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Aviation group has program to entice youth into the air

Two members of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels are silhouetted against the sun during their performance at the 43th annual Sun ‘n Fun International Fl-In and Expo in Lakeland on Friday.

LAKELAND — A bend in a strip of sheet metal and a click of a riveting tool could be a spark for a lifelong passion for aviation with thousands of rivets to follow. So the Experimental Aircraft Association hopes as it has its Mobile Marketing Unit at the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In for the first time this year.

The organization is celebrating its 25th year. Last year, its Young Eagles youth aviation program at the AirVenture Oshkosh air show celebrated having 2 million participants last year.

The aviation advocacy group’s new mobile setup will make the rounds on the air show circuit to build on that success.

“It’s a whole aviation experience,” EAA employee Preston Goetz said. “What we’re all about is growing participation in aviation.”

The decked out trailer features two craft projects, a sheet metal cookie cutter and a foam glider, a flight simulator of a Cessna 172 making the landing at the EAA’s home airport in Wisconsin and a virtual reality tour of the EAA’s museum.

Children are encouraged to try to land their new glider on the walkway done up like a landing strip out front, neophyte pilots can try their hand at hitting the mark on the simulator and more experienced aviators can try their hand at a setting the plane down after a mechanical failure.

Children ages 8 to 17 can get information about how to join the Young Eagles program at a local EAA chapter at the booth, which starts with an introductory flight, then can lead to ground school and eventually flight lessons.

Lakeland’s EAA Chapter 454 participates in the Young Eagles program with volunteer pilots donating their time and aircraft to participate.

“It opens up their eyes to the possibilities out there,” chapter president Sal Capra said. “It opens up their eyes to science and technology — it’s kind of a hands-on experience for them.”

The chapter meets on the second Saturday of each month at 8 a.m. on the Sun ’n Fun campus at the Warbirds Building. It and its members are closely involved with the Central Florida Aerospace Academy and the Lakeland Aero Club.

The chapter is hosting a Young Eagles rally April 22. More information is available on the chapter’s website at 454.eaachapter.org.

Capra said his entry into aviation was radio-controlled planes and he didn’t get into manned flying until his 30s, but now there is a more concerted effort to make aviation more accessible to younger people to keep lifeblood flowing into the industry and hobby.

“I’ve seen lots of kids we’ve flown with become airline pilots, fighter pilots — it’s a neat experience and (aviation training) teaches kids a lot of self-reliance,” Capra said.