Zachary Schlaefli couldn’t help himself.
He stepped off the small airplane and back on the ground and immediately cracked a wide smile. The 10-year-old then pumped his hands up and down in joy and ran to his mother, Pam, who was waiting nearby.
Schlaefli was officially a “Young Eagle.”
“It was awesome,” he said, with a smile, during Saturday morning’s Young Eagles Rally at Yankton’s Chan Gurney Municipal Airport.
Approximately 30 youth ages 8-17 participated in the annual free event conducted by the Yankton Chapter 1029 of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), an organization based in Wisconsin.
The Young Eagles program of the EAA set a national goal of providing 100,000 kids a free airplane ride this year, and Schlaefli — who lives near Tabor — is now on the list.
“The cars were like little specks and the semi trucks were little, tiny lines,” he said. “And the houses looked like tiny cubes.”
Schlaefli said his favorite part was when his pilot, Rolly Goeden, turned the plane.
“It was a great experience for him and a wonderful opportunity for these kids,” Pam said. “When we told him we were coming over her, he was very excited.”
That’s the whole point of the program, according to Young Eagles coordinator Christen Lacey.
“It’s all about getting them excited about flying,” she said. “If we plant that seed right now, maybe one day they’ll want to fly in some capacity.”
According to the organization, the Yankton EAA chapter given more than 3,000 kids rides in similar events in area airports — Yankton, Gregory, Vermillion, Bloomfield (Nebraska) and Hartington (Nebraska) — during the past 24 years.
The reactions of the youth who experience the short flights are what makes the event so much fun, according to Lacey.
“It’s great to see the kids getting their first ride on a plane,” she said. “It’s fun to watch the faces of those who are nervous beforehand and then to see their smiles when they get back.”
Those who participated in Saturday’s event received a flight certificate, a pilot logbook for a free web-based ground school training (ages 13-17), and their names will be placed in the world’s largest logbook at www.youngeagles.org.
Yankton pilot Jake Hoffner, who has provided rides in many of the Young Eagles events, said Saturday he has personally given 470 kids a ride in his planes.
Although he could take up a group of kids at a time in one of his planes, Hoffner said he enjoys taking one up at a time.
“That’s totally awesome,” he said.
At one point Saturday, Hoffner said he gave one young boy a ride and, as the youngster was leaving the plane, Hoffner said he commented, “This is the best day of my life.”
“The look on their faces is always priceless,” Hoffner said.
There’s also plenty of planning that goes into a Young Eagles event for the pilots, he added.
“We really stress safety,” Hoffner said.
With that in mind, he said the Young Eagles Rally is also beneficial for the pilots as they stay current with their hours and techniques.
“Behind the scenes, a pilot has a huge responsibility,” Hoffner said.
At the end of the day, though, the Young Eagles Rally was about the kids, and even those like 10-year-old Aubrie Etheridge, who had flown before enjoyed Saturday’s experience.
Etheridge, who lives near Yankton, participated in last year’s event and said she remembered the “weird” feeling of being that far up in the area over her town.
She said the moment that stuck out most to her was when the pilot let the young boy flying with the group briefly test out the controls.
What else stood out?
“You can see everything up there,” Etheridge said.