As veteran pilot Donald Booker took off in a handsome red-and-white Piper Cherokee from Sonoma Skypark Airport, Beverly and Walt Marshall watched closely. Their 11-year-old grandson, A.J. Marshall, was the co-pilot for his maiden flight in a small aircraft.
The sixth-grader from Hidden Valley Lake “got to go up and down and steer,” he reported after the 15-minute aerial tour of Sonoma Valley. “I saw the football field and the baseball field and wineries and like, three mansions.”
The experience was provided free through the monthly Young Eagles flight program offered by the Experimental Aircraft Association chapter at the Skypark, a privately operated, public use airport a few miles southeast of downtown Sonoma.
The association promotes and supports recreational flying, with its volunteer ground crew, assistants and pilots making the flights possible. The flights are open to youngsters 8 to 17, with more boys than girls typically taking off each month.
The Marshalls drove nearly two hours from Lake County and were first at the airport gate early last Sunday, so A.J. could have the sky-high experience of his summer. Beverly Marshall heard about the program from a co-worker and was captivated by the possibilities.
“We thought it could be life-changing,” she said. A.J. said he wanted to return for another flight. He’d only flown once before, in a jetliner from Sacramento to Anaheim for a Disneyland vacation. Now, he has his own Young Eagles certificate and an official logbook to chart his flights.
Elijah Wright of Lake Berryessa, also 11, took off last week on his 14th flight over Sonoma Valley. He has helped man the controls several times, a memorable experience for a seventh-grader.
“It’s cool to see everything in the sky,” said Elijah, the youngest of five children. “You can see the whole valley, everything.”
His dad, Greeley Wright, is grateful to the volunteer pilots who typically use their own planes and cover fuel expenses to introduce youngsters to the joys of general aviation. Otherwise, he said, the experience would be out of financial reach.
“We try never to miss a month that they’re flying,” he said. Pilots explain the controls and basics of aviation, giving young passengers “the full experience,” said Elijah’s dad. “That’s why he does it. It’s not to be a tourist.”
Skypark manager Ron Price is a longtime pilot with the Young Eagles program. A retired TWA captain, he regularly takes his bright yellow 1949 Piper Vagabond two-seater out for rides circling over Sonoma Valley. Price knows the flights are more than just a fun time for his passengers.
At least four young adults who’ve become commercial airline pilots were introduced to flying through the Young Eagles program at the Skypark; another teen is studying commercial aviation at a community college in Arizona. Countless others developed interests in aviation by coming out to the airport, meeting the licensed pilots and ascending toward the clouds.
“It’s the exposure,” Price said. “It opens their eyes to what the possibilities are.”
Young Eagles coordinator B.K. White, a Marine Corps veteran who flew over battlefields to coordinate artillery operations, said there’s a definite enthusiasm among families when kids come out for the flight days.
“You can see that wistful look in their eye,” he said of the parents and grandparents who accompany kids to the Skypark.
The young passengers “are smiling ear to ear” when they land, White said, and family members usually are capturing the moment on camera.
The local Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1268 provides plane rides to an average of 22 kids per month, with flights departing one Sunday morning monthly. The record holds at 44 kids in a single day, when a Boy Scout troop showed up on a bus. Everyone was accommodated.
The program was launched in 1992 to introduce youngsters to general aviation. The Young Eagles program is offered worldwide in more than 90 countries. Since its inception, more than 2 million youngsters have flown with some 42,000 volunteer pilots.
Besides Sonoma’s program, Young Eagles flights are offered in Sonoma County through association Chapter 124 in Santa Rosa.
In Sonoma Valley, about 10 pilots work with the Young Eagles program, five of them regularly. Although several are retired commercial pilots, at least one is just starting his career.
Colin Traynor, a 2015 graduate of Sonoma Valley High School, is assistant manager at the Skypark. He soloed for the first time on his 16th birthday, and earned his private pilot’s license at 18 — before getting his driver’s license.
He typically comes out for Young Eagles flights on his day off, happy to donate his time.
“I like taking kids for their first time. That’s the best,” said Traynor, 21. “Most of the kids jump in and are ready to go.”
He’s working toward his commercial license, and is hopeful his Young Eagles involvement might help inspire a future pilot or two.
Petaluma resident Ed Fullerton had a 50-year career in aviation and leads Petaluma Rotary Club-sponsored aviation clubs at McKinley and La Tercera elementary schools in Petaluma. He was at the Skypark last Sunday with his three grandsons and their dad, Elwin Smit of Petaluma.
The family was jubilant as 9-year-old twins Jayden and Keenan, and their brother Kiel, 11½, landed from their flight with Booker, a retired United Airlines captain who piloted both jetliners and helicopters during his long aviation career.
Although Keenan and Kiel had been on Young Eagles flights before, this was Jayden’s first time in a small aircraft.
“When we felt like it was zero gravity, it was really fun,” said Jayden, who was co-pilot for the flight. “I had my hand on the wheel for 5 seconds.”
His grandfather, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, gives high praise to the Young Eagles program and the pilots and aviation enthusiasts who are members of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
“This is a dynamite program,” Fullerton said. “This is why we’re here.”