Soaring Through the Air

Most of the kids Doug Sterling has flown with through the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program can’t wait to get up in the air, he said.

But there’s always a few that are “reluctant,” he said. At a Young Eagles event in Glens Falls two weeks ago, Sterling encountered one such 9-year-old boy hiding behind his father. Although the pilots never force the kids to fly, they can often talk them into it, as Sterling did in this case.

“I said, ‘It’s no problem; come on over and you can sit in the plane anyway. I won’t lock you in,'” Sterling said recently from his Edinburg home. “And so he went over and he sat in the plane, and I sit there, pull it back and forth, and turn this thing. I said, ‘Look out on the wing, see it turning.’ I’m explaining it to him, the different gauges and everything like that. He gets out of the plane, and he says, ‘I’ll go up with you.’ We took off, we just got into the air. … ‘Boy,’ he says, ‘am I glad I decided to go with you.’ I almost fell out of the plane laughing.”

Sterling, who joined the Adirondack Chapter 602 of the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1997, is the co-coordinator of the Young Eagles program for the chapter along with his wife, Judy Sterling. Of all the Young Eagles pilots with the organization, he’s racked up the most flights, with more than 480.

The local EAA chapter, which was founded in 1978, has held an annual Young Eagles day since 1992, when the national EAA launched the program. According to the national EAA website, the organization, which is based out of Oshkosh, Wis., is “a community of pilots and aviation enthusiasts who protect and promote recreational flying.” The “experimental” designation refers to the homebuilt quality of most of the small planes the members fly.

Since the start of the Young Eagles program locally, 1,331 kids have flown, according to the chapter’s website, www.eaa602.org. The next Young Eagles day will be Aug. 16 at the Fulton County Airport in Johnstown.

The program is open to kids ages 8 to 17. Roughly 50 to 100 kids are flown by about eight pilots each Young Eagles Day at the airport, said Larry Saupe, president of the local EAA since 2005.

“It’s something totally different, a unique experience for the kids to do that,” Saupe said. “We see them from all walks of life; some have never had the opportunity to even get in an airplane. … For several of them, it’s the first time they’re off the ground.”

Before flying, the kids are taught about flight and aviation in a ground school, and take turns sitting in a trainer with mock controls. Then there’s the flight itself, which takes about 30 minutes. The pilots will often allow the older kids to take the controls once the plane is in the air. The whole process takes about an hour, Saupe said.

Sterling has three experimental planes: a 1967 Piper Cherokee and two he built himself, a Glass Star and a Pulsar. He flies kids in the Cherokee, which has four seats, and in the Glass Star, which is a two-seater.

“Most of the time, I prefer to take them up one at a time,” Sterling said. “I always try and get the older kids, because I let them do more flying. … But it depends. A lot of times you’ll have a couple of kids – brothers, brother and sister – they want to go togehter.”

Once in the air, Sterling will try to fly over places that will give the kids something to see, he said.

“Down there [at the Fulton County Airport], if we take off to the west – again, depends on which way the wind’s blowing, and usually that’s the way you go, out to the west – so you head out and you go over the Walmart warehouse out there, and go out a little bit, and then you turn to the south,” Sterling said. “[I] might go down to Fonda; you go over the racetrack, see the Fonda racetrack. That type of thing. … When we do it in Glens Falls, we go up to the Great Escape.”

The goal of the program is to get kids interested in aviation, Sterling said. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration compared its database of pilots to the EAA’s Young Eagles database and found 7.3 percent of the nation’s 20,000-plus pilot population are former Young Eagles participants, said Michelle Kunes, Young Eagles program administrator. According to Kunes, more than 900 EAA chapters have Young Eagles programs.

The kids who take the flights usually come away smiling, Sterling said.

Abigail Morris, 11, of Glenville has flown five or six times with her father, Schenectady Police Officer Patrick Morris, who is the vice president of the local EAA chapter.

“There’s a lot of cars and houses, and sometimes you can see stores,” she said. “[People] kind of just look like little tiny – little ants, kind of.”

Lucy Crounse, 10, of Scotia went on her first Young Eagles flight at the Fulton County Airport in September 2013. The experience reinforced her goal of joining the Coast Guard as a helicopter pilot when she gets older, she said.

“I’ve been on commercial plans, but I’ve never been on a small plane like that,” Crounse said. “I liked how it was really complicated. … All of the buttons and switches and stuff, that seems really interesting.”

Sterling said he enjoys the flights as much, if not more than, the kids.

“People ask you that: ‘Gee, why do you do this? You know, it costs hundreds of dollars an hour to fly these planes; why do you do this?” Sterling said. “So we tell them, it’s our dirty little secret that we have more fun than the kids. … [The kids] come out about two feet off the ground, you know. They get a real kick out of it.”