GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Eleven-year-old Jayden Heisler strapped in to the five-passenger aircraft and sat determined to soar about 800 feet over Green Cove Springs, the St. Johns River and Fleming Island.
He said his first shot at flight in an experimental aircraft was not as successful as it was this year.
“No, I did it one year before, but I must admit, I did actually quit early because it felt kind of like going down in a roller coaster and by then, I was kind a little bit of a wimp,” Heisler said.
Heisler, one of more than 100 kids from Duval and Clay Counties who took part in the Young Eagles Program sponsored yearly, free of charge by Chapter 1379 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which is based at Haller Airpark, south of Green Cove Springs off U.S. 17.
Heisler described this year’s flight as awesome. He is glad to have earned his certificate, gotten his photograph taken with his pilot and enjoyed time his two brothers and father who accompanied him.
He said it was amazing being up in the plane “because you just have a view of everything, the trees and houses and all the people and the St. Johns River. Oh, it’s so huge. You really get a concept of how big it is when you’re flying. When driving over the bridge, you’re just like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty big,’ but when you’re flying, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s actually really big’,” Heisler said.
Jayden’s 13-year-old brother took a steadier approach to having taken the flight, his second
In two outings. He said it was fun.
“I guess I just enjoy flying planes. Everything looked tiny,” said Jacob Heisler.
Although Jacob said he couldn’t identify specific landmarks, the ride was exciting and made him “a little bit interested in becoming a pilot.”
And that’s the whole point as the nation faces a tremendous forthcoming shortage of commercial pilots at the same time air travel gains in popularity.
Another facet leading to the impending shortage is a law that prohibits commercial pilots from flying past age 65.
“Right now, the airline industry is experiencing a thing where a lot of guys are reaching that retirement age and there’s not a lot of guys coming up through the pipeline to take their place. The airlines get their pilots from the military and some from private general aviation, but mostly they come from the military, so there’s just not the numbers that there used to be,” said Joe Tierney, president of EAA Chapter 1379.
The EAA launched the Young Eagles program in 1992 to get kids from 8 to 17 the opportunity to go flying in a general aviation airplane for free. The volunteers who participate in the Young Eagles program are local members of EAA who are volunteering their time, aircraft and fuel to make the flights possible.
After the flight, the pilot presented each student with a Young Eagles logbook with a code they can use to activate a Free EAA Student Membership, which has a few perks. Young Eagles get free access to the Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course valued at $199, free admission to 300-plus science and technology museums, free Academy of Model Aeronautics Student Membership and a free electronic copy of EAA Sport Aviation.
Paul Jaffray, 54, of Fleming Island, coordinated the Oct. 20 event for the EAA chapter. An IT director by day, he likes to fly to relieve stress. Sometimes he and his wife will hop in their plane on a Saturday morning and fly somewhere just for lunch and back again.
The Experimental Aircraft Association provided a $1 million insurance policy for the day and, Jaffray said, part of his job was to ensure the licensed pilots who flew children that day had a successful background check and were not fatigued but were ready for flight. Prior to boarding a plane, each student also went through a safety briefing.
Jaffray took 9-year-old Mckenzie Harris up for a successful flight. She said before going up, she imagined flying as being scary “because you go high up in the air and very fast.”
Said she enjoyed seeing a few birds, but she’s not sure she’s interested in being a pilot.
“I wanted to see what it would be like flying,” she said. “I saw the St. Johns River, it looked so small down there.”
It was the first time Jim Steele of Jacksonville had ever attended a Young Eagles event. Steele accompanied about 8 members of Boy Scout Troop 522 out of Ortega United Methodist Church who are working on obtaining their aviation merit badge and the fly-in provided the proper mix of ingredients required. Scouts can earn an aviation merit badge en route to becoming an Eagle Scout.
“We’ve got several of our boys who are working on their aviation merit badges. It’s an optional badge – this is something they show interest in and they pursue on their own,” Steele said.
“They have to do some basic study on some aerodynamics, understand the mechanics of the plane, some safety things, careers in aviation, and of course, get some flight time in also,” Steele said.