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Program Helps Kids Soar Like 'Eagles', Love Aviation - 2003-09-03

Exactly 100 years after Orville Wright became the first man to fly in a heavier-than-air craft, one lucky kid will become the one-millionth youngster to experience a first flight. That ride will be the culmination of a program that began a decade ago to get young people excited about flying, and give one million of them their first airplane ride by the December 17 centennial of flight.

The dream of flight is as old as mankind, but it didn't become a reality until Orville and Wilbur Wright took their experimental flying machine onto the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina a century ago.

Members of the Experimental Aviation Association carry on that tradition by developing, building and flying their own airplanes. When members were asked how the organization could ensure aviation's future, EAA official Steve Buss says the answer was to raise the interest of young people in aviation.

"And the follow up question to that was, 'well, how did you get involved in aviation?' And overwhelmingly people said somebody gave me an airplane ride, shared their love of aviation with me, we should do the same thing," he says.

So, in 1992, the EAA started the Young Eagles Program, with thousands of pilots around the United States and the world who donate their time and aircraft to take youngsters on their first flight. Most of the rides are given in a typical small single engine plane. But at a recent airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, some lucky kids got the ride of a lifetime with an aviation pioneer.

"We'll bring you up one at a time and let you fly the airplane, and don't push the thing over, everybody screams in the back."

Retired General Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, joked with a group of Young Eagles preparing for their first flight in a vintage 1929 Ford Trimotor airplane.

Over the roar of airplane engines, General Yeager says the key to the Young Eagles program is actually letting the kids get a hands-on feel for flying, whether it's in a small modern airplane or an aircraft from the dawn of commercial aviation.

"Today we're developing an interest in aviation, not necessarily as pilots, but just an interest in aviation by letting youngsters fly an airplane. We don't just fly them around in a machine like the Trimotor, we let 'em fly the thing and they get a feel for it. And it means a lot to youngsters to be exposed to the aircraft," he says.

After 11 years, and nearly a million youngsters exposed to flying, Steve Buss, who directs the Young Eagles Program, says there are plenty of success stories.

"One of the things that has happened with almost 950,000 young eagles is that it's hard to keep track of all of them," he says. "But we are getting more and more stories as the years go on of young people who were in the program, got turned on to aviation through the Young Eagles Program and have now gone on to become pilots. Some of them have come back and flown kids themselves with the Young Eagles Program."

One Young Eagle who has gone on to pursue aviation further is Karrie Shank. The 19-year-old college student from Ohio got her first airplane ride with the Young Eagles program just a few years ago. Before that, she knew very little about aviation and had planned on becoming an architect. Now she is studying aviation at her university and will soon be a flight instructor on her way to becoming a professional pilot.

"It never really registered with me that, yeah there are people here who do this for a living. I had no idea where you would start for training. I didn't even know that like colleges offered it," she says. "I really don't think I would have started flying at all or considered it. I probably would have just been one of the 5 million undecided major freshmen instead of being obsessed with aviation."

The goal of the Young Eagles program is not to turn everybody into a pilot. The Experimental Aviation Association simply wants to offer young people an experience they might not get elsewhere in their lives.

Former astronaut Gene Cernan, the last person to stand on the moon, says exposing kids to flight does much more than show them how an airplane works.

"It puts them in a position of challenge, of excitement, of adventure. And they may become great poets or great musicians but what this tells them is, 'hey I think I can do something I didn't think I was capable of doing before.' I think it enlightens their spirit and it encourages them as I say to dream and do what they didn't think was possible," he says.

Like the Wright brothers 100 years ago, both Mr. Cernan and General Yeager did things with flying machines that most people thought impossible. And on December 17 of this year, the EAA hopes to give that same dream to the one millionth Young Eagle.