The Ironman and Young Eagles Connection

Ironman is a long distance triathlon: a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 mile run. All within 17 hours. Back in 2013, I raced Ironman Lake Tahoe for charity, raising $3,300 in 15 weeks. It was the toughest raced of my life–yet the most rewarding. It was the first time I did a charity event and it was incredibly rewarding to the soul. Since that day I have wanted to find another way to give back to society in a meaningful and enjoyable way.

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Yesterday was that day. On a clear and calm Saturday morning at Lake in the Hills airport, I parked my Sonex on the ramp and walked into a waiting room filled with over 100 kids and their parents. All of them were staring out the window as planes taxied around the busy ramp and a stream of planes were taking off from the nearby runway. It was amazing to see their faces, some of them nervous, others beaming with smiles of excitement.

It was Young Eagles day. Young Eagles is a program sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), which takes children between the ages of 7-17 on an introductory flight into the world of aviation. Founded in 1992, it really “took off” when Harrison Ford served as chairman. This year, Young Eagles flew the two millionth child–with Harrison Ford at the controls. Ford even flew back from Europe to be part of the celebration.

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Photo: EAA/Michael Steineke

The pilot volunteers his time and plane for the Young Eagles program. As the pilot, you get to teach about flying, the various aspects of the airplane and what makes them fly, just as Ford is doing below.

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Photo: EAA/Michael Steineke

The best part of the experience for me was watching their smiles as you race down the runway and then lift off. For most of the kids, it is their very first time flying in any type of plane. As the world falls away beneath their feet, their eyes grow to the size of dinner plates. Houses look like pebbles, cars look like ants crawling along the road and their parents disappear quickly below.

My first ever Young Eagle was a boy who just turned 7. He always wanted to fly in a plane and he said his favorite thing to do is build lego airplanes.  With his dad by his side, we walked out to the plane and talked about what makes an airplane fly, how the controls work and what makes my airplane a little different then all the other Cessnas on the ramp; a home-built airplane. He was amazed that you can actually build an airplane at home just like the lego sets he builds. As we get ready to climb in, his emotions swirl from excited to nervous. He is about to get into a plane with a stranger, wave goodbye to his dad and go for his very first flight.

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As we climb to a cruising altitude of 2,000 feet the fear is replaced with amazement. His smile grows and he realizes for the first time, that he is in fact flying. Instead of looking up into the sky he is looking down at the Earth below.

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The view outside of the Sonex is priceless. Unobstructed view of the countryside.

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When we land his dad is there to welcome him back with a huge smile and hug. We walk back to the lounge as he shares his experience with his dad. I forward the photos we took so they have a permanent record of this special day.

Inside the lounge he receives his very own logbook which I endorse from his flight. He also receives a certificate of his accomplishment. The EAA offers amazing benefits and future flight potential with his completion.

As he walks out, the next child is eager and waiting. Three hours later, 98 kids were able to fly in the 8 aircraft volunteering that day.

What I learned through this is simple. To volunteer is a wonderful experience. Volunteering your own time for something you love is extra sweet. You not only get the joy of doing something you love, but bring that same passion with someone else is double the joy.

For these little pilots who tasted flight, they will never look at the sky the same again.

I will end with my favorite quote of all times:

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return”. – Anonymous

To learn more how you can volunteer or participate, visit the EAA Young Eagles official website.
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