Young Eagles Program thrills young airport passengers

MARTINSBURG – Altoona resident Alivia Jacobs had been on an airliner once: a commercial plane bound for Disney World when she was 7 years old.

On Saturday, Alivia, now 13, was one of more than 80 kids aged 8 to 17 who received free flights around the area thanks to five pilots with Chapter 400 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a national group which promotes sport flying through its Young Eagles Program.

Before the flight, Alivia said she was nervous but excited. Her dad, Jim, called his daughter fearless and said he believed she would have an unforgettable experience.

“I just read this in the paper, and I said, ‘What a great opportunity,'” He said. “I asked her if she was up for it, and she said yes.”

Hosted by the Altoona-Blair County Airport as part of Airport Day, the flights were a way to spark interest in aviation among young people while promoting the county’s airport.

Chapter 400 President Paul Nuss said the pilot population is dwindling, thanks in no small part to government regulation and ever-increasing travel costs. The Young Eagles could produce future pilots, professional or hobbyists, he said.

Many of the amateur planes, like the S16 Shekari model in which Alivia flew, were built in pilots’ spare time from kits.

Outfitted in star-spangled gear to match his plane’s American flag motif, Shekari owner Ed Fry of Altoona said he took two winters to build his and didn’t mind donating his time and his plane to take children for rides stretching from the Cove to Altoona and back.

“A love of aviation starts young,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing now. We’re planting seeds for the future.”

Nuss said they might be small and built by hand, but the planes are usually as good as factory-built, regulated aircraft.

Fry’s wife, Vivian, also said there are benefits to riding in small aircraft. A jumbo jet might be factory approved, she said, but small plane owners have a more intimate knowledge of their machines.

“My husband’s aware of every hiccup, every bump,” she said.

The pilots cautioned riders Saturday morning that eastward winds might create some turbulence – especially around Lock Mountain – that would cause the planes to dip and veer. But the bumps are akin to potholes in the road, one pilot said. No cause for alarm.

The warning deterred neither the kids nor the nine adults who also took their turn in the air.

One girl bounded toward her mother after a 20-minute flight, breathlessly yelling: “I saw our house!”

A boy following close behind cupped his hands to his head and announced, “My ears popped!”

Gary Orner, airport authority vice chairman, said he considered the event a success; despite unseasonable chill and persistent winds, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

“Turnout’s been real nice, steady all day,” he said.

Refreshments from the airport’s Kitty Hawk restaurant and Sheetz Inc. warmed cold fingers while attendees also checked out a state police and National Guard helicopter, and a Piper Navajo Chieftain 10-seat aircraft from Sun Air Inc., along with cars from the Altoona Corvette Club.

Orner commended the pilots for volunteering for the event and said some of the kids might become pilots one day.

“It’s just, in general, a nice day, to try to feel good about having a local airport and appreciating it,” he said.

Alivia touched down after her flight with a new perspective. She said she was too afraid to take a selfie in the air, but said the views were amazing.

“It was breathtaking,” she said. “It was so pretty. I saw my house and school. You didn’t even feel like you were flying. Everything looked so miniature.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.