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  • Dean is excited to get in the plane to take his flight with pilot Mark Smith.
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If pilots enjoy what they do, it’s a double win when they can share their enthusiasm with young kids.

“This is just one way of giving back after spending all the money to learn to fly,” said Commercial Pilot Charlie Philips.

Philips is one of several local pilots who donate their time, expertise and their equipment to introduce kids to life in the cockpit. Philips said he’s flown more than 500 kids through the Young Eagles program.

More than 22 young girls and boys from ages 8 to 17-years old took flight in the EAA Young Eagles Aviation Program on Dec. 18 at Centennial Airport, one of several rally events the group hosts in Colorado each year.

For 20 of them, it was a brand-new experience. They’d have never flown in a plane before.

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever done with an airplane,” Philips said. “When you get out of the plane, these kids smiling like crazy, it makes it all worthwhile no matter what it costs.”

The Young Eagles program is offered nationwide by the Experimental Aircraft Association. The free program has introduced nearly 2 million Young Eagles to aviation since it started 30 years ago.

Volunteer pilots and ground crews participate in the program to teach the kids the mechanics of an aircraft, taking off and landing, understanding the flight plan, communicating with air traffic controllers, classroom lessons and operating simulators.

The final step is climbing into an aircraft and flying. They allow one child per plane and each one gets an opportunity to take over the yoke and fly the plane – with the pilot sitting right alongside. Most of those come at rally events hosted out of regional airports.

National effort, regional impact

The EAA Chapter 301, based out of Parker, has two locations that support the Young Eagles – The Wings Museum Exploration of Flight facility at Centennial Airport and Colorado Air and Spaceport. Colorado Air and Spaceport has supported the program for more than 15 years with more than 2,000 Young Eagles flown. The Wings Museum Flight Facility location provides the classroom and space on the ramp outside the building for the flights.

“We have eight pilots and aircrafts flying about between 22 and about 26 kids at each rally,” said Tom Letts, Young Eagles Field Representative who manages the program at Centennial.

The Young Eagles also have chapters based out of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, the airports in Boulder, Erie, Longmont, and Englewood’s Colorado Skies Academy.

Each child gets a 20-to-30-minute flight depending on air traffic and the weather during the flight. When they land, they get a Young Eagles certificate that identifies the plane, pilot, and date of flight. They also receive a briefing and a logbook. That’s something they can take with them to get further pilot training.

“We flew over 200 kids when we started in May, but we didn’t fly the kids January, February, March or April, due to COVID. We started light May and June we flew 45 kids, but we pared back,” said Letts.

It’s fun for the pilots, too.

“It’s wonderful to take these kids out, I have been doing this for quite a while. I’ve been flying for 44 years, actively flying, and about 40 years as a flight instructor. I’ll keep doing this as long as they let me,” said pilot and flight instructor Mark Smith.

It’s a nice use of a busy airport, which brings in $30-40 million in revenue to the area, Lett said.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but Centennial is the number one busiest general aviation airport in the United States,” Letts said. “And it’s the 26th busiest, controlled towered airport in the United States-its busier than Honolulu, Hawaii-its busier than JFK- and busier than Salt Lake City. And on any given day, it’s busier than Denver International Airport.”

Next generation

But the program has a serious side, too, creating the next generation of aviators, commercial pilots, and airplane mechanics, Lett said.

“It’s a lot of fun and this program was designed to get kids interested in aviation,” said Letts. “We’re really in need of pilots and had a couple of airlines go out of business because there were no pilots to be able to fly. Also, we need mechanics as well.”

There are plenty of aviation-related jobs, he said.

“Even if the kid did not enjoy the flight, I always like to explain aviation is way more than just the airplane, it’s all the surrounding businesses such as air traffic controllers and ground crews,” Letts said.

EAA Chapter 301 has flown more than 7,000 young eagles in Denver and has also given out scholarships for those students who are interested in aviation. In addition, the future pilots can attend the EAA Air Academy in the summer and take flying lessons for future aviation education.

“Since inception, the scholarship program has awarded $33,112 scholarships to 24 recipients,” said Blanche Cohen Young Eagles Coordinator for the chapter. “Several scholarship recipients received private and commercial pilot certificates. Many attended aviation universities and the EAA air academy.”

Cohen said the program qualifies for part of the Boy Scout merit badge. The ground school alone is part of the Girl Scout badge since the Girl Scout program does not allow members to fly. The Naval Sea Cadets, Denver Public Schools, and various non-profit organizations such as Fly Girls also participate in the program.

Campus programs

There is a second Wings Over the Rockies Museum in Denver at Lowry, and that’s the main campus. But the Centennial Airport campus has some distinct benefits.

“They built this facility to be able to have an opportunity to get up close and personal, to see the flight- to touch- and to feel. The Lowry Museum is wonderful from an educational and historical standpoint,” said Palmer. “But there’s still that missing component of putting it into reality. So that’s what we are doing here. We’re bringing that reality to touch, feel and look, we’re inspiring the next generation.”

Wings at Centennial also have a program for STEM teachers called “Teacher Flight.” It is similar to the Young Eagle’s program and it’s also free where they take a teacher out flying in a plane so they can take the experience back to the classroom.

“The teachers are going to be able to share in a way so we can look for the next engineers-the next pilots- the next ground crew- the next mechanics or whatever we need for the aerospace industry,” said Keith Palmer Executive Director Exploration of Flight Campus Wings Over the Rockies Museum at Centennial Airport.

Also, at the Wings Museum, there is a simulator all kids can operate and experience flying a plane.

Palmer said “There’s a young lady upstairs right now that flew this morning on the simulator, and as she’s bopping around, you can see her expression and to see her desire. It gave her the bug,” Palmer said.

“We need the young men and women to be excited about where their direction is and to see you’ve added a little piece of being able to help them. It’s an inspiration watching it start to come together. I tell you what- it goes a long way. It does make your day it’s not a job anymore- it’s just absolutely fun.”