Bill Siegel has been flying planes since 1965 when he joined the Naval Academy. After serving as a Navy pilot for 20 years, he became a pilot instructor and then an airline pilot for Northwest Airlines for another two decades. After Siegel retired, he moved to Paso Robles with his family and started going to the Paso Robles Municipal Airport to fly.
It was then that he decided it was the right time to join the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), an international organization of aviation enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Siegel had known about the association throughout his career, but the Young Eagles program is what made him want to pursue a membership.
Dick Knapinski, the EAA’s communications advisor, said the Young Eagles program started in 1992 after association members were surveyed about what was the most important thing they could do as an organization. The overwhelming response was to get young people interested in aviation and flying.
“We have people such as Bill, who volunteer their time, their airplanes, and the fuel to introduce kids to flying and general aviation aircraft,” Knapinski said.
The association’s original goal was to fly 1 million kids by 2003, which was the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ first flight—the brothers were aviation pioneers. The EAA made its goal two months before the anniversary date and continued the momentum.
“Now we’re well over 2.1 million kids flown by more than 15,000 pilots over the past 26 years, so that’s become quite an impressive program,” Knapinski said.
Siegel in Paso Robles has flown 100 of those 2.1 million kids.
“I’ll take them as far as their curiosity will go,” Siegel said.
Through the Young Eagles program, Siegel will take kids on a 20-minute airplane ride with all of the bells and whistles.
After Siegel gets the child familiar with the body of the plane, it’s time to take a look inside and gear them up for their first flight.
“I put them in the right seat, strap them in, and give them a headset,” he said.
Depending on their age, Siegel allows them to push on the throttle and steer the plane, all with his direction.
After the flight is over, the child is able to sign their name in an official EAA Young Eagles log book and sign up to be an EAA member online—the membership is free until the age of 18. There are plenty of incentives to being a member, which includes taking an online private ground school course—a $200 value—for free.
Siegel and Knapinski both said that the program is not only to get young people excited about flying, it’s also about filling a practical need for new pilots in the field.
Knapinski said that Boeing estimates that the industry will need 15,000 new pilots over the next 10 years because of retirement and growth.
Young Eagles could also be the next aviation mechanics, air traffic controllers, or flight attendants.
“All of those things can really lead to a sense of accomplishment, a sense of achievement, regardless of what your background might be. Because the airplane doesn’t care where you came from—if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re white, black, Hispanic, it doesn’t care,” Knapinski said. “It just wants to be flown properly.”
The Paso Robles Experimental Aircraft Association chapter is holding a flying rally, offering free flights to kids on May 18. For more on the free flights, visit 465.eaachapter.org. To learn more about the Young Eagles program and how to arrange a private free flight, visit eaa.org.