- Associated Press - Thursday, June 29, 2017

EFFINGHAM, Ill. (AP) - Neil Swartzbaugh loves flying so much he wanted to be a part of the Young Eagles program when it formed in 1992.

The Young Eagles was to be a 10-year program as a way to mark giving 1 million youngsters free flying experiences by the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

“But it has been so popular and hasn’t lost any momentum, so it is still around,” said Swartzbaugh, 83, who has been flying for 51 years. “I’ve flown with the program since it began in 1992 and have taken over 1,100 kids up so far.”

Nationwide the program has flown more than 2 million youngsters in its 25 years.

In all, 161 young people interested in soaring high into the sky got together with 10 area pilots at the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 16 Young Eagles flight experience on June 10. The Effingham County Memorial Airport hosted the program. Volunteer pilots, many in their own planes, provided the basic flight lessons and experience to anyone ages 8 to 17.

The idea is to get young people interested in aviation.

“We just want to give the kids an opportunity to do something that they normally wouldn’t get to do,” said Swartzbaugh, Young Eagles coordinator for Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 16, which encompasses about a 25-mile radius of Effingham.

Swartzbaugh said sparking an interest in aviation goes beyond being a pilot. It might interest some also wanting to be an airplane mechanic, air traffic controller, airport management or other related careers.

Young pilot Blake Walker of Watson participated in the program in 2015. Swartzbaugh is proud to say he gave him his first plane ride. Swartzbaugh was also his first flying instructor.

“He’s pretty special to us,” said Swartzbaugh.

Walker, now 18, is studying at Indiana State University in Terre Haute with plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in aviation with a concentration in professional aviation flight technology. As a student, he flies four days a week.

While his career path isn’t completely planned, he knows one thing at least.

“As long as I am getting paid to fly and doing what I love, it’s good.”

Since his experience with the program. Walker obtained his private license to pilot at the end of last summer. He’s working on instrument rating and commercial license next at Indiana State.

Walker participated this weekend by flying 23 youngsters at the Young Eagles program in a 1975 Piper Cherokee Archer.

The free plane ride lasts about 20 minutes. Some describe the experience in one or two words, such as “awesome” and “so fun.”

“That was so cool!” said Alexii Bugbee, 10, of St. Elmo, after her flight.

“Let’s do this next year,” added Chasitie Wilson, 12, of St. Elmo, as the family with four children were leaving the airport.

Their mother, Heather Branham, of St. Elmo, said this was her children’s‘ first experience and “they loved it.”

The siblings flew in the six-seater Beech A-36 Bonanza, allowing them to all take flight together. However, most of the planes there could accommodate the pilot and one to three passengers.

David Read of Olney piloted in his Thorp T-18 that he built himself, giving youngsters the experience he loves as much as any kid. Over the years, he’s flown about 70 kids.

“It’s all-metal, two-seat, side-by-side, home-built airplane,” said Read. “The first flight on this airplane was in 2007. We have a blast with it.”

Even those a bit apprehensive come away with good feelings at the end of the flight, he said.

“Before they know it, they are saying, ‘This is cool,’ and are having fun,” said Read.

When not flying for the Young Eagles program, Read enjoys flying and even tossing in an occasional loop or roll in the air.

“You will always remember your first airplane ride,” said Read. “I know I remember my first airplane ride.”

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Source: Effingham Daily News, https://bit.ly/2suz0zu

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Information from: Effingham Daily News, https://www.effinghamdailynews.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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