Aircraft association arranges first airborne adventure for amateur aviation aficionados

It’s hard to say who was more excited (and/or anxious) about the Young Eagles first-time flights Saturday morning – the participating kids or the parents cheering from the tarmac at Gladewater Municipal Airport.
John Sanders alternated between camera, camcorder and smartphone (sometimes dual-wielding devices) to capture every moment and toothy grin as 10-year-old Jace Sanders went aloft in his dream aircraft, a Cessna 172 on loan from Sky Park Aviation and piloted by LeTourneau University’s Michael Libiez.
“This is awesome,” Sherrika Sanders said, working to get the best angle of Jace in the co-pilot’s seat. “He plays a game with us called ‘Name that plane.’ We always lose.”
The trio drove in from Little Elm in Dallas bright and early so Jace could take part in the Young Eagles Rally hosted by the Gladewater chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association May 8.
“He woke up with this on his mind,” John said. “We didn’t have to fight for him to get up this morning – today’s the day.”
There were 70-plus children and teens on the roster for a free introductory flight courtesy of volunteer pilots, provided aircraft and donated fuel. Ground volunteers of aviators, teachers and parents kept the event organized and the energy elevated under clear blue skies.
“We love doing it,” said coordinator Ronnie Godfrey. “It’s a good way to give back. We want to help the next generation of pilots catch the bug.
Drawing visiting families to the Gladewater airfield, “Hopefully they’ll go out in the community; spend a little money, eat at the restaurants, check out the antiques.”
The Young Eagles program was launched in ‘92 to give 8- to 17-year-olds their first ride in an airplane, free of charge.
According to co-organizer Stephen Dean, “It’s the only program of its kind, with the sole mission to introduce and inspire kids in the world of aviation,” he noted. “Today, over 2.3 million young people have enjoyed a free introductory flight through the Young Eagles program.”
In his third year with the event, EAA member and volunteer Alan VanDoren wasn’t flying this time around, focusing instead on the legwork of corralling the families.
“It gives them, usually, their first flying experience, just hoping to ignite that spark,” he said. “The whole purpose of Young Eagles is to develop future pilots. The pilots donate their time and their fuel for that purpose.”
By 10 a.m. Saturday, the group had already processed and flown more than 50 pint-sized potential pilots.
“This is probably one of the best programs you’ll ever come across,” Renfro said. “These kids probably would never have the chance to get in a small aircraft.
The experience often spurs a lifelong interest EAA tries to direct toward a vast array of different careers in education, she added. The local chapter is currently sponsoring high schoolers pursuing their private pilot’s license.
For a first flight, “Sometimes they get scared,” Renfro allowed, but “There’s nothing like it when they get out of that aircraft and you see these smiles from ear to ear. It’s awesome to be able to help these kids.”
It was a first for incoming Gilmer High School JROTC cadet Mackenzie Hodgkins.
“It was me trying to get over my fear of heights. It really helped a lot,” the soon-to-be 9th grader said. “Everything in your visual seemed really tiny. It was a great experience overall.”
The Mettupalli family drove in from the Metroplex so 9-year-old Vishwak could have his first airborne adventure.
According to dad, Vajay, “50 years back, my mother went to school by walking,” he said. “30 years back, I went by rickshaw,” and now his son received a life-lesson behind the controls of an aircraft. “Who knows, my grandson may go to school in a small plan.
“When we tell these stories to the kids, they feel very excited, how technology is growing.”
Vishwak definitely caught the spark: “I’m coming back.”

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