At 9 years old, Gianna “Gigi” Anderson already has plans to become a pilot — and she’s had more experience behind the controls of a plane than most people of any age.
Gigi, from Hagerstown, is a “frequent flyer” with the Young Eagles, which aims to introduce kids aged 8 to 17 to the wide world of aviation.
The program is sponsored by Chapter 36 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA, at the Hagerstown Regional Airport. It typically runs one event a month from April through October where young people can fly for free with volunteer pilots.
Over the past couple of summers, fourth-grade home-school student Gigi has come to numerous events, flying six or seven times, including her first time in an airplane.
“When I first went into a plane, I was like, ‘I really, really like this,’” she said.
After that, she was hooked.
“I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know what it was going to be like and then when I was done, I felt so good that I wanted to do it again,” she said.
Gigi also comes to “build nights” with the EAA on Mondays, where a fully functional plane is built from a kit and sold to help fund the Young Eagles. She is also building a smaller wooden plane with her father, Todd Anderson.
“No one has any interest in going up in an airplane except for Gigi,” Anderson said. “We like to support what our kids are interested in.”
Gaining knowledge about aviation as a whole has been a major plus of participating with the Young Eagles, he said.
According to EAA Chapter 36 President Ray Franze, education is part of the program’s mission.
“The benefits of the Young Eagles program go beyond a one-time flight experience,” he said in an email.
Franze said Young Eagles are eligible for a free EAA student membership, which provides access to an online Learn to Fly course.
After completing the course’s first three volumes, the EAA will provide funding to cover the costs of the Young Eagle’s first actual flight lesson.
Once the entire course is finished, the student receives the required endorsement to take the Federal Aviation Administration’s knowledge test required to become a private pilot. The EAA will reimburse the cost of exam upon successful completion, he said.
Student pilots are eligible to fly solo on their 16th birthday and take their checkride, or practical test, to become a private pilot as early as their 17th birthday, according to Franze.
“Between access to the Learn to Fly course, voucher for a training flight, and reimbursement for the FAA Knowledge Test, EAA’s student membership provides over $500 worth of benefits. And Young Eagles are welcome back for additional flights,” he said.
Franze said the EAA student membership program also opens up access to more than 400 science and technology museums around the country, along with providing additional memberships to the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the Soaring Society of America.
“Aviation is a perfect match for a world that is emphasizing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum,” Franze said. “From preflight planning to parking the aircraft at the end of a flight, pilots are exposed to engineering, physics, meteorology, geography, topography, math, electronics, communication, navigation and more.”
Franze said EAA Chapter 36 is “blessed” to have so many dedicated volunteers who make each event a success, from registration table volunteers, ground school instructors, kitchen staff, ramp volunteers, pilots and everyone who helps with the setup and tear down.
According to Franze, the Young Eagles program has flown at least 5,000 to 6,000 children since the program’s inception in 1992.
He cited pilots Mark Hissey and Curtis Berry as two of the Hagerstown program’s most prolific flight volunteers.
Serena Stevens, 14 of Greencastle, Pa., has taken part in Young Eagle events for the past three years after seeing an advertisement on Facebook.
The Broadfording Christian Academy ninth-grader often rides as the front-seat passenger and has also taken over the craft’s steering several times.
“It’s fun. I enjoy being able to fly the plane,” she said, adding her dream flight would be over an ocean.
Mother Stephanie Hart said Serena plans to continue attending events when possible and was thinking about getting her pilot’s license down the line.
“I think at this point, it’s more of a hobby,” she said.
Hart said she was glad Serena and other children have opportunities like the Young Eagles available to them to expose them to the many opportunities within the aviation field.
“It’s more than just going up in a plane. They get to learn a little bit about it because most people have no idea how the plane works,” Hart said.
Young Eagles who show an active interest in aviation also have access to scholarship opportunities.
Last year, EAA Chapter 36 received funding from the James Ray Foundation to form the Ray Aviation Scholarship, which provides up to $10,000 toward flight training costs.
The first scholarship recipient, Elizabeth Thornwall of Boonsboro, recently passed her checkride test and is now an FAA-certified private pilot, according to Franze.
Eleven-year-old Mary Lou Bish went to one Hagerstown event last summer and was so impressed, she joined the Young Eagles program at the Frederick Regional Airport closer to where she and her family live.
A big fan of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, the home-schooled sixth-grader said she has always been interested in airplanes, but after her first Young Eagles flight in August, she knew she wanted to get more involved.
“It was really great and a whole new view of the world. I felt like a bird flying,” Mary Lou said. “It’s unbelievable when you look down.”
Mary Lou said she wants to join the Air Force when she get older, like her late grandfather. She plans to be a pilot, but also enjoys learning about how planes are assembled and fly.
“She always likes reading about the Wright brothers and Amelia Earhart,” mother Rebecca Bish said.
While Mary Lou said she thinks it’s natural to be a little scared of flying, she encourages any other kids interested in learning about planes and aviation to check out the Young Eagles program.
For more information, visit eaa.org/eaa/youth/free-ye-flights, youngeaglesday.org or the EAA Chapter 36 Facebook page.