By Ted Luebbers
Long before the current shortages of pilots, mechanics, and other related positions in the aviation industry, officials with Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 534 set out to introduce young people to aviation.
Based at Leesburg International Airport (KLEE) in Florida, the chapter’s youth program began informally about five years ago with the Boy Scouts. For a number of years the chapter hosted a two-day campout at the airport. Scouts got Young Eagles flights and worked on their aviation merit badges during the campout. Chapter members also helped form an Aviation Explorer Post.
Their success with the scouts led chapter members to form their own Aviation Youth Program.
The program is open to young people between the ages of 10 and 18. Some of the kids are serious about moving through the program and getting a private pilot’s certificate or seeking employment in some aspect of aviation. Others seem eager just to learn how to build an airplane. Either way, chapter members hope this early exposure will kindle a lifetime interest in aviation.
First step for new members of the Aviation Youth Program is to take a Young Eagles flight with a chapter member. The chapter hosts Young Eagles events once a month, September through May.
Next, the kids can jump in and learn how to build or repair an aircraft, practice flying on one of the chapter’s sims, or just spend time with people who love aviation.
The program got a real boost a few years ago when a Mini Max light-sport aircraft that had been badly damaged in a tornado was donated to the chapter after its owner threw in the towel and decided he no longer had the will to fix it.
The leader of the youth program is John Weber, the chapter’s vice president. A Certified Light-Sport Flight Instructor, he’s a veterinarian in Mount Dora, Florida, during the times he’s not messing around with airplanes.
There also is an educational advisory committee made up of members who are aircraft builders, pilots, and former teachers. This group helps bring structure to the program and joins in setting goals and developing lesson plans.
All members of the chapter serve as mentors to the Aviation Youth program. This provides the kids with a diverse group of volunteer adults ranging from certified aircraft mechanics, pilots, and folks who have aircraft building experience.
Chapter officials admit there are times when the instructors are only one lesson ahead of their students. That’s because they haven’t had the training for a skill they will soon be teaching the kids. This results in the members digging into videos or finding an expert to show them how to do a particular task, learning a specific skill themselves. This becomes a win/win situation for the adults and the students.
A good example of this was when it came time to do rib stitching on the newly covered wings of the Mini Max. The members who usually work on building projects in the EAA chapter hangar on Thursdays looked at each other and asked, “who knows how to rib stitch?” There was a profound silence.
One of the members who had built a Burt Rutan Long -EZ had the most building experience in the group, but that was a composite fiber glass airplane that did not require rib stitching. Even the two certified aircraft mechanics had never done this. This led to everyone looking up instructions for the Stewart Covering system or the Poly Fiber method.
Then they all watched videos produced by both companies explaining the technique of rib stitching. The videos were helpful, but what they found was that until you actually pulled the rib stitching cord through a ribs worth of holes you really didn’t have the process down.
The result was that seven or eight of the members learned how to rib stitch and were able to pass that skill on to the aviation youth members. It is kind of like the old medical axiom of “see one, do one, teach one.”
This is how the mentors and the kids operate in this educational endeavor. The aircraft building and repair becomes more of a joint venture.
Today, the Aviation Youth program has more than a dozen members. They meet most Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and chapter volunteers provides the kids with a lunch.
They start out with the safe use of the tools of the trade that they will be using on any project they work on. The use of both eye and ear protection is stressed.
So far, most of the kids’ work has been on the Mini Max, which is a wood and fabric design aircraft. As this project nears completion, they will shift their focus to building an aluminum aircraft, which will require learning new skills. Recently, the Bede Family Trust donated a BD-6 for the chapter’s Aviation Youth program. Two of the chapter’s members who have built aluminum aircraft will take the lead on this project.
Since EAA Chapter 534 began its aviation youth program, it has been fortunate to receive several donations of airplane projects in various stages of completion or repair. They have also received two sophisticated flight simulators that help the kids learn the basics of flying a plane while under the supervision of one of the member pilots. Because the chapter is a 501C-3 tax exempt organization, the donors can receive a tax write-off for their gifts.
When the building projects have been completed, chapter officials intend to sell the planes and, with the money they make, continue to buy other aircraft kits and tools for the aviation youth program.
At this point in time, the youth program has at least four of their teenage students’ intent on earning their private pilot’s certificate. Two of them have already filled out the paperwork for their FAA Student’s Pilot Certificates.
The chapter recently awarded a $10,000 flight training scholarship to Youth Aviation Program member Mateo Colmenero, who has been involved in the program for four years. Funds were made possible through a gift from the Ray Foundation Aviation Scholarship program.
While very proud of their Youth Aviation Program, chapter officials say they are aware that there are many new aviation youth and STEM programs sprouting up across the country with very little communication between them. It is their hope they can improve their program by learning how others operate and be in a position to pass on what works well for them.
What About Your Chapter?
Has your EAA chapter – or other organization – started a Youth Aviation Program? What lessons could you share with EAA Chapter 534? What could you learn from EAA Chapter 534 officials?