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First Flights

Young Eagles program gives kids free airplane rides

On May 3, the south end of the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport will teem with small airplanes taking off and landing again about 20 minutes later, each carrying a young passenger or two who may be taking their first time in their lives.

They will be participating in the Young Eagles Rally, which provides free airplane rides to kids between the ages of 8 and 17 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Air Zoo’s east campus, 3101 E. Milham Road.

The Young Eagles program was created by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) to celebrate the centennial of the Wright brothers’ famous flight by introducing children to flying. Starting in 1992, the EAA began a quest to fly one million children by 2003. It succeeded, and the volunteer pilots enjoyed it so much they kept going. More than 1.7 million kids worldwide have had this opportunity, with Kalamazoo’s EAA Chapter 221 alone having given more than 6,000 flights.

For the children who participate, it can be a brand new, even once-in-a-lifetime experience. “A lot of kids, they will never ever have an airplane ride in their life, certainly not in a little airplane,” says local Young Eagles coordinator Jim Butcher.

Patty Fleck of Fulton has flown only once in her life, so when her children Haley, 17, and Joe, 11, had the opportunity to fly as Young Eagles last May, she was glad that they not only got to experience flying but also “to see firsthand what it’s all about.”

Before each Young Eagles flight, the pilot explains the parts of the plane and may show a chart of the flight plan. “It was just so relaxed and so nice,” Fleck says. “I mean, they described everything, they walked us up to the plane, they showed them how the wings shift and everything.”

Haley Fleck was surprised when her pilot allowed her to take the controls of his two- seater plane. “I had to keep it level…. You don’t realize how much is put into that and, like, how much the air affects it,” Haley says. Her pilot “was really nice about it. He acted like I was doing an OK job!”

After the short flight, the Young Eagle gets a flight log book as well as access codes enabling him or her to take free online classes through EAA, which are the first steps in the process of earning a pilot’s license.

One of the volunteer pilots, Garrett Gokey, originally from Mattawan, took his first Young Eagles flight at age 8 or 9. “It was something different. I’d never really experienced it before, and I really enjoyed it. From then on, that’s what I wanted to do,” he says.

A recent graduate of Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation, Gokey is now a first officer for a freight company in Pontiac and credits EAA members with giving him the support and encouragement to successfully pursue his career. He is passionate about sharing his love of flying with others. Although he does not have his own plane, he volunteers to fly Young Eagles when he can, borrowing his former flight instructor’s plane.

“When I was young, I didn’t realize how much (the EAA members) were going to help me in my career. Looking back on it, it was completely invaluable,” he says. “That’s why I felt like I needed to go back and give some students rides, because you never know if you’re going to influence someone to do what they love just as a hobby or do what they love as a career.”

“I learned a lot. It actually made me really interested in flying,” Haley Fleck admits. She doesn’t anticipate a career in aviation, but “if I ever was able to do that as a hobby, I would totally love that.”

While the rally is a great way for children to be introduced to the Young Eagles program, kids can participate at any time during the year. Butcher, who can be contacted through the Kalamazoo EAA (, gives individual flights himself or puts would-be riders in touch with other pilots. In addition, other chapters in the region hold rallies at different times, and International Young Eagles Day is celebrated annually on the second Saturday of June at airfields across the country.

If sending a child up in an “experimental” aircraft gives you pause, rest assured, it’s not what it sounds like. The term merely refers to a class of aircraft that, unlike commercial planes, do not have to be built and maintained using only parts and mechanics approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Most experimental craft are built from kits or blueprints and have to be certified as air- worthy by the FAA. “They’re proven designs. They’ve been tested,” Butcher says.

Since EAA pilots often build their own planes, they have a vested interest in their safety. Similarly, sharing their love of flight is not an entirely selfless act. Butcher hopes Young Eagles will remember the experience fondly as adults and want to support non- commercial aviation. If a local community is debating keeping the local airport open, he would like a former Young Eagle to say, “You know, I had a little airplane ride, and that was kind of cool, and, yeah, we probably ought to keep it.”

Kit Almy

Kit’s background in arts and nature has allowed her to explore a variety of topics for Encore over the years. This month she introduces readers to MRC Artworks, a classroom and gallery in downtown Kalamazoo that helps disabled people gain self-worth by creating art. In addition to freelancing, Kit works for the Kalamazoo Public Library and volunteers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s DeLano Homestead, teaching pioneer programs.

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