“Is it always like this?”

“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.”

Kid in airplane
Taking a kid for an airplane ride is one of the most satisfying flights any pilot can make.

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.

3 Comments

  • Nice article Chris. I’m really glad to read about another CAP pilot and his experiences outside of the CAP community.

    I too have have had cadets or Young Eagles who didn’t want to do the actual flying. In fact my last flight was a friends kid, a birthday boy, who once introduced to the ailerons promptly stated he wasn’t comfortable flying and would I please take the controls. He went on to enjoy steep turns and balked landings, but had zero interest in holding the controls.

    Sometimes my reluctant fliers get back on the ground and start asking questions about other aviation related fields. With the exception of one cadet who had thrown up on every single O flight he’d ever been on (I was his 3rd, for his Syl 8 ride of all things (that is steep turns and stalls for non-CAP pilots)) they have all expressed awe and joy during their flight.

    Keep up the good work.

  • For me, the reason for and focus of guest flights, whether for adults or kids, was to give them the smoothest, easiest way to see the world from that new perspective– showing them the “magic carpet” side of flying. Most of their time was spent looking out the windows. I never thought much about giving aerodynamics lectures or handing over the stick to someone completely unprepared or uninterested in learning to fly.

    One thing that is often neglected in giving rides to children or short adults: sitting on the seat cushion often means they cannot see out very well. Everyone giving flights to kids should have an assortment of cushions that can be used to place every passenger in position to enjoy looking out the windows.

  • Hunter Heath makes some excellent points. The pilot needs to properly prepare guests for the flight. This includes asking them what their flight experience is, asking where they would like to sit (not everyone wants to sit up front), if they would would like to handle the controls, and of course making sure they fit comfortably in the seat. (The O-2 has lots of visibility for everyone!) Also make sure that they know to speak up in case they feel uncomfortable and let them know where the sick-sack is. (I have only had one…so far.) Unlike the EAA Young Eagle program, CAP Cadet flights are very structured and include specific demonstrations and letting them handle the controls.

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