“MOM, YOU NEED TO GET SOME YOUNG PEOPLE IN AVIATION”
As many people know from firsthand experience, starting a business is different from a “job” in that it consumes not only your finances but your life as well and, in the gobble process, drags in the rest of your family too. In the beginning, my husband and teenage sons were frequently called in to help in some way – fix decrepit hangar doors, wash airplanes, sweep the shop, etc. One day, my youngest son, Kennan, made an acute observation: “Mom,” he said, “you need to get some young people in aviation!” Between texting and adjusting his iPod, he’d noticed that the average age of people coming through the door was about 90. Generally, we were able to recognize when someone had been in aviation a loooooong time by their reaction to our rental rates.
“What?!” they’d exclaim, “I remember when you could fly for $7 an hour!” We would gently explain that, with today’s fuel and insurance rates, you couldn’t even taxi to the runway for $7. They’d shake their heads and reminisce about the good ole days. About then, I’d suggest a visit to see my little ’46 Champ. This was usually the perfect antidote to their shock and they’d go away feeling better, that not TOO much had changed after all.
Kennan’s comment about getting young people into aviation was not lost on me. I knew it was critical to our survival. As a high school teacher in some previous life, I had a passion for seeing kids get excited about learning. And as someone who had waited way too long to learn how to fly, I was anxious to share with others how becoming a pilot could open up their lives in glorious, unexpected ways.
I decided to create a summer program for youth. “Young Aviators” consists of three separate weeks, each focusing on different ground school subjects plus an aviation field trip and a Friday flight lesson. I put press releases in the papers and brochures in the schools and managed to enroll half a dozen bored teenagers for the first week. I feared that the “school” would be a drag for kids wanting to get away from the classroom, so I encouraged my CFI to “make it fun” with hands-on examples of aerodynamics (who doesn’t love paper airplanes?), discovering flight controls in the airplane instead of at the desk, and other “active” learning appropriate to the age group. My first instructor, Ben, straight from CWU aviation school, was great with the kids AND had parents who were both educators so he knew about (or got help on) creating lesson plans.
As I handed out “graduation” certificates on the last day, I realized that my worries about boring the kids with the study portion of the program were unfounded. I saw before me a transformed group; the kids who had rolled their eyes on day one and said, “My Mom signed me up for this,” were now begging their parent to let them do another week and many of them signed up for all subsequent weeks of the program.
I’ve seen the same transformation every summer. Many a parent has said to me, “I don’t know what you did to my kid! He’s never been interested in anything but video games. He hates school and doesn’t bother to do well in his classes, and now he is so excited about what he’s learned this week he wants to sign up for the whole summer!” One of these young men lived three hours away but his mom was so determined to latch on to the first sign of enthusiasm for life that she made sure he got here for every week. I also helped her find someone in his area to give him an occasional flight lesson throughout the year and keep the passion alive.
Another young man, Chris, really wanted to start the program when he was 11. Although we accepted ages 12-18, we allowed him to give it a try and he took every week for three summers. On the first field trip I was astounded at how much this 11 year old knew about every WWI aircraft at the local Museum of Flight. Glued to my side, he’d have each aircraft identified and pertinent stats rattled off before we got within 20 yards of the thing. Chris took occasional flight lessons during the year and probably could have soloed by the time he was 14.
As in all of aviation, the Young Aviators groups tend to be mostly male, although many girls have graduated as well. One of our first participants, Natalie, finished the program, signed on to wash airplanes, and took as many flight lessons as she could afford. She is now studying aeronautics at Embry Riddle. Many other summer alumni have gone on to solo with us, including my own son Kennan (yes, the one who complained about all the old people in aviation). Kennan proudly earned the ultimate Badge of Cool – soloing on his 16th birthday!
Each year the young instructor running the classes agrees - teaching kids is exhausting, but rewarding. This last summer, with the economy in the dumps, enrollment was down. I was wondering if I should cancel classes, when I had a surprise visit from a nearby pilot. Claude arrived in his Diamond Twinstar to check out our light sport options. We chatted a bit and he asked me why I thought young people weren’t attracted to aviation any more. We discussed fenced off airports, the lure of TV/video games, and the bleak outlook of commercial aviation jobs right now. When Claude expressed his desire to help kids discover aviation, I told him about my summer program. He was so enthusiastic about it that he offered to fund four scholarships – it was enough to keep our program on schedule for the year. He and another pilot contributed to three scholarships for 2010.
In that first year, I discovered the satisfaction of bringing youth into aviation and we continue to work on improving our program. If time and finances were unlimited, I’d create a nationwide campaign: Solo at Sixteen – the Ultimate Badge of Cool!