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Young Eagles take flight at Clearwater Airpark
Dozens of young aviation fans treated to free flights
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Photo by JEFF ROSENFIELD
Nicholas Ditroia, 8, and his dad, Mario, from Tampa, pose in front of the plane Nicholas flew in as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles Flight Rally event at the Clearwater Airpark on Saturday, March 18.
CLEARWATER – Pretty much everyone has dreams of flying when they’re young, as we know kids are often awed by the sight of birds in flight or airplanes cruising high in the sky above them. The problem nowadays is not nearly as many of those adventurous kids are migrating into the aviation industry like they were before, as the number of certified pilots across the country has been in steep decline over the last several decades, according to numerous reports. But thanks to organizations such as the Experimental Aircraft Association and its Young Eagles Flight Rally program, kids have an opportunity at an early age to find out if they have the right stuff to become a pilot.

“We’re trying to address the pilot shortage and light a spark about aviation in the kids,” Dave Harvey, EEA Chapter 282’s coordinator for the event, said during the latest Young Eagles rally at the Clearwater Airpark on Saturday, March 18. “Our mission is to take kids and make them into future pilots. We’re trying to hook them and light a spark inside them.”

According to Harvey, the EEA has flown over 2 million kids for free since the Young Eagles program was launched in 1992. The experience, which includes a pilot’s briefing prior to taking a short flight around the greater Clearwater area as well as a tour of the chapter’s hangar, tends to have a profound effect on the kids, in more ways than one, according to one pilot.

“I learned to fly when I was young, and I’m happy to share and, hopefully, to inspire them,” Christopher Noth, a 32-year-old pilot with 15 years’ experience, said. “You get a lot of reactions, from general interest to sheer terror. But when we land you get an idea of how much some kids are into it. One kid puked three times in 20 minutes, but when we landed, he got out and said, ‘this was great!’ So you just never know.”

One young potential future pilot who participated in the event had the type of reaction Harvey and Noth hope for. Despite signing up late for the program, which ran from 8 a.m. until noon at the city-owned airpark, Nicholas Ditroia of Tampa was allowed to participate, and the experience definitely lit the proverbial spark.

“It was awesome,” the 8-year-old said after his flight. “I wasn’t scared at all. I love planes, and now I want to be a pilot.”

Ditroia’s dad, Mario, was also pleased with how organizers conducted the program.

“They were very accommodating to us even though we signed up late,” he said, adding, “I thought the whole thing was awesome.”

It’s reactions like that that keep the EAA’s Young Eagles program going, despite the fact that they don’t ask for any monetary contributions for their efforts.

“We do this three times a year, and we don’t ask for contributions, but a number of people donated to the cause today,” Harvey said, noting 56 kids participated in the event and he expects even greater participation for International Young Eagles Day on June 10.

“And every time we do this, we find at least one kid we know we lit the fuse. If we get one kid like that every time, then we’re ahead of the game.”

To learn more about the Young Eagles Flight Rally Program, visit the Experimental Aircraft Association’s website at eea.o­rg.
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