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  • ULTRAFLIGHT Magazine, April 1997, By Jamie Beckett

A year and a half is a long time when you’re a teenager. It’s a very long time.
That statement may not seem to have much significance, and it may not even seem to belong at all in an aviation magazine, but it does. Actually, this may be the best place to make that particular point. But only if it is just a first step. The next step is for you to think about it, carry the idea around for a few days, and then start thinking about what you can do with this valuable information.
You see, a year and a half ago a new organization formed with a rather unique purpose. I have written about it before in these pages, but as they continue to get closer to their stated goal, I think it’s important to periodically update the story. And since they just achieved a major leap towards completing their task, I thought this was as good a time as any to get closer to the conclusion of the story. Which to be honest is more the culmination of a dream than a conclusion. But that may well be up to you in the long run.
In the small to medium sized town of Winter Haven, Florida there are a number of highly gifted aviation buffs on hand at Gilbert Field on any given day. They have several things in common. They are friendly, knowledgeable, outgoing men and women that, in the words of long time pilot/mechanic/aviation guru Grover Summers, "Mostly have either white hair or no hair." Which is to say they are well past 39 years old - the age Jack Benny chose to live the better part of his life.
Knowing this, they made a decision to do something extraordinary in an effort to bring some new and substantially younger faces onto the field on a regular basis. And they decided to do it in an unusual way. They wouldn’t be satisfied with bussing out a group of kids to give rides to here and there. They would make a whole new batch of pilots. And in the bargain, introduce a group of teenagers to the intricacies and specifics of amateur-built aircraft at the same time. The idea was to buy a kit aircraft out of their own funds, recruit a group of random area teenagers to do the actual building of the aircraft, and upon completion, teach them to fly it. A bold idea to be sure. And the idea alone would have been enough to satisfy many an airport bum I’m sure. The real difference between this group of do-gooders and the average group of do-gooders is that this group actually did what they set out to do. The program is called Youth Flight, and the group in Winter Haven is known as Falcon Wing, Squadron 1. Other groups hoping to become Squadron 2 and 3 have shown interest and will undoubtedly take a page from this first group’s book as they put their programs together and wade through the morass of red tape and you-can’t-do that-isms they will be facing.
What kind of obstacles will they have to put up with? Perhaps they’ll talk to the FAA fellow that I tried to get information from, who was good enough to point out that the FAA would have to investigate this organization closely to determine if building and flying an airplane was indeed an aviation related activity. It is in my neighborhood, but apparently in his there was every possibility that it may fall under the category of commercial fishing or animal husbandry. They may also have to deal with airport officials like the woman who felt that free parking for group member’s automobiles was an unnecessary perk until it was pointed out to her that no other cars on the entire airport were required to pay for parking.
Let’s just say that there are a lot of absolutely pointless obstructions that can and will be thrown up overnight to try to preclude any good deeds being perpetrated on the behalf of others. There are lawyers and bureaucrats that spend their entire careers seeing to that. And they get paid to do it. These folks involved in Youth Flight are not only volunteering, they are spending their own money to enjoy the privilege of doing it.
Initially, they were doing it for teenagers that they didn’t even know. These kids came from far and wide to participate. And the participation took some effort. As I said, a year and a half is a long time to a teenager. Well, when they got started they didn’t have any idea how long it would take. After all, these kids had no experience with aviation to speak of They were a variety of ages, both sexes and a couple different racial groups. But they had in common a desire to put in the time it would take to accomplish their own goals. The minimum requirement was to put in 100 hours of work on the aircraft, a Zenith Zodiac CH-601, side by side seating, low wing monoplane of all metal construction. The gold ring at the end of the ride was that the kids would be entitled to earn their private pilots’ licenses for the price of fuel alone. Area flight instructors volunteered their time to take on one or two students each. And the organization agreed to take on the cost of the maintenance and upkeep of the aircraft. This means a reasonably adept student could conceivably earn his or her pilot’s license for less than $500. Not a bad deal no matter how you look at it.
To keep construction costs to a minimum, the adult members of the Youth Flight organization encouraged donations from a variety of aviation related businesses that would help them get this bird in the air without violating member’s bank accounts. And slowly, but surely, the efforts of the older and the younger members paid off. The avionics, propeller and even paint for the airplane were donated. And as the construction continued under the watchful eyes of experienced veterans, the beast more and more began to take on the look of an airplane a safe, sturdy training machine that would enable the teenagers to get what they came for.
If you make it to Sun ‘n Fun this year, look around closely to find the red, white and blue machine with the tinted bubble canopy. You’ll notice it because it will be the one emblazoned with the names of those companies that threw their hats into the ring to help out along its back. And because it will be the one with teenagers gathered around it that don’t look awed by it, or intimidated by its possibilities. They built it after all. Who could be more comfortable at the stick than the members of the crew that built her?
On a rainy and overcast Sunday afternoon, February 16, 1997 Youth Flight elder Grover Summers, who is as experienced a test pilot as you’re likely to find, climbed into the cockpit of N229FF and fired up the engine in front of a crowd of young builders and their parents. Smiles were rampant as Grover taxied out to runway 4. They became virtually epidemic as he poured the coal to her and rotated the nimble vehicle into the air officially to announce to all the world that Youth Flight, Falcon Wing, Squadron I had succeeded. The aircraft built by kids who were, for the most part, too young to drive, flew just beautifully, hands-off right from the first. And by the time this article goes to press and gets into your hands you can bet that the person sitting in the left seat of that aircraft will be a young man or woman that has earned the very special privilege of flying an aircraft that their own hands had a part in bringing to life. What are the odds that their lives won’t be profoundly affected by this experience?
Oh yes ... and as for the notion that kids today are quitters, or lazy, of the twenty three teenagers that began the program 18 months ago, three moved out of the area, and eighteen of them are still actively involved in the program. That’s a pretty good percentage in anyone’s book, I’d say.
Now, you just have to decide what you want to do about this interesting development in experimental aviation. And I think you’d have to agree that this is truly experimental. Do you get involved? Do you look into starting a similar organization, or even another Squadron in your area? Or do you do nothing? It’s all up to what you feel comfortable with. But if you are really interested in expanding aviation and seeing the number of new pilots increase rather than decrease, or maybe just finding a way to cut the cost of your own flying while helping others get ahead at the same time, you might want to consider having a chat with these folks while you prowl the grounds of Sun'n Fun this year.

For additional information on Youth Flight contact:Dick Gibbs, 316 West Lake Ave., Auburndale, FL 33823 (941) 967-8043.

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NOTE: This article represents the viewpoints of the author, and not necessarily those of Zenith Aircraft Company.

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