The excitement of flight was clearly evident on the faces of two children Saturday as they walked into the terminal of the Jacksonville Municipal Airport.
Mason Benz, 8, and Nevaeh Benz, 6, were among 44 children who got free airplane rides — many of them for the first time — as part of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 137’s Young Eagles Rally.
“I think it was super awesome,” Mason said. “I got to see the whole town at once.” He added that “going really fast” was the best part of his flight.
His sister added that she got to fly the plane and saw “a lot of little houses and little cars.” Mason and Nevaeh are the children of Quentin and Amber Benz of Murrayville.
The Young Eagles Rally is just one of several things EAA Chapter 137 does to promote education and safety in aviation. The group gives free airplane rides for children between the ages of 8 and 17 three times a year — twice at the Jacksonville airport and once at the Pittsfield airport.
“We want folks to know about the Jacksonville Municipal Airport, and more importantly we want young people to have the chance to learn about aviation,” said Kent Allen of Jacksonville, president of EAA Chapter 137. “We probably take about 150 children up in planes every year. We are in the air about 20 minutes, and we try to point out local landmarks and, if we can, find them their house and school. There is no greater satisfaction than taking a young person for their first airplane ride.”
EAA is an international organization of aviation enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The organization has more than 180,000 members and nearly 1,000 chapters worldwide, according to Wikipedia.
EAA Chapter 137 has about 40 active members ranging in age from 16 to 75.
“The main thing I would like to stress is that we are not a bunch of rich kids flying airplanes,” Young Eagles coordinator Jack Stewart of Jacksonville said. “We are just normal working people, and the cost of operating an airplane is not much more than any other big boy hobby.”
EAA Chapter 137 holds two pancake breakfast fly-ins each year to raise money to help promote aviation. “We used some money to purchase a camera and printer in order to give each child a picture to remember their flight,” Allen said.
One EAA Chapter 137 member who exemplifies what the group is all about is Josh Mattson of New Berlin. Mattson caught the flying bug at age 8 in 2002 when he got his first plane ride in Taylorville. Today, he is an avionics technician with the Illinois Air National Guard at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville.
“EAA has been a huge factor in my life,” Mattson said. “I wouldn’t have done any of the things I’ve accomplished without the help and guidance of EAA.”
Member Tom Tholen is one of about eight experienced pilots who take children on free airplane rides, and he enjoys the experience.
“Taking kids up is a lot of fun,” Tholen said. “To see their reactions is priceless. Some of them will be timid when we take off, but once they are up in the air, they loosen up and start seeing things that amaze them. When they get back on the ground they can’t wait to tell everyone what they saw.”