There’s a common misconception that eagles teach their young to fly by pushing them out of the nest. In fact, eagles introduce their offspring into the air through a careful process of training and mentoring that starts with a short flight. For young eagles, the motivation for that first flight is typically hunger: the parent lands on a branch near the nest holding food, and the fledglings must spread their wings to get it.
For young humans, a first flight alone often sparks that hunger to take to the air. The EAA Young Eagles program provides the flights that will inspire many youngsters to become the pilots and aviation leaders of tomorrow. In its 31 years of operation, the program has flown nearly 2.3 million young people, and 20,000 of today’s aviation professionals credit Young Eagles (YE) with inspiring their careers. The program is a great opportunity for kids longing to fly, families hoping to encourage them, and pilots and other people looking to give back.
According to David Leiting, Young Eagles Program Manager, the program offers not only those all-important first flights, but education, mentoring, and resources to help launch them into aviation careers. Flights are available to young people ages 8 through 17. Inquiries for flights come from scout or church groups, from people attending air shows or YE rallies at local airports, or through the EEA website. Kids can register for a free flight online. On the day of the flight, they show up at a local airport to meet a volunteer pilot who will teach them a bit about the aircraft, explain the flight plan, and take them through a preflight inspection of the aircraft. During the flight, the pilot will demonstrate how to do gentle climbs, turns, and descents. After the flight, the young person will get a certificate and the chance to take pictures with their volunteer pilot and plane.
The EAA website offers a rich set of resources for Young Eagles who want to learn more about aviation. There are aviation camps, including GirlVenture, a camp experience aimed specifically at introducing girls to aviation careers. There are resources for learning to fly, including online education, information on aviation careers, and a sport pilot academy. For younger students, their families, and teachers, there’s the AeroEducate program, with learning materials to introduce kids to the fun and science of flight. There’s even a comic book series in which the young pilot hero battles villains such as Turbulence and Drag. Young Eagles going on to aviation careers can apply for EAA Ray Aviation Scholarships.
Leiting says Young Eagles is always in need of more volunteer pilots. (Volunteer requirements are listed here.) Before taking kids on YE flights, volunteers complete a youth protection course and background check. Before a flight, the child’s guardian signs a waiver, and the YE program kicks in additional $1M of insurance coverage for each flight. Leiting also emphasizes that not all volunteers have to be pilots. For example, every EAA chapter has a YE coordinator who handles planning and coordination of events and flights, insurance, etc. Volunteers also give their time to go to shows, museums, air show events, and classrooms, and ground volunteers check in and escort families of the young fliers, answer questions, and print certificates for them. The program is also supported through donations and corporate sponsorships. For example, Lightspeed has supported Young Eagles since 2010, donating free Zulu 3 and Sierra headsets to dedicated Young Eagle volunteer pilots, for fundraising events, and for each Ray Aviation Scholar who completes their first solo flight. (You can meet some of those proud young pilots here.)
David Leiting manages the program today, but his own aviation career also started with a Young Eagles flight. He grew up a few hours south of Oshkosh, WI, and his family started bringing him to AirVenture when he was 6 months old. The annual trip became a highlight of his childhood, and at AirVenture 2002, his family registered him for a YE flight. He got to fly in a DC3 to open the airshow, and he says, “I was hooked.” He earned a degree in aviation management at the University of North Dakota, and, while there, got involved with the local EAA chapter. He flew his first YE flight the same year he got his pilot’s certificate. He became YE coordinator for his chapter, was offered an internship at EAA, and has been with the Young Eagles program for a couple of years now. He says: “It’s a super meaningful program to me, and my mom’s now a YE coordinator at her local chapter in Illinois now. So, it’s truly much more than my 8-to-5 day job.”
Leiting delights in the enthusiasm of all his young passengers, but there are a few flights that particularly stand out in his mind. One was a very young boy who looked at David after his flight and said “I’m going to do this one day. I’m going to fly fire-fighting tankers, and that’s why I want to become a pilot.” Another was a young teen whose name actually was Pilot. “And it wasn’t just his name. He was already totally immersed in aviation, and he was an absolute natural. He was watching Flight Tracker and narrating to me what was happening. I know someday he’s going to be captain of a commercial airliner and come on the intercom and say, ‘This is your captain, Pilot, speaking.’” Another “natural” was a boy whose parents wanted him to have a flight for his 17th birthday. “He’s gone on to get involved in his local EAA chapter, and I have a feeling he’ll be a scholarship recipient someday.”
It speaks volumes that so many Young Eagles go on, not only to fly, but to be pilot volunteers. Leiting says, “They took a YE flight when they were in their early teens, they got involved, and then they send us photos of themselves flying their first YE volunteer flight, paying it forward. They’re only 17 or 18, and there they are having a chance to impact a child the way someone impacted them. And for the child that’s flying, being flown by someone close to their age makes the possibility of flying more attainable and real in that moment. It shows that supporting YE not only inspires kids about aviation, it’s how we create the pilots who’ll inspire the Young Eagles of the future.”
If you would like to volunteer or support the Young Eagles program, or if you know a child who would love to fly and to learn more about aviation, you can find out more at eaa.org/eaa/youth/free-ye-flights.