Young Eagle Flight #500 or “Today is your day, you’re off to great places, you’re off and away.”

Story by Jim Opalka

. . .

How could one flight stand out after flying 500 Young Eagles? That was an easy question for Cpt. Larry Schaefer, 767 International U.S. Airways (Ret.).  


Larry is a loyal patron of Mike Neuman’s IMC meetings at BTP, an EAA member, and active Condor Aero Club member. The stand out passenger I asked Larry about required a number of pillows to elevate her above the glare-shield of the Cessna 172 Larry was flying.  

She was 8 years old, a precocious third grader. And without question at some point she had heard her teacher read to her class: “Today is your day, you’re off to great places, you’re off and away” – the first page of the Dr. Seuss classic titled, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.”  And this was the day she went for the ride of her life. 

However, her level of cool and confidence was outstanding for any age. Larry explained that after the run-up she said she didn’t want to fly the plane “today.” Larry said that would be fine and he would be glad to fly it for her.  

Airborne, the young lady said she’d like to fly over her elementary school. “Where’s that?” Larry asked. She pointed. After circling her elementary school she decided she’d like to fly over her house.  

Again, the captain asked, “Where’s that?” She pointed once more and said, “By the lake, Lake Arthur.”  

She found the house and they circled as people ran out waving towels and shouting. It was as though they believed if they could just shout a little louder they could be heard in the cockpit beneath the active noise attenuating headsets and engine noise.    

There were of course many other stand-out Young Eagles Larry remembered. Some of whom are flying heavy metal all over the world. Others fly for fun or have become aviation enthusiasts. All remember the big day in the air, the places they went, and the adventure they had.  

But without question, the memory of this one pulled at Larry’s heartstrings and brought a great smile and happy memories as he told the story.

At the same time Larry shared Young Eagle stories he intermixed others from his very early days as a private pilot before the airline years. Truth be told, I asked him some leading questions, like this one. To what do you attribute so many good and safe years of flying?

Here’s a summary of one story. Imagine you just received your private license and take off with three friends from Oklahoma in a Cessna 172 and are the only licensed pilot. Maybe no biggie if you have all the time in the world and set some reasonable personal minimums in terms of where you draw the line with weather and other potentially serious obstacles.  

Onboard is a radio that works sometimes and a VOR that receives signals intermittently, but for the most part is incapable of centering the needle satisfactorily. You say – so what’s the big deal? The deal is that all four of you are in the military and on leave. There is of course a limit to the time you may be gone before you become AWOL (absent without official leave). You have a week in the Steel City. Good luck with that.  

Many things can happen when you’re pressed for time between PIT, Oklahoma, a 172, weather with no instrument rating, and an aircraft woefully unprepared to poke holes into IMC. There’s a solution to this problem toward the end of this brief article.

Another interesting scenario I got out of Larry went like this: You are still in the military. You want to fly jets. In particular you want to fly F-86 Sabers. You tiptoe into a hangar filled with some serious military aircraft, a number of which are F-86s. You’re not allowed to be there. From a distance a guttural and authoritative voice shouts in that oh so military way, “Halt! State your business.”

You answer.  “I have my pilot license and I want to fly fighters someday.  Like this one.”

Leather heels echo on the hangar floor. The stranger approaches. No smile. “Go ahead and climb up there,” the guy tells Larry.

He directs him into the proper position to sit himself into the pilot seat. The stranger tows Larry outside.  He crawls up on the wing, reaches in, flips a couple switches and lights it up. Honestly, this is true.  I’ll tell you what happens next at the summary paragraph at the end of this piece.

F-86 – Who wouldn’t want to fly it?

But getting to the Young Eagles article and the 500th Young Eagle flight made by Cpt. Schaefer. First, let it be said that the Experimental Aircraft Association created the Young Eagles program for children between the ages of 8 and 17. It gives them an opportunity to experience flight in a general aviation aircraft. There are EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) chapters all over the world. EAA Chapter 857 stationed at Pittsburgh Butler Regional Airport is the one Larry belongs to.  

The Young Eagles program was launched in 1992 and is offered free of charge, costs being covered by volunteers. By 2016 more than 2 million children had been flown in 90 countries as a result of the efforts of the EAA and the generosity of the volunteers.

It is interesting to note that the 500 Young Eagles that Larry took up were flying with a man who soloed on August 31, 1960. Of course they had no knowledge of his airline career, international flights, or early general aviation stories and adventures.

The reason they didn’t know was because it’s all about the Young Eagles. But for the rest of us aviation enthusiasts we want stories and we want to learn from a man who started flying in a Cessna 120 in 1960. We’re talking what, 56 years of experience and still going and having a blast.

A lot of the things one can learn from an individual who has all that experience usually boils down to basics. Take the 3 military buddies Larry flew from Oklahoma to Pittsburgh. I asked if he had a plan for safety and decision making especially since he was a recently licensed private pilot. He explained his choice of personal minimums on that trip. It was basic. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is to stick to your personal minimums even though someone is on your back harping at you that they need to get home fast and now. It’s easy to let your ego get in the way.

Here’s what Larry stuck to on the Oklahoma trip. If I get any of these wrong, it is my fault not Larry’s. He’s the one with tens of thousands of hours. I’m the one wanting to learn from him:

  • For the 172 – Direct crosswind max of 10 kts
  • For wind right down the pike – 20 kts
  • For ceiling and visibility – 2000 and 6 miles

Here’s the part that had to be difficult when you think of the Oklahoma to Pittsburgh trip. Two of the passengers opted to take a bus back to Oklahoma instead of waiting around for weather. The WX was below what Larry had set for his minimums at that time in his life. He waited for his minimums to be met, took off and flew back to base.

Larry had discussed his flight with his boss before taking the trip to Pittsburgh. He, that is to say the Colonel, was a B-52 pilot. The concern here of course was the potential AWOL shadow hanging over Larry’s head and the heads of his trusting passengers.

Now there’s some real pressure to compromise your minimums. Fortunately the boss understood. He essentially gave Larry the word. Take the trip. Do not compromise your minimums. Keep me informed. See you when you get home. But still, there’s a lot of pressure there.

To wrap up the F-86 story – it ended with Larry sitting in the cockpit while the guy on the wing told him what to push to release some very loud ammo on the firing range. Imagine that happening today.

In summary, Larry’s 500th young Eagle was Zach, a high school student. And according to Larry it seems there is a very good chance that this young man may be one of Larry’s charges that actually pursues a career in aviation.

A picture of the 500th Eagle

Have a blast Zach. But don’t sneak into hangars to look at fighter aircraft unless you’re invited. Things have changed. Maybe just have Larry fly you over to Beaver County and check out the equipment they’re working on at the Air Heritage Museum. Ask them to let you crawl through Thunder Pig. It’s a real eye-opener. No ammo there. You’re safe. But you’re going to get some dirty oil dripped onto your shirt if you’re lucky.