By David Olson / Forum News Service
Robert Miller, a volunteer pilot with the Young Eagles program, chats with students taking part in the program. Special to The Forum
HORACE, N.D. — At the end of World War II, thousands of American pilots trained to fly warbirds returned home.
But their interest in flying didn’t end there, and the so-called Greatest Generation became very involved in private aviation.
But, as their numbers dwindled, so did the general public’s interest in flying, and the Experimental Aircraft Association was born in the 1950s to help keep alive America’s passion for flying.
In 1992, the EAA launched the Young Eagles program, which enlisted volunteers to give free airplane rides to young people in an effort to further spark interest in flying.
Since then, the program has provided airplane rides to more than 2 million young people, most of them between the ages of 8 and 17.
Todd Ellig, a pilot who lives in rural Horace, was recently recognized by the EAA for having given more than 500 free demonstration rides as part of the Young Eagles.
Ellig describes himself as just one of many EAA members in the Fargo region and he said there are chapters in nearby communities in northwest Minnesota as well, including Fergus Falls, Pelican Rapids and Detroit Lakes.
“We kind of consider ourselves brothers,” Ellig said, referring to his fellow pilots.
Here’s how the program works, according to Ellig.
EAA members approach school officials and ask if they can make a pitch to students inviting them to take part in free airplane rides.
The students hear a presentation and any who are interested in getting a plane ride are given time to get permission slips from their parents.
Students bring the permission slips to a “rally” day, when school buses take them to a nearby airfield for plane rides.
Bob Miller, a pilot from Casselton, ND, began flying as a teenager.
Robert Miller takes a passenger for a ride as part of the Young Eagles program, which aims to inspire a passion for flying in young people. Special to The Forum
He later flew in the military during the Vietnam War and after that he had a long career as a commercial airline pilot.
As an EAA volunteer, Miller has given almost 700 airplane rides to kids.
He knows of at least two young people who later went on to become airline pilots like himself. It’s possible at least one more will be following that flight path, based on a recent outing Miller had with students from the Wahpeton, ND, area.
‘I’m going to be a pilot’
Miller was assigned to give an airplane ride to a group of three girls, two of whom were eager to fly while the third needed coaxing to even climb inside the plane.
The reluctant passenger told Miller she would sit in the plane, but she didn’t want to fly.
Miller eventually talked the young woman into letting him start the plane’s engine and do a bit of taxiing on the ground.
Then, when the plane was lined up with the runway, Miller asked the student if it would be OK if they took off.
The frightened youngster acquiesced, but insisted she be allowed to pray first.
Miller agreed and after prayers were completed, they took to the sky.
Miller said the young woman was initially too scared to look out a window, but eventually she became brave enough to take in the view. At one point, Miller was able to talk her into gripping the plane’s co-pilot controls.
Soon after, she became confident enough to actually execute some maneuvers on her own before the plane returned to earth.
At that point, the young woman made a pronouncement.
“She’s got a great grin from ear to ear and she looked at me and says, ‘I’m going to be a pilot,’’’ Miller said, recalling the moment.
Ellig and Miller say the response they get from the younger people is reward enough for the time they volunteer, but Ellig added that the EAA does send a little bling their way to mark volunteer milestones.
“Caps, jackets, things like that for helping with the program,” Ellig said, adding, “You have to be committed to the purpose and think it’s for a good cause, otherwise it’s going to be the most expensive cap or jacket you’ve ever owned.”
To find out more about the EAA, or its Young Eagles program, visit www.EAA.org.