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DARE graduates earn chance to fly in Young Eagles program
WINCHESTER -- By Kim Walter -- Daily Correspondent
Tuesday may have seemed like a typical hot summer's day, but to a group of students at Winchester's airport, it was one they will never forget.
As a reward for passing their DARE class, some Frederick County fifth-graders were able to come out and take to the skies in small, general aviation planes with pilots from the Young Eagles program.
Formed in 1992 by the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Young Eagles program was based on the hopes that giving children the chance to ride in a small plane with a licensed pilot would spark interest in aviation. In 1996, a few years after volunteering for a Young Eagles event, Richard and Ginny Largent decided to step up as heads of the EAA Chapter 186 out of Manassas. Largent has been flying since 1988, and in May he flew his 1,000th Young Eagle.
Largent, who is retired and is hobbyist pilot, became field representative, meaning that he is the go-to guy when other pilots are interested in volunteering with the chapter. In 2000, his wife, Ginny, became the chapter's coordinator, planning events and working with the multitude of groups that come through the program.
From the beginning, the Young Eagles program had high hopes, as they set a goal to fly 1 million children by December 17, 2003, which marked the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C. The goal was reached in October 2003, and since that time an additional 600,000 international Young Eagles have had the unique flying experience that the program offers.
Students ranging in age from 8-17 can participate in the program, and amazingly enough, it is completely free for them to do so. All costs come out of the pilots' pockets.
"This entire program runs on the generosity of the pilots who want to pass on their knowledge -- their love -- of aviation," said Largent, as he scanned the small group waiting for their turn to fly.
As the children and parents waited in the airport's lobby Tuesday for one of a few pilots there to take them on a ride, they could be seen looking out the large windows and chatting, sometimes nervously. One group of 11-year-old boys, including Cody Bowers, Owen Woodward and Peter Manzione, gathered excitedly.
Even though they had all flown in planes before, they greatly looked forward to the particular experience that awaited them. Owen was excited about getting to wear one of the headsets with a mouthpiece, while Cody thought the runway and take off would be something special.
Peter had his camera in hand, and as he rode in the front seat of a yellow 1946 J3 Cub plane moments later, he exuded confidence and happiness: His hands were in the thumbs-up position as he and the pilot made their way onto the runway.
Emma Sites, 11, and Kaitlynn Bailey, 10, also from the DARE program, talked before the flight. While Kaitlynn was "scared and excited," Emma hoped that the flight would help her get over her fear of heights. Neither of the girls had ever been on a plane before, but wise beyond her years, Kaitlynn predicted that it was "just gonna be a great experience," as she swung her camera back and forth.
Though the Young Eagles program began with just orientation flight, Sporty's, a sponsorship program, now offers free online training, which can be used in the process of obtaining a sport or private pilot certificate. Essentially, it prepares the youngsters to take the EAA's Knowledge Exam.
After going on the 15-20 minute flight, participants are given a logbook to record their flight hours. The book also comes with a code that allows them to access the online portion of the program, and is signed by their personal pilot.
The Largents are very proud that two of their Young Eagles continued with their interest in aviation.
"Ten years ago a girl came with her mom to help with a Boy Scout event. I went ahead and gave her a ride, and it was obvious that she was a natural pilot," beamed Largent. The girl went on to college and is now an air traffic controller in Chicago.
Another young man from Strasburg is in the process of getting his private pilot certificate.
Although Largent has flown more than 1,000 youngsters over the years, only two have gotten sick during the flight.
"A good many of them will get in with butterflies, and by about 10 seconds into the flight, all fear is gone. Houses become thimbles and people look like ants; the brain starts to see things in a way that it never has before," Largent said.
Many different groups have come through the Young Eagles program, and at all different times of the year. "It doesn't have to be a group of 10 or 12 ... if one, two or three children want to do it, then we'll get them up in the sky."
There are even pilots with the Young Eagles program who have disabilities, and thanks to them, events for special needs students are available.
"Anyone can fly. Of course, we hope to plant a seed in the youngsters, but we aren't trying to force a career in aviation on anyone. It can be a hobby or a fun thing to do, and it gives pilots like myself a chance to bring folks out to the airport so they can realize it's for them," Largent said.
Both Largents have won awards associated with the Young Eagles program. In 2004, they got the Outstanding Field Representative award, presented by EAA National, and later in July they will be honored to accept the Conoco-Phillips EAA Young Eagles Leadership Award at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis. The event is the largest air show in the world.
It's no surprise that they are nationally recognized for their volunteer work, as they often spend time educating children and parents about aviation at schools, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Boy and Girl Scout events and with the Civil Air Patrol. Mrs. Largent has even developed a private pilot grant in the amount of $2,000 to offset the cost of aviation, which both of the Young Eagles previously mentioned received.
Since 1992, more than 40,000 pilots have given of their time and money to fly children. Though she's done so much for her chapter, Mrs. Largent made sure to say that "it's very much a group effort."
Later, 11-year-old Sarah Pitcock and 10-year-old Caitlin Flaherty insisted on sitting together in the back of Largent's white and maroon Cessna 172. It was their first flight.
Largent wore a headset, taking off his hat to put the headset on and setting it with the two girls asking them to keep watch over it.
It was a smooth takeoff, and the plane was quickly airborne. During the 15-minute flight, Largent explained to the girls everything he was doing with the speed, different knobs and how he could tell that everything was going according to plan.
While they were up, the girls became excited when they spotted two deer 1,000 feet below.
The attention he gave the passengers, as well as the ease he had when flying, showed just how much the program means to Largent, and how important it is for him to teach what he is truly passionate about.
As the plane smoothly touched down on the ground, everything went back to normal, and the girls wasted no time asking to get a picture with their pilot, which Largent was more than happy to do.
When asked what the Young Eagles program, and aviation in general, has done positively in his life, Largent paused and looked over at his wife.
"It may sound a little corny, but we never had kids ... now I've had a thousand in my plane, and I get to show them all something that I enjoy," he said. "It always makes me happy to see the ones whose eyes get bright as they get in the plane."