ENID, Okla. — A group of volunteer pilots in Enid is offering kids a free taste of flight, in hopes of sparking some passion in the next generation of aviators.

Members of the Enid chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) regularly volunteer their time, fuel and aircraft to offer free flights to middle- and high-school youth through the EAA Young Eagles program, all in hopes of increasing understanding of and appreciation for aviation, both as profession and hobby.

Dee Ann Ediger, of Fairmont, recently was recognized by EAA for providing more than 100 — she guesses the number is closer to 120 — free flights to kids at aviation events across Oklahoma.

Dick Knapinski, spokesperson for EAA, applauded Ediger for being willing to donate her time and resources to support kids interested in aviation.

“That’s a lot of dedication,” Knapinski said, “to donate her time, fuel and the use of her airplane.”

Freedom seldom found

Ediger is one of about 30 EAA pilots in Enid, many of whom help out with Young Eagles. But, like many of the youth she takes up in her airplane, she didn’t initially think being a pilot was something she’d pursue.

Aside from a commercial flight and one ride in a single-engine airplane in her teens, Ediger had no experience with or inclination to pursue a passion for airplanes until she was almost 30.

At age 29, Ediger started flying with her husband, Kenneth Hollrah, a former Air Force pilot and avid general aviation enthusiast.

Initially, Ediger simply took interest in flying as a way to better understand what her husband was doing in the cockpit.

“It helped to pass the time, to look down and see where we were and compare it to the charts,” she said.

But, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Ediger took a step that would lead to her pursuing her own life as a pilot.

“I asked my husband if ground school would help me understand better what’s going on in the airplane,” Ediger said.

She enrolled in a two-day ground school immersion course with Bill Blunk, through Aero Club of Enid. It was all still to better follow along with her husband’s flying. But, she figured she’d at least gauge her knowledge.

“I thought maybe I’d just take the written test, and see if I really understood it all,” Ediger said. When she aced the written test, she decided to continue on to the next step.

“I thought, ‘Well shoot, the hard part is out of the way,’ so I went ahead and decided to take flying lessons,” she said.

At age 50, she started taking lessons in a Cessna 150 with an instructor who was decidedly younger than her.

“I was older than his mom,” Ediger said with a laugh.

She went on to earn her private pilot’s license, then a high performance license. Before long, she and her husband had accumulated four aircraft in which to pursue their shared passion: a Cessna 177, a Cessna 182, a Kitfox two-seat homebuilt, and a single-seat SubSonex kit jet. The aircraft are split between the couple’s grass strip northeast of Fairmont and a hangar space at Enid Woodring Regional Airport.

In flying, Ediger said she found a new freedom that’s seldom found on the ground.

“The best thing about flying is when you’re in the air, not having to answer to anybody about where you’re going and why,” she said.

Now, with more than 1,600 flight hours under her belt, Ediger wants to share that freedom with the next generation, to “introduce people to flying, to see it’s attainable.”

“We want to introduce more kids to flying so that the one out of every 30 or 40 we take flying who has a real interest in pursuing it, we can encourage them,” Ediger said. “We try to get kids interested in flying, and give them a little boost.”

While flying is fun, Ediger said it also can teach youth responsibility and dedication.

“Flying an airplane is a commitment,” Ediger said. “It isn’t cheap, it takes a lot of study, and you really have to want to do it.”

'I want to fly'

Kale Pierce, superintendent at Timberlake Public Schools, said his son Preston, now a senior in high school, found that focus on his career path through Young Eagles.

A flight with Ediger sparked a passion for aviation that has led to flight lessons and a plan to major in commercial aviation in college.

“The advice we’ve always given our kids is they need to find something they love and try to make a living doing that,” Kale said, “and flying has become that for him, and without that program he never would have known this is something he would love to do.”

Preston said before Young Eagles, he never thought of aviation as a career path for himself.

“When I was little, I would see an airplane in the sky, and I would say ‘Oh look, there’s an airplane,’ but I never thought anything of being in control of it,” Preston said. “I never thought that would be the career path I would take.”

That changed immediately, he said, when he got his hands on the controls during a Young Eagles flight.

“I just liked the way it felt,” he said. “I just felt like I was born to do that. I told my parents I would love to do that for a career for the rest of my life. I love it.

“I’ll go wherever God really leads me, but I know that’s what I really want to do,” he said. “I want to fly for the rest of my life, because I don’t think it will ever get old.”

His dad, Kale, said Young Eagles opens the door to many kids, like his son, who otherwise may have no access to experience aviation.

“Being a small school in Oklahoma, a lot of times what our kids are interested in is pretty limited, because there aren’t as many opportunities to see different jobs and careers that are out there,” he said, “so it’s a great resource to have this program available.”

Future of aviation

Enid Woodring Regional Airport Director Deirdre Gurry, also a Young Eagles volunteer, said the future of aviation in America depends on opening more young eyes to possibilities in aviation-related careers,

“We’re grateful to have an EAA chapter here that extends those flights for Young Eagles, and it’s great to have the EAA program support the Enid community and surrounding communities,” Gurry said. “There’s a pilot shortage worldwide, and what I’ve seen a lot of times is a lot of kids don’t realize pilot training is within reach.”

Even if Young Eagles participants don’t go on to pursue a career in aviation, Gurry said they may still spread a passion for flight.

“They might speak to their friends and spark that interest that might get someone, somewhere, interested in flying someday,” she said.

Bert Blanton, Ponca City Aviation Foundation director and director of Northern Oklahoma Flight Academy, where Ediger and other Enid EAA volunteers periodically offer Young Eagles flights, said the program is good at promoting support for aviation, whether or not participants go on to pursue a pilot’s license.

“They become friends of aviation, no matter what,” Blanton said, “because they have a good taste in their mouth about it from a good time they had when they were younger.”

He said the Young Eagles flights are the highlight of his aviation summer camps.

“Some of them have never even been close to an airplane, but they all come back with a huge grin on their face, and we know some of them have had the bug bite them,” Blanton said. “For some of them, it really will become a passion, and that’s what we’re looking for — kids who will go on to make aviation a vocation or avocation.”

Pathway to the sky

Sue Hughes, president of the board for Waynoka Airport, another periodic stop for Enid EAA volunteers, said it’s rewarding to see the transformation in some of the kids once they’ve experienced flight.

“Lots of times, the kids will come in and they’ll be nervous or scared, and then they come out and say, ‘Oh, that was fabulous and I want to be a pilot,’” she said. “I love to see those transformations, where they arrive scared and they come out jubilant, and they want to be a pilot.”

But, she said, kids don’t have to become pilots in order to find a rewarding career in aviation.

“You don’t have to be a pilot to be an aviation enthusiast or to have a career in aviation,” Hughes said. “Maybe we will inspire some aircraft mechanics, aircraft manufacturers or designers. There are so many more professions and avocations that involve aviation besides just pilots.”

In order to introduce more kids to those opportunities, Enid EAA is looking for more pilots to help fly Young Eagles flights.

Ediger said about 80% of the pilots who help with Young Eagles flights are instructor pilots at Vance Air Force Base and usually not available during the week. She said the Enid EAA chapter would like to recruit more general aviation pilots, especially those available during the week, to help grow the program.

Anyone interested in requesting Young Eagles flights for a youth group, club or school group, or pilots interested in volunteering for the program, can contact the Enid EAA chapter at eaa455enid@gmail.com.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
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