College Place brothers Jaden and Keenan Pewitt, ages 8 and 12 respectively, trailed Don Gibbard on the tarmac at Martin Field airport Sunday.
In addition to the procession of small planes incoming and outgoing, the air was filled with crowd murmurs and the musings of the master of ceremonies, who sat, mic in hand, on a scissor lift telling the assembled crowd about airplane horsepower and the story of the Wright Brothers.
A man in an orange vest biked around, directing the incoming planes pulling in.
The small parade led by Gibbard reached its destination. Jaden climbed into the back of Gibbard’s Cessna 172. Keenan climbed in front.
They put on headsets and seat belts, and Keenan slammed the door. The propeller spun into invisibility.
“I’m so excited,” Keenan said, his voice made thin and distant through the headset.
The brothers were among 167 kids whom members of local chapter 604 of the Experimental Aircraft Association took to the skies Sunday — for free — as part of the Young Eagles Flight Rally in what has become an annual tradition.
Eight pilots, more than ever before, donated their time, aircraft and fuel for the opportunity to showcase the joys of aviation to a younger generation. Older flying enthusiasts locally and nationwide are using such annual events to encourage youngsters to take up the mantle of flight amid dwindling interest in the industry.
J.W. “Torch” Davis, a local chapter spokesman, said when he was learning to fly as a teen there was a “glut” of pilots, drawn in by the romance of aviation, travel, adventure, vacation time and high pay if you went commercial.
Not so today.
Flying can be prohibitively expensive and has lost some of the romantic cultural luster of its earlier days.
“All our pilots are retirement age,” chapter President Bill Herrington said. “That’s something that we’re trying to fix.”
Some local EAA members are in the process of forming a flying club that would operate as a kind of plan share, Herrington said. Through this, by a communal plane could be rented out at rates on the order of $35 per hour (for insurance reasons, EAA chapters cannot, as an organization, own an actively flying plane).
But since its 1953 inception, the Experimental Aircraft Association has expanded its scope to represent a wide variety of aviation interests, central among which is sharing the love and passion for flying with others.
Its mission is to “grow participation in aviation by promoting ‘The Spirit Aviation,’” according to the organization’s website.
Flying culture is often characterized by a certain aesthetic sensibility, embodied by the easy Appalachian radio cadence that Tom Wolfe, in his book “The Right Stuff,” famously attributed to the influence of pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager.
“Part of it is ‘do you sound like Chuck Yeager?’” according to Davis, who said many pilot’s basic demeanors change when they get in a plane.
He said “the main thing is just to sound professional, like you know what you’re doing,” so when communicating by radio with other pilots, as one does over a pilot-controlled airport like Martin Field in College Place, or with a air traffic controller in tower-controlled airspace like that over Walla Walla Regional Airport, a pilot can inspire some confidence over the airwaves.
Gibbard’s Cessna rolled down the tarmac, and the pilot executed a 360-degree turn before entering the runway.
“Uncontrolled airport,” he explained. Some of the older planes don’t have a radio. You’ve got to double-check, he said.
Then, into the mic, “Zero Five Foxtrot.”
Keenan said, through the headset, “Jaden, we’re taking off,” and the plane rumbled skyward.
Upon repeated inquiries from Keenan, Gibbard frequently narrated the altitude, which typically stood around 2,000 feet. Walla Walla is around 1,000 feet above sea level — Walla Walla airport is officially listed at 1,191 feet — so the plane was a clean 1,000 feet over the wheat fields.
“No wonder the cars look like ants,” said Jaden, peering down at U.S. Highway 12.
“This is fun,” said Jaden, “the ultimate flight-pilot video game.”
After a touch and go at Walla Walla Regional Airport, Gibbard took the plane toward Milton-Freewater before turning back to Martin Airfield. Keenan briefly took the controls.
“I really want to be a pilot,” he said.