CONCORD -- Scott Achelis taxis his home built RV6-A, two-seater airplane up to the clubhouse at Buchanan Field Airport, where parents eagerly await the return of their children who have just gotten a taste of flight.

With a look of exhilaration, Jamie Finn, 11, of Pleasant Hill, steps out of Achelis' aircraft. The student at Eagle Peak Montessori has wanted to be a pilot since she was 5. Today's experience has only reinforced her pursuit.

"It was scary at first," she says, noting the thrill of getting to steer the plane as it approached the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It's not a common experience to get to fly in a machine, 3,000 feet off of the ground," Achelis says. "The idea is to build a level of comfort and confidence in the kids."

Jamie is one of many participants in the Kids Fly Free program, hosted by the Concord chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

She is now a Young Eagle, with each flight recorded in her log book and the opportunity to take the written component for her pilot's license through a complimentary online ground school.

On this particular Saturday morning, Harvard Holmes straps three eager passengers in his home built Lancair IV after taking them on an age-appropriate inspection tour of the plane, from the tires, elevator and ailerons -- turning controls -- to the instrument panel, while a repetitive broadcast from the control tower announces flight conditions.


Advertisement

The Berkeley resident has introduced an estimated 250 young people to the magic of flight, something he got to experience as a boy growing up in Santa Monica, playing on a Piper Cub fuselage in his yard, and flying with his dad in the early summer mornings.

Holmes recalls being given a navigational map and the excitement of being able to operate the controls.

"We need to create that opportunity for these kids," he says.

Growing up around her grandpa, Pleasant Hill resident Rich Spatz, 8-year-old Shayla Valenzuela has relished watching the planes take off and land.

Last month was the first time the Pleasant Hill girl took flight.

"At first your stomach hurts a little, but then I was fine," she says of the ascent and the momentary feeling of weightlessness during descent. "I did turns ... We saw where the Giants play."

Kids Fly Free, under the auspices of the Young Eagles, has far exceeded its initial target of flying one million children before the 100th anniversary of the famous Wright Brothers flight in 1903.

The volunteer program is a means to introduce youth to the awe of aircraft that once -- and still remains at certain rural airports -- happened more impromptu, with children riding their bikes up to a hangar and pestering the pilot until he agrees to take them for a flight, notes Achelis, a general contractor who lives in Walnut Creek.

Private pilots with Kids Fly Free hope their efforts inspire that certain spark, prompting some of the younger generation to follow suit.

"It's the first step," adds Montclair resident Bill Reining, president of the Concord EAA chapter. "The pilot community is aging. There are way to many with gray hair. It needs young blood."

Reining, who built his fair share of balsa wood airplanes as a boy, piloted multi-engine aircraft in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. His career was as an electrical engineer with Lockheed Aircraft.

He and his cohorts are delighted with the response from their young air travelers.

Reining recalls piloting an autistic boy, "overcome with excitement ... and completely uninhibited in his enthusiasm."

"The younger ones just want an exciting ride," says Moraga resident Bob Belshe, who has flown with roughly 100 Young Eagles in his day, now helping out as part of the ground crew. "The older ones often show an interest and a skill."

And for those young aspiring aviators, each year the local chapter sends two on a full ride to the summer weeklong AirVenture camp in Oshkosh, Wis.

Albany High School junior Devo Traveler Goldschmidt -- a middle name inspired by her being born on the road -- was selected to attend last year.

Prior to that, Devo had flown on her aunt and uncle's Cessna 180, with "no thoughts of becoming a pilot."

"That all changed," she says after the experience with Kids Fly Free, marking the first time she took hold of the stick and steered Achelis' plane.

"It was scary, but it was awesome," she says. "It changes your perspective from normal day to day, to experiencing it from the sky."

if you go
What: Free airplane rides for kids 8-17 through the Young Eagles program
When: 9 a.m. the third Saturday of the month through September
Where: Clubhouse at Buchanan Field, 200 Sally Ride Drive, Concord
Information: Call Jack Davi at 925-705-7771 or visit www.eaa393.org