the propeller, his goal is for the Young Eagle to be comfortable with the plane and to satisfy their curiosity about it. “I’ve found that having each Young Eagle operate the controls on the ground with the engine off greatly increases the likelihood that they will be comfortable with flying the plane in the air. I’d estimate that about four out of five Young Eagles operate the controls for a good portion of the flight. I always include the parents in the preflight discussion,” Stadler said.

Stadler does not miss any details, and after well over four thousand missions, he knows that the little things count on this very important day for the Young Eagle. “How the Young Eagle boards the plane has some considerations of its own,” Stadler explains. “I want each Young Eagle to view themselves as a crew member, not just a passenger, so I find a way for them to climb into the airplane themselves without being picked up by their parent and plopped into a seat. Proper seat cushions are very important so that the Young Eagle has a good view forward, both to enjoy the flight and to be able to control the plane. I keep a parent nearby when attaching the Young Eagle’s seat belt and shoulder harness. Then I try to ensure that the parent gets a good picture of the Young Eagle wearing a headset in the plane with a “thumbs up” pose. The picture can be a strong reminder of their flight for the Young Eagle.”

As he taxis to the runway, Stadler highlights the instruments that the Young Eagle will need to reference during the flight. Rather than describing the function of every instrument, he focuses on the altimeter, for example, which the Young Eagle will use as a reference for holding altitude.”

Immediately after takeoff, Stadler starts pointing out things of interest on the ground. Once the plane is leveled off in cruise, he points out the sight picture of the horizon forward so the Young Eagle will be able to maintain the pitch of the plane. “With the plane trimmed, I have them fly, first maintaining altitude. Then I have them make some gentle turns and fly toward clearly identified locations on the ground. When possible, I have the Young Eagles “race” a car on a road below, illustrating the speed of the plane, which often is not evident to them. The emphasis is not so much on technique as it is on being fun and easy,” Stadler said.

As to the costs incurred by flying Young Eagles, Stadler doesn’t attempt to rationalize the flights on a financial basis. “Aviation is my hobby and while it is expensive, there certainly are more expensive hobbies enjoyed by other people. I believe there are substantial public benefits from the Young Eagle activity, but my participation is based primarily on the substantial personal reward it provides,” he said.

Stadler points out that the biggest secret of the Young Eagles program isn’t what the youngsters or their parents receive – it’s what the Young Eagle pilots get. “As pilots,” he says, “we will never have the chance to relive the exhilaration of our own first flight experiences. But the closest thing is to be sitting next to a young person when they first look down at their world and see it in a different way. We can vicariously share in their excitement and be reminded about the wonder of what we otherwise may take as routine.”

Larry and Maxine Durst - 4,575 Young Eagles flown

The Dursts feel that we in the aviation community need to always be promoting general aviation by our conversations and our actions to the non-flying public. One of the best ways they have found to keep that conversation going is through the interaction that is achieved when parents bring their children to the airport for Young Eagles rides. “I feel public relations is a VERY important function the program,” says Larry Durst. “We receive nothing but positive comments about the program from the parents. They appreciate that we donate all of the costs, and that we are willing to spend many weekends during the summer flying their children. This kind of positive PR never hurts if we need a few more sympathetic voters when there is an airport issue.”

It is important to understand that this is a two-person Young Eagles team, with Maxine Durst playing a role equal to her husband Larry. How they came to fly thousands of Young Eagles flights is an interesting demonstration of spousal teamwork.

“I came home from our EAA Chapter’s Young Eagle’s Fly Day on June 21, 2003 and announced to my wife that I now had a total of 433 Young Eagles flown,” Larry explains. “She asked me if I was going to have 500 by the Wright Brother’s Anniversary, and I said no. She asked that if she could get me the kids, would I fly them. By the time the weather stopped our routine flying that summer, Maxine had recruited 210 kids for me to fly, and we ended 2003 with 643 Young Eagles flown.”

From that successful year, Maxine Durst has been a one-woman Young Eagles recruiting machine, and since 2003 she’s spent many hours presenting the Program to grade schools in Southern Oregon. She does all of the scheduling of flights, and calls all of the parents the day before the flight to remind them. After arranging the flights, she then spends all day at the airport in all kinds of weather presenting the kids with their Young Eagle Certificates and doing Young Eagle and general aviation public relations with the parents. To date, Maxine has scheduled some 4,300 kids, with Larry flying 4,127 of that group. The other approximately 173 kids were flown by other pilots.

Larry is more than appreciative of the stellar work his wife has done for the program, and for GA advocacy. “I can’t give enough credit and appreciation to Maxine for her work in the Young Eagles program. Her untiring and unending effort for eight years in scheduling the kids, promoting the Young Eagles program and talking up general aviation to the parents while I am flying their children is worth a medal of honor in my book.”

Team Durst knows that not all young people they fly in the program will become pilots. But, as an avid gardner, Larry sees some similarity to planting his annual garden when he flies Young Eagles. “I strongly feel that the Young Eagle program is a multi-faceted, win-win situation for aviation. Our philosophy is to take not only students that want to become pilots, but to give as many of our young people as possible an opportunity to experience an airplane ride. I like to say the Young Eagle program is similar to gardening. I’m planting a flying seed in as many young minds as I can, and don’t really know how many of those seeds will germinate.”

Larry and Maxine focus primarily on flying elementary school children, up to the fifth grade. They have found that many 8-12 year olds are not interested in doing a preflight, so that part of the flight is not explained unless asked, and then it is usually more for the parent than the child.

Even with so many flights in his logbook, the costs of his participation as a Young Eagles pilot can be justified easily by Larry. “You can’t equate a dollar sign to something you strongly believe in and truly enjoy doing. If I had to justify the cost of each fish I caught or animal I bagged, I would sell my fishing and hunting equipment and take up knitting. I do this because of the kids, and love it when they show their appreciation by repeatedly thanking us for taking them on their first airplane ride. Sometimes we’ll receive a hand-drawn thank you card telling us how much fun they had, and I can’t think of any greater reward than that kind of sincerity. Top that off with the parent’s appreciation, and it is more than worth every minute and penny we spend. If these comments don’t give you a warm fuzzy feeling, nothing will.”

For the last nine years, the Dursts have been awarded the George Bogardus Award for flying the most Young Eagles in Oregon. In 2006, they were the recipient of the EAA’s Horizon Award, presented to them at AirVenture by actor, Harrison Ford, a former Young Eagles Chairman.

Another pilot who is currently devoting a large portion of his life to the Young Eagles cause is US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who along with his First Officer on their famous “Miracle on the Hudson” flight, Jeff Skiles, is a co-chairman of Young Eagles.

“I can vividly remember knowing by age 5 that I was going to spend my life loving airplanes and pursuing my passion for aviation,” Sullenberger said recently. “It has been a very rewarding thing to do. I think for every pilot, it provides a great sense of satisfaction to know that you will be helping someone else discover something to be passionate about. The Young Eagles Program is a great way for all licensed pilots to participate and ensure the future of aviation in our country.”

Captain Sullenberger makes our concluding point by providing this article’s take-away moment: “It is critically important for everyone in GA to become steadfast advocates for aviation,” Sully explains, “because there are so many other avenues to which young people can devote their time, their attention, and their resources. All pilots should work to make others aware of the many benefits of general aviation and local airports to our communities. Traveling by private plane or just hanging out at the airport watching airplanes go by is a great way for families to spend quality time together.”

For more information on the EAA Young Eagles Program
877-806-8902 or (920) 426-4831
E-mail: youngeagles@eaa.org

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