Eye of Experience #47:
The First Flight Program

Programs designed to expose youngsters to aviation and get them involved for a lifetime are extremely important to the industry's future. Some programs are professionally organized and well-financed. Others have fewer resources but do not lack for their students' enthusiasm or the dedication of their organizers. AVweb's Howard Fried participated in just such a program. What about you?


Eye Of ExperienceThere are several programs designed to interest young people in aviation – the most notable of which is the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles – but there are only a very few that actually get the kids started flying as genuine student pilots. Rick Durden recently wrote about what is obviously the largest of these, The Blue Yonder Foundation. If this program grows as we all hope, it will become the gateway through which dozens – if not scores or even hundreds – of “airport kids” will pass on the way to careers in aviation. I urge you all to donate to this foundation. I have.You can make a tax-deductible donation to:

The Blue Yonder Foundation
822 D Street
Suite 8
San Rafael, CA 94901

The Detroit Public School Program

If The Blue Yonder Foundation is the largest such program, the one offered by Davis Aerospace Technical High School (formerly Aero Mechanics High School) in Detroit, Mich., is the smallest. This is a technical high school run by the city of Detroit as part of the regular public school system. The students at Davis receive an FAA Mechanic certificate upon graduation; either an Airframe certificate or a Powerplant certificate. If they spend an additional year of post-high school graduate work, they get both FAA certificates.

The school owns a Cessna 172 and students with a B average or better get free flight instruction from one of the teachers and free use of the airplane to train for a Private Pilot certificate. After that they must pay for the fuel they burn. Each semester one or two of the students qualifies.

For several years, I had the honor of administering the Private Pilot practical test to these fine young people and I found them universally well-motivated and well-trained. It was a distinct pleasure to issue certificates to these eager students who otherwise certainly could not afford to undertake flight instruction. Of course, most of these students planned to go on to become professional aircraft maintenance people, but just as I believe a mechanic certificate is invaluable to a professional pilot, so too is a pilot certificate a valuable attribute for a mechanic.

First Flight

Certainly not on the scale of The Blue Yonder Foundation or Davis High School is one called First Flight. A remarkable man named John Shreve conceived the idea of giving ten deserving kids approximately ten hours of dual in taildraggers (up to solo). He sponsored this program, which he called First Flight, through the GAHA (The General Aviation Historical Association), a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, of which he is the founder and chairman. Several years ago I had the honor of working with John, who has the unique ability to, without too much arm-twisting, get people to donate time, energy, talent, money, and even the use of airplanes. Using his time, talent and money John literally got the program off the ground and into the air.

I was asked to head up the flight program. I was to round up three qualified taildragger instructors, each of whom would have three students; I would have only one. John managed to get the owners of two Aeronca 7AC Champs, one Piper J3 Cub, and one Aeronca 11AC Chief to lend their airplanes to the project. Because the other three are tandem-seating types, the Chief was to be held in reserve.

With some difficulty, I managed to convince three eminently qualified CFIs to give up a week of their time and travel to the camp in east central Pennsylvania to do the flight training along with me. I had a bit of a problem convincing John that we could do it in a week and not need the CFIs for two weeks – giving up a week of their time was enough.

John owns a resort in the Pennsylvania mountains with dormitory cabins, a restaurant, swimming pool, tennis court, and other recreational facilities, including a classroom. Most important, though, the facility features a 2,600-foot sod landing strip. For many years, John had commuted from his home there to his job in Maryland in a Cessna 185.

The GAHA provided lodging, meals, and fuel for the airplanes, and John had a friend, a retired FAA Airworthiness (Maintenance) Inspector, make sure all the aircraft were in airworthy condition.

First Flight’s staff of flight instructors, (L to R): Gary, Harold, Howard, and Pete.

To get the students, Shreve went to the CAP (Civil Air Patrol) and asked each wing or squadron to select one outstanding cadet. Unfortunately, we only got six students instead of the ten we had targeted. They ranged in age from 16 to 19 years. There were five boys and one girl in the group. Because I had recruited three instructors, that left two students per instructor, leaving me to teach the groundschool and give stage checks to the students as they progressed along the way to solo, plus graduation rides on completion. Of course, all had Student Pilot certificates, along with Third Class medical certificates.

The airport is Shreveport North (62PA) , is oriented southwest to northeast and is on no less than three Sectional Charts: Detroit, New York, and Washington. It has nice, long, clear approaches at both ends, but there are two public-use airports within three miles of it, one of which is so close that its traffic pattern overlaps. However, separation is maintained by the use of a right-hand traffic at Shreveport North.

Three of the four instructors and I flew to Shreveport North from PTK (Pontiac, Mich.) in a borrowed Comanche. The fourth CFI drove from Pontiac, bringing his charming wife along. This proved to be a bonus since she played “mother” to the students. The students were housed in a barracks-like bunkhouse with individual cubicles that afforded a degree of privacy. We all ate at the restaurant, and the meals were simply marvelous, being prepared by a professional chef. The students took turns waiting tables and doing the dishes.

Work Day

After an excellent breakfast served promptly at 7:00 a.m., we adjourned to the classroom for a groundschool session. The students each came supplied with a copy of the FARs, and donated state aeronautical charts and Pennsylvania airport directory. My flight school had formerly had the contract to administer flight training to the top cadets in the local college ROTC program, and I based the curriculum for First Flight on the one we followed in that program, without, of course, radio communications, navigation, and cross-country work. This curriculum is quite similar to the one under which I was trained as an Aviation Cadet in the early 1940s.

An attentive class.

The author at the chalkboard.

We were fortunate enough to have excellent weather for the first two days, so we managed to get in all the airwork (stalls, steep turns, etc.) The rest of the week, we alternated between standing down for the weather and working in the pattern, which we could accomplish even with very low ceilings since we flew it at 600-foot. Rather than touch-and-goes and following the concept that a landing is not complete until the airplane has rolled to a stop on the ground, we used full-stop, taxi-back landings. In working with taildraggers, which require very positive control on the ground, this is the preferred technique. Since a substantial portion of taildragger training is learning to manipulate the airplane on the ground, touch-and-go landings are not really suitable. It was expected that all six students would get to solo during the course of the program, but due to the weather and a mechanical problem with the Cub, only three of the six were able to do so. We had started with seven students, but due to a serious breach of John’s rules, one was expelled prior to the start of the flying portion of the schedule.

Lunch was served from a chuckwagon on the flight line, and the big meal was in evening at the resort’s restaurant. It rained and drizzled all day Saturday, so we sat around on the flightline, getting in a landing or two every time the precipitation let up. The prognosis indicated that the bad weather would continue for the next several days, so the program ended on Saturday with only three of the six getting to solo. The two students who had been working in the Cub unfortunately were cut off Friday evening because the airplane had developed an ignition problem and at that stage moving them from the rear seat of the J3 into the front seat of a 7AC (or worse to the side-by-side configuration of the 11AC) would be a bit much for them. In any event they had already met the object of the program except for soloing, so they were graduated anyway.

The Future

All who participated derived a keen sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from this wonderful program. For the future of aviation itself we need all of this sort of thing we can get. At my flight school, we have always employed the services of a struggling young “airport kid” as a gofer on a trade deal in exchange for flight instruction. At least two of these young folks have gone on to become professional pilots, one is flying for a carrier, and the other has a thriving business as an aerial surveyor and photographer. Another is now an attorney with some degree of specialization in aviation law.

Those of us who love flying should do anything we can to pass along our love of aviation.

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