By Joel Hargis, EAA 1074421
Three and a half years ago I was asked to join EAA Chapter 534 at the local airport, Leesburg International Airport, in Central Florida (KLEE). The only thing I knew about EAA is they put on a national airshow every year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and they have a Young Eagles program allowing kids between the ages of 8 and 17 to take a free airplane ride. Pilots donate their time, planes and fuel to introduce youngsters to the wonders of flight.
Though EAA Chapter 534 had been around for a long time, its success with Young Eagles had been very poor. When the members found out I was interested in helping out with the program, I was immediately appointed Young Eagles coordinator.
The first task was to find kids who wanted to fly. I can’t tell you how many Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings, high school ROTC programs, and church groups I went to describing the Young Eagles program. We now have flown about 125 Young Eagles a year for the past three years and are on track to fly more than 200 in 2017. We have flown several underprivileged kids who may never have another chance to fly in an airplane, and they are so appreciative. I want to tell a couple of stories that made a deep impression on me because they touched my heart.
The first one is about a young man I flew at the request of his mother. She had called to ask me about the Young Eagles program and told me her son loved going to the airport to watch planes take off and land. She went on to tell me her 16-year-old son has autism and asked if would I consider flying him. After she answered a few qualifying questions about his functional level I agreed to take him up in my plane. They showed up on the appointed day and she told me he would not talk to me because of his affliction. He only spoke to her and on rare occasions his grandparents. We went out to the airplane and did a thorough pre-flight like we do with all the kids, and he did not say a word—no questions, nothing. He just seemed to take it all in.
We climbed in the airplane, put on the headsets, and fired up the engine. Upon turning onto the taxiway he spoke up and asked me a question. A good question! I answered and he asked me another one. We took off and continued our conversation around his aviation questions. I asked him if he would like to take the controls. We do this for most of the young folks we fly once we are at a safe altitude. Most kids enjoy flying the plane for a few minutes but some decline….too scary! This youngster agreed to take the controls and flew the plane pretty well. After flying for four or five minutes he asked me to take over. We continued to chat for the remainder of the 20-minute flight. After we landed and shut the plane down he did not say another word. No thank you, no nothing. He had completely shut down verbally. When I shared this experience with his mother she was shocked. She said he has never done this with anyone before other than her. I was delighted to be a part of this experience, and I am sure neither he nor his mother will ever forget it.
On another occasion I was flying three young Boy Scouts in my plane for a Young Eagles event. The troop was from a very small town about 20 miles northeast of the Leesburg airport. We took off and headed up to fly over their homes and school. I quickly found their school and the home of one of the boys. I asked the other two boys, who were brothers, where their house was. The intercom went silent as they looked at each other. Finally, one of them spoke up and said, “We live that way,” pointing vaguely to the north. To the north was nothing but the Ocala National Forest. There are very few homes there, but I know many people and even some families squat in the woods and make their homes living in tents and other types of temporary shelters. These boys were from one of those families. I felt so sad for them. Upon returning to the airport the boys were very appreciative. It was obvious they had the time of their life on that flight. The feeling I had knowing they got to fulfill a dream of theirs was almost overwhelming.
I enjoy volunteering my time and my plane flying these youngsters, and experiences like these keep me active in the Young Eagle program.