“Always like what?” I responded.
It was a beautiful late summer day in northern Virginia, or should I say, over northern Virginia – 2,500 feet above some of the battlefields that shaped American history. I was flying in support of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program, carrying three Boy Scouts in my 1967 Cessna O-2A. Departing Manassas, the mountains guarding the Shenandoah Valley some 20 miles to the west were crystal clear, the mid-morning air was smooth, and we had just cleared the Washington, DC, Special Flight Rules Area. The voice came from the back right seat, “Everything is so green!”
A half dozen thoughts raced through my head in as many seconds before I answered. “Yes,” I said with a chuckle, “it is always like this… except when you can’t see it because of clouds… or it is wild with colors in the fall or white in the winter.”
“I had no idea,” he said, “that there were so many farms and trees.”
This was from a Boy Scout. Someone, who, one would imagine, spent a lot of time out among the fields and woods. Nonetheless, he was surprised how much of the area he lived in was still “green” and how little, comparatively speaking, consisted of roads, buildings, and other cement or asphalt.
That was not the first time I heard a young person express wonder at seeing what their world looked like from above. This time, though, it made me ask myself if I somehow lost that wonder. I often take pleasure in looking at the ground below me on fair weather days. I notice how different farmers choose to arrange their fields, wonder how in the world aerial application pilots handle the growing number of wind turbines, ponder where the river barges and locomotives are coming from, where they are going, and what they are carrying. But the wonder of it all! Have I really taken for granted how so very lucky I am to see the world in a way that so very few people can enjoy?
The purpose of programs like the EAA Young Eagles and Civil Air Patrol Cadet orientation flights are to introduce our youth to aviation. It is not only a good thing to do in and of itself. It is essential if we are to pass on our aviation heritage so that it can continue and develop through the future. Sometimes, though, I think we focus too much on the airplane or on piloting, and not enough on flying. In other words, inspiring our youth with the wonder of flight. Showing them that they can be a pilot is part of it. It is certainly not enough, and I am not even sure that piloting is where to begin.
Let’s be honest and admit that becoming a pilot isn’t for everyone. Statistically, it is for very few. Flying is expensive – in time as well as money. Kids have other things demanding that time and attention. Becoming a pilot is something that – well, if it isn’t relevant in the next two years, then it is way outside of most kids’ event horizon. A load of school work (that bears no relation to what I had in school), sports, video games, friends, family life, and – yes, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, and other youth programs – all compete for time, attention, and resources. Instructing a boy or girl on why and how an airplane flies or controlling one in flight may provide momentary interest, but is it enough to inspire them? Could it even be too much?
On another flight I let a teenage girl handle the controls. She was very good and quickly understood the relationship of ailerons, rudders, elevator, and horizon. After just a few minutes, however, she asked if I would take back the controls. She just wanted to look out the window. From time to time I have also seen a Young Eagle ask to sit in the back, camera in hand. I fly for the Civil Air Patrol, as well, and I have asked CAP cadets about their orientation rides. I was surprised to hear that many prefer the back seat. They said that when they are in the front seat, the pilot has to teach or show them certain things and they are expected to perform certain tasks in return. Sitting in back they can take pictures, look out the window, or listen to the instruction up front as they wish and when they wish. There is a lesson here crying to be learned.
Not every one of these young Americans are future pilots. They come because they are interested in flight. There is a difference. The goal is not turning those young Americans into Air Cadets. We are introducing them to the wonder of flight. Some may be inspired to start flight training right away. For others, we might plant a seed that will sprout on its own, and unexpectedly, many years from now. Others may choose another aviation related field – or something else entirely. For all of them, we should try to provide an enjoyable and memorable experience. Our goal should be to give our future (and that is what these young Americans are – our future) the opportunity to become airminded.
That word, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, means “an interest in and enthusiasm for aircraft.” The idea was promoted in America by Billy Mitchell as early as 1921. He meant something more than that dictionary definition. To borrow from current U.S. Air Force Doctrine, airmindedness is a perspective that allows a person to perceive their world unconstrained by geography, distance, location, or time. That is the magic of flight. That is the wonder. That is why these Young Eagles come to us, whether they know it or not. That is what we should offer to them.
“Is it always like this?” Yes, my heart always leaps every time the wheels leave the pavement.