Young Eagles Take Off!

PENN TWP – The buzz at the Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport’s community hangar Saturday was consistent and excited.

Sure, six general aviation planes were taking off and landing at a swift and steady rate. But it was the children — 110 in all that — that kept the hum alive with giggling, ohhing, awing and snapping photos in eager anticipation of their first flight in an airplane.

Six pilots from the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 857, all volunteers, flew every child between the ages of 8 and 17 who attended the five-hour event.

For free.

“We just want to give kids the chance to get involved in aviation,” said pilot Chuck Potts of Zelienople. “Out of 20 or so who participate, maybe one will go into aviation.”

While some of the pilots seated two or three children in a trip, Potts only could take passengers one at a time in his plane: a Taylorcraft L2A. A crowd favorite, the L2A was built for observation and liaison during World War II.

Potts said he’s flown more than 100 children over the years, and he’s never had one get sick in his plane. But he has had participants come back years later to tell him they joined the Air Force Academy.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Potts, who worked more than two decades as a safety inspector for the FAA before retiring.

Even prior to Saturday’s event, which mirrored International Young Eagles Day, members of EAA Chapter 857 had flown more than 2,400 children, according to coordinator Debie Santolla.

“I have never seen a child come back and say they didn’t have a good time,” said Santolla, who’s been a part of the local program since its inception.

The International Young Eagles program is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. This chapter has been around about 17 of those years. It moved from Zelienople to the Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport in Penn Township about five years ago.

After registering, the children were taken to a classroom inside the hangar and given a 20-minute “ground school” class on safety and why planes fly.

They then hopped in a plane for about a half hour, flying through the blue skies over Lake Arthur and back. Some children who were lucky enough to land a front seat were given the opportunity to fly the plane for a moment or two while in the air.

At the conclusion of the flight, the children were given a certificate signed by the pilot and an access code to receive “Sporty’s Pilot” magazine for free.

The EAA Chapter 857, which generates its funds through membership dues and the sale of food and beverages at the events, uses its money to pay for scholarships for children to attend the Oshkosh Air Academy Camp in Wisconsin.

The children to receive the scholarships, annually about three, will be selected from all the Young Eagles flown by this chapter this year. If they are interested in attending the camp, they make that note on their Young Eagles registration, and in January they will be asked to write an essay.

But for most of the children participating, the flight alone was the big draw.

“She’s so excited,” Missy Miller of Slippery Rock said while waiting in line with her daughter, 9-year-old Belle. “This is her first time up in the air.”

Capt. Larry Schaefer was Belle’s pilot. She flew with her friend Morgan Teets, 10, of Slippery Rock and Brandon McMasters, 10, of Butler.

The EAA Chapter 857’s next events at Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport are August 13 and Sept. 10. Watch the airport’s Facebook page for more details. And get more information about the EAA Chapter 857 here: