Eagles Flight program inspires prospective pilots to aim high
On the morning of Dec. 5, the air was still brisk at Gillespie Field when I met Howard Young at the hangar where he keeps his Beechcraft Bonanza airplane. Young has been a pilot with the local Eagle Flights for 10 years. The program matches a prospective student with a pilot mentor.
Young was a fabulous mentor. He did all the pre-flight checks of tire pressure, strut stability, wing and flap flexibility, oil pressure and other things. He talked about all the factors that go into making a plane fly correctly, from the hydraulics and aerodynamics to metallurgy and thermodynamics, from knowledge of weather patterns to GPS systems. And, of course, thorough knowledge of flying a plane.
Even at 4 years old, Young knew he wanted to be a pilot. He’d look up in the sky and see planes flying overhead almost every day as he grew up in Coronado.
“Plus my dad had flown as a fighter pilot in World War II. I ended up following in his footsteps,” said Young, who flew in the Vietnam War, as well as in the Middle East, Mediterranean, Far East and Australia. In the war, Young got shot at but never shot down.
“A friend of mine did not make it. It was mostly a matter of luck,” he said.
The love of flying has stayed with Young all his life, his own son becoming a naval aviator flying out of Miramar.
“Flying is safer than driving a car. People die in far more car accidents than flying accidents. But you do need to be careful and use common sense,” he said.
One of the common-sense components involves checking into things such as the level of fuel. The flight I would be going on would last only an hour, but Young had enough fuel in the plane for five hours’ travel.
“You can never be too safe,” he said.
In the Eagle Flights program, the pilots help familiarize prospective students with the airplane and its basic construction. Then they get into the plane.
I was not nervous because Young had put me so much at ease with his explanation of everything that goes into an Eagle Flights program for the pilot mentor.
“The Eagle Flights program requires pilots to be currently certified, pass a medical exam, pass a current flight review final exam, have insurance coverage, and the plane must be inspected annually and signed off as airworthy by a mechanic,” Young said.
I strapped on the double-breasted seatbelt and put on the earphones with the mouthpiece. “You have to wear this,” Young said, “because it can get loud in here and this way I can hear you talk. You’ll be able to hear the radio communication too. Just make sure not to talk when someone is on the radio.”
We went taxiing on the runway and stopped to wait.
“Gillespie is the best local airport around. They are well maintained and managed, clean and secure. All the people who fly out from here and work at Gillespie are great people,” he said.
We watched a little trainer plane take off in front of us and within five minutes we heard the OK from the tower operator for our turn. Again I marveled that my heart was not thumping with that zero gravity feeling of fear once we left the ground, but it was smooth sailing.
Soon we climbed to 4,400 feet, flying at 135 miles per hour. Within 10 minutes we were flying over Santa Ysabel. “Don’t worry about the little bumps you feel. That’s the warm air coming up off the mountains,” Young said.
Near Warner Springs Young said he needed to be on the lookout for gliders since there was a glider airport in the town. The golf course was the only large patches of green; elsewhere the soft gray and brown of hills and trees dominated the view.
“Still all very dry even with the most recent rains,” Young said.
As we got closer to higher mountains, Young said he needed to make some adjustments in height. “This is especially true when you fly in clouds. Too many pilots don’t fly high enough. I always fly at least 8,000 feet, at least 2,000 feet above the highest peak within 25 miles.”
Young said the highest he’s ever had the plane up was 13,000 feet. “But at that height you have to use supplementary oxygen,” he said.
A sad moment for Young and me was when we spotted the stunted, naked trees burnt from the Cedar Fire of 2003. “It’ll take hundreds of years for those trees to grow back again,” he said.
He pointed out the valley through which the old Butterfield Stage Trail went 150 years ago.
We saw where the San Diego River originated, a slight cut into a mountain northeast of Santa Ysabel, descending into a narrow creek down the mountain and maneuvering into the valley. The water was just a broken silver line threading in and out between mountains until reaching its destination at El Capitan Reservoir, then further out to Mission Valley and the ocean.
Before I knew it Young was already preparing to land, about five miles out from Gillespie Field, flying at 550 feet per minute.
Young maneuvered the plane onto the runway with just a couple of bumps on the concrete and then taxied on toward the hangars.
We got out of the plane. I remarked on how fast the hour had gone.
“Time flies when you’re flying,” he said, smiling. He made notations in my very own Eagle Flights pilot logbook. “If you ever decide you want to continue on with the Eagle Flights program, I have logged you in for an hour in the program already.”
It’s something that every young person who has flight on his or her heart should really think about. It’s not just pie in the sky; it’s a dream that could come true.
For more information about Eagle Flights, go to EAA.org/EagleFlights.