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Albany kids get free flights from experimental aircraft club members

The Young Eagles Program furnishes free flights to kids from MCLB-Albany

Luke Davis, 11, center, and his brother, Jack Davis, prepare to enter Gene Fandel's Cessna aircraft for their 25-minute flight. (Photo courtesy Joycelyn Biggs/MCLB-Albany)

Luke Davis, 11, center, and his brother, Jack Davis, prepare to enter Gene Fandel's Cessna aircraft for their 25-minute flight. (Photo courtesy Joycelyn Biggs/MCLB-Albany)

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Parents await their children's return from their free flight on Saturday. The trips were offered through the EAA's Young Eagles Program. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

ALBANY — Scores of kids ages 8-17 from Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany took off from the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport Saturday for a ride they’re likely to remember for the rest of their lives.

Members of the local Experimental Aircraft Association, which created the Young Eagles Program, hope many of the youngsters will later become pilots in their own right.

Starting at 11 a.m., the kids stood waiting at a distance from the various small aircraft provided by local pilots and members of the EAA. Three or four at a time, as the planes became available, the anxious fliers each received a 25-minute trip into the clouds — headed west over Chehaw Park, then south to MCLB-Albany where one or more of their parents likely work, then back east past the airport before taking the final “base leg” for a landing.

Col. Don Davis, commanding officer of MCLB-Albany, was in attendance, waiting for his children, Jack and Luke, to have their time in the air.

“Young Eagles is a great program,” Davis said. “They’ve reached out to the base and the kids, and now (the kids) are having their first flight in an effort to get them interested in aviation. Perhaps some of them will elect to fly.

“There’s a shortage of pilots in the country and it’s projected to grow, so this program could be the spark that gets the flame growing. I’m envious of my boys up there flying.”

According to a statement from the EAA, in 1991 its membership decided the organization’s primary objective should be to involve more young people in aviation. The same survey showed that a flight experience inspired respondents toward aviation, the statement read, and in 1992 the EAA unveiled the Young Eagles Program at a Washington, D.C., news conference.

EAA officials say that the group reached its initial goal of providing free flights to 1 million children on Nov. 13, 2003.

“Today we’re supporting our armed forces, which gives us the ability to do this,” said Gene Fandell, EAA member and a captain in the Civil Air Patrol. “We’re all here to have fun. (The kids) are all screaming and hollering and having a good time.”

Fandell said Saturday was the second year the flights have been offered. The EAA had intended to conduct the flights in December as a “Christmas present” to MCLB-Albany, but the day was rained out, Fandell said.