Young Eagle program offers free airplane rides to youngsters

Youngsters sign up for the Young Eagles program at the Fulton County Airport Saturday that gave them a chance to fly in an airplane and learn how a plane is controlled. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

JOHNSTOWN – Doug Sterling has taken some 650 youngsters for free flights in his single-engine airplane. Some are afraid at first but then “become part of it,” he said.

Sapphire Bonafede of Johnstown was a little skittish at first, but after she saw “how tiny things are” from the air, she became intrigued. Her brother goes up year after year during the annual Young Eagles program, which was held Saturday at Fulton County Airport.

Every summer Chapter 353 of the Experimental Aircraft Association gives youths 8 to 17 a chance to take to the air.

“It’s to encourage them to be part of the flying community, to spark their interest in flying,” said Judy Sterling, coordinator of the Young Eagle program.

“The whole point of the program is to get the kids fired up.” More than two million youths have reportedly benefited from the experience nationwide.

A child waits to board a single-engine plane Saturday at Fulton County Airport where the area Experimental Aircraft Association chapter was offering free rides for youngsters. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

Before the youths take to the air with an experienced pilot, Edward Zwolinski, secretary of the chapter, uses a wooden model to explain how a pilot controls a plane’s movements.

Once in the plane, the pilot familiarizes the youth with the instrumentation. Sometimes he guides the youngster in taking the controls as co-pilot. The flight lasts about 15 minutes.

“My favorite part was the takeoff” — the increase in speed, said William McKeever of Rome.

“The kids love it. You can see it on their faces when boarding,” said pilot Bill Scheidegger of the Glens Falls EEA club.

Sterling said his first experience in flying was learning to fly gliders as a 13-year-old. When his grandmother passed away, she left him money to buy a car. Instead, he said he chose to take flying lessons.

Edward Zwolinski, secretary of the area Experimental Aircraft Association, uses a wooden model to explain how an airplane is controlled in flight. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

Currently the United States faces a shortage of tens of thousands of commercial and military pilots. Sterling believes this is because the country hasn’t been at war lately. Military pilots make for good commercial pilots, he said. Sterling also believes flight-simulator video games can be helpful in gaining flying skills.

A single-engine plane taxis to the runway carrying youngsters for a free plane ride Saturday at Fulton County Airport. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

A single-engine plane carries youngsters for a free plane ride Saturday at Fulton County Airport. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)