EAA Young Eagles Bounces Back Strong From COVID Pandemic

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EAA’s Young Eagle program statistics have come a long way toward putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror. More than 57,000 young people experienced flight from EAA-member volunteers in 2023 as of Dec. 17—the 120th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. That’s the most since 2019, when 60,142 Young Eagles took to the skies before the lockdown.

EAA thanks the 4,493 pilots from 616 EAA chapters who volunteered their time and aircraft to make the flights happen. EAA Eagles program manager David Leiting said it was a top goal of the program to push its annual totals closer to pre-pandemic levels. “We are especially gratified for the more than 1,000 volunteer pilots flying Young Eagles for the first time,” he said. “Our network of pilots and chapters have made this possible through singular flights, or by organizing Young Eagles Rallies for their local communities to participate.”

The 2023 totals pushed the all-time tally for Young Eagle flights past 2.3 million since its inception in 1992. Moreover, the Young Eagle program serves as the bedrock for EAA’s now-wider range of youth activities, including the AeroEducate online resource and EAA Air Academy summer camps.

EAA thanks Young Eagles supporters Phillips 66, Sporty’s Pilot Shop, United Airlines, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Garmin, Lightspeed, Academy of Model Aeronautics, and Global Aerospace.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

10 COMMENTS

  1. even if ONE kid does all that you ask..what’s the harm?…..but to be fair many kids have gone on to start careers, join Chapters, build airplanes, teach as CFI’s (I know all of this first hand) ..what difference does it make if it’s thousands or Hundreds of thousands? Honestly? What difference? Are you harmed by it? We do know that a lot of good has come out of it – A LOT! and that should be ok by all…..Peace

  2. As a Ray scholarship coordinator I do see a lot of former Young Eagle kids coming along as candidates trying to further their flight career. The biggest impediment to them is the lack of opportunities to fly. Our local chapter who specializes in Young Eagles “sells out” in a day or two with hundreds of spots filled. The biggest limit is the lack of volunteer pilots and planes. I say that as someone who never volunteers because I always have a conflict that day. So I guess the answer to the OP is yes there is a pretty good ROI because to EAA the vast majority of the expense is borne by the volunteer. To the volunteer, the reward is the sharing of the experience and the joy it brings. Hard to quantify but definitely tangible.

  3. When I was president of an EAA chapter we flew a number of large-scale (for us) Young Eagles rallies per year. There is a rule of thumb that goes something like this: Approx. 10% of the people exposed to some new and interesting activity continue their interest beyond that first step. In my experience that’s about the rate I saw amongst kids who continued to show interest in aviation. EAA members are enthusiasts first. Not all are active pilots, chapter members, or builders. That’s the ROI and all of aviation benefits, not just EAA. Big thanks to the volunteers making YE happen.

  4. KckC (above) NAILED IT.

    YES–it is a good program–but it could be even BETTER. Some thoughts–from someone that has been flying for 62 years, 52 years in the FBO business (and an additional 6 years in the flight school business:

    Like most gifts, as good as the program is for recipients (kids), it is even BETTER for the DONOR (the ride givers). So many pilots and aircraft owners need an “excuse” to fly–and this altruistic program does as much for the donors as the recipients.

    If I have a criticism of the program, it is that it is often a “one and done” issue. Giving the ride is the easy part–but THEN WHAT? There needs to be better follow-up. More often than not, there isn’t any program laid out for kids (and their parents) to plan the next step. Look at how Scouting has thrived for a hundred years–start out small (Cub Scouts)–earn “Participation badges” (keeps kids involved–let’s them compare with their peers–charts a course by establishing the NEXT goal). Upon reaching the goal, they are rewarded with a “promotion” to the next level, and the ability to do more. It’s IMPORTANT TO ALWAYS HAVE A GOAL.

    SOME ITEMS TO CONSIDER:
    Have a written program of “what’s next”–that’s important to keep them involved. It could be a local “aviation club” that meets monthly–kids can come to the airport, where pilots can tell them about their airplanes–or where they have visited. A flight instructor might show them how trips are planned by getting out a sectional and a computer–or taking older kids on a “private tour” of the airport. Again, “Scouting” recognizes achievements, and encourages increased participation as they develop knowledge and skills–“Cub (“Brownie”) Scouts”–“Boy (Girl) Scouts”–“Eagle Scouts.” Kids need to be challenged–they need a clear direction of “what’s next”–they need a “marker” to assure them that they are making progress and learning.

    The program needs written handouts to help them chart a course and achieve goals. A single page, (or small booklet) for each stage not only helps the child, but it also helps the PARENTS in answering questions about “what’s next” and setting goals. Setting goals not only lets them know what’s next, but it also gives them something to look forward toward the NEXT step. This “staged development” is important–it gives them a sense of “what’s next?”–and “what do I have to do to advance to the next level?”–as well as reinforcing their achievement. In any part of life, those are important motivators.

    We need not only the written handouts and continued participation, but regular reinforcement and communication. Here’s an example: Like most pilots, I have literally A TON of magazines, aviation newspapers, and handouts–and as an FBO, I get multiple copies. Rather than throw away the older written material, I provide them “free for taking.” I’ve had kids (and their parents!) come back and ask “do you have any more of those?–they not only have information on airplanes, but they show people USING their airplanes for work, play, or vacation. Those are powerful motivators. I’ve suggested that EAA encourage members and FBOs to do the same–put something in kids hands–provide a once-a-month forum where they can show each other articles that have interested them–and exchange and discuss the articles with each other.

    “Anything FREE is often perceived as HAVING NO VALUE.” It is important to EARN a prize–and kids respond well to making demonstrated and measurable progress–and that means SETTING AND ACHIEVING GOALS. I can think of no better example of setting and achieving goals than aviation–and the series of stage checks, demonstrated abilities, written exams, and flight checks. It also is a “marker” of progress toward adulthood–for most kids, getting a driver’s permit or license is an important “Marker” of progress–they can take it to the next level with flying. My parents didn’t fly–but I started flight lessons at 15, and soloed on my 16th birthday–I had a pilot’s license before a driver’s license–I had to ride my bicycle to the airport!

    My take–EAA has an excellent program for Young Eagles, and they have invested so much in their LEARNING CENTER as well–now that it is “mature”–they need to take it to the next level with counseling for fun or career, and INSPIRE DREAMS by giving examples of all the things aviation CAN BE!

    • Jim, I completely agree with your comments. Taking the Young Eagles program to the next level and maintaining incentives is important. The EAA has a pool of wonderful and talented mentors that could significantly enhance the continuation program.
      Your suggestion for structured progression and clear goals is on point. It’s not just about the first flight; it’s about fostering a lasting passion for aviation. The idea of local aviation clubs and regular meetings is valid as they indeed would serve as “powerful motivators”.

      • Thank you RAF–your comment on “structured progression and clear goals” IS the correct way to express it succinctly.

        Kids need to EXPOSED to new opportunities–we can’t make them learn–all we can do is give them the opportunity, and perhaps guide them on their way to their goals.

        Kids seem to naturally rebel against something they are forced to do–but if provided a roadmap of HOW they can achieve their desires, they will often adopt the program.

        Regarding motivating youngsters, we are less like TEACHERS, and more like GUIDES, COUNSELORS. and ENABLERS–a subtle but important difference. We are more like IMPRESARIOS (a discoverer and enabler of talent) than teachers.

  5. As one of the first Young Eagles pilots, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were all feeling our way back then, setting up procedures, scrounging resources, talking to sponsors, and putting up flyers, all to spend most weekends in the summer flying 200-400 kids around the patch. It was glorious, rewarding, and exhausting.

    Our sparkplug was a Flight Service weather briefer, sought-after CFI, and locally famous for his BBQ. We won numerous awards from EAA HQ for being one of the top five Young Eagles programs in that first decade. I still have a YE Flight Leader cap festooned with YE award pins for every year from 1997 to 2014.

    Sadly, after all that grassroots effort getting the YE program off the ground, EAA lawyers decided that all YE pilots must undergo a background check. “Sparkplug”, and many of us pioneers with nothing at all to hide, felt that it was a slap in the face for having done such a good job, and resigned. Ten years later, our Chapter’s YE program has yet to recover. Where we were fielding more than a dozen or more YE rallies during the summer, now we are hard-pressed to pull off three a year.

    Kent is very familiar with this history, and should know that the Young Eagles program’s raison-d’etre was never so narrow as improving pilot starts or enlarging EAA membership. It was to broaden the visibility and accessibility of general aviation to the general public. If that resulted in fewer locals complaining about “airplane noise”, or more teenagers considering aviation as a possible (a)vocation, or showing that we pilots are more rational than the average “dare-devil”, all the better.

  6. I’m a fan of the Young Eagles program and flew a bunch of kids before I kinda aged out. But I’m here to give kudos to the Civil
    Air Patrol pilots who gave me my first ride- a trip from Harrisburg to the Dayton OH and back in a DC3 in the early 1950’s. Oh yeah, the museum was cool too

  7. I don’t think that people think that Young Eagles is a BAD program–only that additional opportunities and structure be developed to capture and hold kids interest. One flight is never enough–and kids (and their parents) need a “road map” on how to proceed with developing interest.

    EAA has put a ton of money into the program, materials, and a “Learning Center”–but it needs STRUCTURE, as well as a better program to “teach the teachers” (local EAA pilots helping kids advance and progress to the next level). Part of that is RECOGNITION of the achievements made by the developing students. We spend a lot of time and money helping get ADULTS into aviation–KIDS NEED “STRUCTURE EVEN MORE!”

    Another element of the Young Eagles program is that it gives ADULT PILOTS a reason to go flying as well. Far too many pilots get their ratings–but don’t know how to utilize those ratings afterward. They give rides to a few friends, but most don’t use the aircraft to GO SOMEWHERE. They fly a bit–perhaps go on the “flight breakfast” circuit–but eventually lose motivation. The dropout rate for even those that actually achieve ratings is far too high. A structured program of giving rides to “Young Eagles” gives them a reason to continue, and to keep up their skills–the Young Eagles program is as good for pilots as it is for the kids–a good match! We need to not only give them a program on “How to motivate Young Eagles”–but give them recognition for continued education and accomplishments in the YE program, beyond a simple count of “number of rides given.”

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