In the stillness of the morning hours on Sept. 11, a dozen or so children and their parents dotted the tarmac outside the Experimental Aircraft Association building at Truckee Tahoe Airport. It was a perfect day for a bird’s eye view of Tahoe/Truckee as pilot Robert Bousquet’s Cessna 182 touched down on the runway. After taxiing back to the EAA, two boys emerged from the plane with wide eyes and big smiles, their lives touched by the gift of flight.
Since 1994, EAA Truckee Chapter 1073 has introduced more than 5,000 local youths to the world of aviation through its monthly Young Eagles flights. Experienced pilots, some of whom are also flight instructors, volunteer one Saturday morning each month to fly kids ages 8 and older above the peaks of Truckee and North Tahoe. Some fly over Lake Tahoe while others head north of the airport toward Boca and Stampede reservoirs. The kids are in awe as they gaze down while the ground below becomes smaller and smaller.
“There is so much going on at the airport for our children,” said Susan Bruno, whose husband, Vince Bruno, is coordinator of the Young Eagles program. “Literally, lives change.”
Indeed, some who took flights as children had their life paths take a turn in the direction of aviation following their exposure to the industry at such a young age. Two decades ago, Jesse Jones was a young boy learning to fly with instructor Tim Meadows, a longtime Young Eagles volunteer pilot. He went on to become a commercial pilot and has flown with Southwest Airlines for the past 15 years. Others have gone on to fly for Delta and Spirit airlines; one girl who participated in Young Eagles as a kid grew up to be a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Young Eagles program opens the door to future paths not just as a pilot, but in other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers in fields like aerospace and aeronautics. In a region where sports, outdoor, and artistic opportunities abound, Young Eagles provides an outlet for those seeking other channels.
“Sports have their role, but this is the stuff that just takes a person and gives it all,” Bruno said. “You go flying and get out of the plane and you just go, man, I feel really good about myself. It’s any challenge like that. You just kind of go, whoa.”
On this year’s clear Sept. 11 morning, 11-year-old Jack Duarte was up to the challenge, although he easily might not have been. Jack was one in a group of incoming sixth graders on a school bus trip returning from Lake Tahoe this past July who witnessed a plane crash near the Truckee airport. Jack said he felt the bus driver slam on the brakes and looked up to see a ball of fire out the window.
“It’s hard to know how a child processes seeing a tragic event like that up close,” Jack’s mother, Erin McKernie, wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink.
Truckee Tahoe Airport District General Manager Kevin Smith invited McKernie and her three kids to tour the airport — an opportunity extended to the families of all the children who witnessed the crash. McKernie and her kids visited with pilots, air traffic controllers, airplane mechanics, and others. Chris Barbera, of Mountain Lion Aviation, allowed them to sit inside a jet, and spoke about the aircraft, safety, and pilot training.
“I had been concerned that my kids might be nervous or develop a fear of planes, but any worries they may have had was certainly replaced by excitement,” McKernie said. “I’m incredibly grateful for that. Shortly after our visit, Kevin let me know about the Young Eagles program and that they could take a flight in an airplane. My kids had never flown before, so they were all excited to go.”
Jack and his 9-year-old brother, Bradley, took their first flight together, with Jack even getting the chance to fly the plane. Their little sister, Madelyn, just turned 7 and can’t wait until she’s 8 so she can fly, too.
“I loved it,” Jack said, and after the flight he told his mother he’d like to be a pilot. “The tour of the airport was very cool. It was exciting to be in the airplane and see the view. I can’t wait to do it again!”
Bradley was equally excited, adding to his brother’s recap: “The tour was very nice, and it was amazing to see how everything at the airport works.” He said his experience at the airport has expanded his dreams for the future: “I’ve always wanted to be a police officer, but after flying, now I want to be a police officer and a pilot. The flight helped me feel better about airplanes.”
Once they take part in the Young Eagles, kids receive a certificate and a logbook. Then, a number of opportunities become available. They can participate in a private online pilot ground school offered by a popular catalogue store called Sporty’s Pilot Shop. After that, the EAA will pay for their first flight instruction. Those ages 12 to 18 are also eligible to apply to an Air Academy at EAA Headquarters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with all expenses paid.
Despite the thousands of kids who have taken flights to date, the Young Eagles program remains one of the airport’s best kept secrets, and members of the EAA are working to change that. With not enough families aware of the program, the EAA has had to reduce the frequency of these free flights, with the monthly event on hiatus in October and November. Weather permitting, the next Young Eagles rally is scheduled for 8 a.m. on Dec. 11 at the Truckee Tahoe Airport. For more information contact Young Eagles coordinator Vince Bruno at firstname.lastname@example.org.