Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 351 member Larry Smith hopes a biannual flight event held in Enterprise will inspire children and youth to look at aviation for their futures.
The Young Eagles Day at the Enterprise Municipal Airport on Saturday, April 20 was led by the EAA to provide flights and aviation education for over 150 children who attended the event.
Smith said the Young Eagles program began in 1992 as a way to introduce pre-college “youngsters” to the aviation profession. Since the program’s inception, around 2.2 million children have been taken to the skies internationally.
“We’re not talking about just taking them up for a joyride,” Smith said, stating children who attend the event are taken to different stations to learn about aerodynamics, safety and more before being taken into the air. “The kids get to climb on and in the planes before their ride time comes. The idea is to get them interested in what they’re about to do because once the wheels leave the ground, it’s a totally different perspective.”
A new station this year is an inspection station where children are tasked with finding what’s wrong with an aircraft.
“There’s something wrong with it, something that’s obvious,” he said. “The kids start crawling all over the aircraft, looking for things like (a missing propeller).”
A volunteer air patrol group, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) from Dothan, was also on hand to speak with children about planes and aviation, with many of its members being children and youth as well.
Meica Henley, a youth volunteer with CAP, said the organization is teaching children about the build and function of the plane and its controls.
“We’re talking about the plane, how it functions and works, and answer questions,” Henley said. “We’re teaching them the controls, and if, just in case… they need to pay attention to the controls.”
Jackson Thorpe, another youth volunteer, said the group is also using the event to bring awareness to CAP programs and services, such as search and rescue operations.
“We’re a volunteer organization under the Air Force Auxiliary, so while we may have some active military members, we are a pure volunteer force,” he said, stating the Young Eagles event can open children and others’ eyes to aviation.
He said the group meets in Dothan on Monday nights, teaching members about communications, how to use tools to perform search and rescue operations, leadership and more.
Smith said the event is similar to an industry day for children.
“The main reason for that is that there’s an aviation shortage coming in the United States,” he said. “That’s why we emphasize aviation as a profession.”
Smith said the aviation field includes careers other than pilots, like weather forecasters, mechanics and more, and he said now is the perfect time to “get involved in aviation” with career incentives and aviation education tuition being offered by various companies and institutions.
“Every aspect of the aviation profession is going to come up short, so by introducing pre-college age kids (to aviation), we hope to get an interest that they might consider aviation as a profession.”
Anthony Hanson, a volunteer pilot for the program, said he was fortunate to have exposure to aviation at a young age thanks to two uncles who worked in aviation. He said he wants to provide that experience to children today.
“I was blessed to have that motivation as a kid,” he said. “The majority of kids out there don’t get that kind of inspiration from their immediate family, so the number one motivation (for these children) is providing that experience and to give them that (experience).”
Smith, himself, is a product of experiencing flight at a young age and making a career of it. He said he first flew in a plane at 14 years old.
“I kind of got bitten by the bug,” he said. “It’s a totally different perspective of the world.”
He was later drafted in the Army and became a helicopter pilot. After 20 years in the Army, he received his qualifications to fly other aircraft. Smith said a lot of other pilots have similar stories to him and have years of flying experience on their resume.
These pilots are the ones who provide the children with flights and education on aviation twice a year for free. The next Young Eagles Day will be held on Nov. 2.
“General aviation is a personalized form of recreation,” he said. “Some people like to golf; some people like to play softball. Some people like to race cars. Some people like to fly.”