Growing the next generation

“Ready? Here we go!”

The 15-year-old girl sitting next to me tentatively put her left hand on the yoke and her right hand on the throttle. With my hand over hers she pushed the throttle forward. Our mighty Cessna 172 began to roll down the runway. She craned her neck, still a little short to see over the cowling despite the cushions I had provided.

“I’m on the controls with you,” I said. “A little more right rudder… that’s it.”

The Cessna lifted into the air.

“You’re flying!” I shouted.

The girl beamed.

There’s something wonderful about taking someone up on that first small airplane flight. Especially when that someone is thinking about being a pilot. So many people talk about wanting to learn to fly, but few take the steps necessary to fulfill the dream. For the instructor there is just something special about facilitating that endeavor. It is an awesome responsibility and a privilege. When you teach someone how to fly you are helping that person acquire a life-altering skill. It’s like teaching someone how to swim, how to ride a bike or how to read.

In the last 10 years organizations have formed to encourage more people to get involved in aviation. One of those is the Be A Pilot program. All you have to do is print out the gift certificate from the Be A Pilot website (BeAPilot.com) and show up at a participating FBO with the correct amount of cash (just $49). The site gets a lot of hits around the holidays and after April 15 because many adults begin their flight training after getting their tax refunds.

Some wannabe pilots find really creative ways to get into the cockpit. I recently met a young woman who, before she had the money necessary to complete a private pilot program, visited several FBOs in the area and did introductory flights with as many of them as she could.

“I didn’t have the money for lessons, but I wanted to fly,” she explained sheepishly. “So I did it 20 minutes at a time!”

I wish I had thought of that.

The teenagers who take part in Be A Pilot or other introductory flight programs offered by FBOs usually come in with their parents. Often the flight is a gift. Sometimes the parents arrange the flight because the kid spends a lot of time playing a flight simulator video game. “We want him to try the real thing,” one dad told me.

Some of these kids are content to fly computers. Others have dreams of becoming astronauts or airline pilots. I like helping these kids get all the information they can on their chosen vocations. Some of them are 14 or 15 and do not like the idea of having to put off their flight training until they are of legal age to solo. I applaud this and tell them about Rat (short for Ramp Rat), one of my friends who started flying lessons before she was old enough to drive. Rat paid for her lessons by working part-time at Aiken Aviation in Aiken, Minn. She started an aircraft washing and polishing service and swapped web page development for flying time. Rat once lamented to me that she had to “wait for her birthdays to catch up” so she could be of legal age to solo and take check rides. Now she has a degree in Air Traffic Control from one of the larger aviation universities, a commercial pilot’s license and is working for the Transportation Security Administration while simultaneously applying to graduate school, officer’s candidate school and studying for her CFI and A&P licenses. As I write this, her 23rd birthday is still a few weeks away.

I’m all for getting kids into aviation, but I caution the aviation industry not to ignore the people over 18 who want to fly. Many of these folks are finally at a point in their lives when they can afford to spend the money and have the time to invest to become a pilot. Most of them have dreamed about flying their whole lives. Some of them come with a few hours in their logbooks from decades past. Getting these folks back into the sky is like reuniting long-lost friends. I have found that the students returning to aviation are the most dedicated. They KNOW what they are missing.

Often they are also in the market for an airplane that they intend to use as personal transportation.

One of the best ways for pilots to nurture the next generation of aviators is to take part in the EAA’s Young Eagles program. Pilots from local EAA chapters volunteer their time to give rides to kids. I am envious of the pilots who get to participate in these programs on a regular basis. I just got a packet from the Young Eagles event I was involved in in September. In the packet was a letter from the organization suggesting that we fly at least 10 Young Eagles a year. I wonder if they realize they just threw the Gauntlet of Challenge down before someone raised on the legend of Prince Valiant?

Meg Godlewski is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.

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