EAA Chapter 377 keeps locals, youth interested in general aviation.
By KAMIL ZAWADZKI
Looking over a single-seater Thatcher CX4 he built on his own, Tom Stallings reminisces with Mary Shortridge about the growth of the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, an organization of aviation enthusiasts and pilots that they each joined in the late 1990s.
One would think they literally live, eat and breathe general aviation. Their respect for their fellow aviators and love of flying are palpable.
Why are they so crazy about flying?
"Well, go up and fly and you'll see," Shortridge said. "It's pretty cool, right?"
The two pilots are members of Garden City's EAA Chapter 377, informally based out of Garden City Regional Airport.
And another member, Todd Francoeur, brings together a prospective new generation of aviation enthusiasts among Garden City High School students with his Flight Club. They start with building and flying remote-controlled airplanes and can graduate to taking him up on his offer to take them flying.
He makes sure it is a safe, calm and controlled environment so that the kids he takes up enjoy themselves, but he does let them take the helm when it's safe to do so.
"I let them get their hands on the yoke and let them fiddle around with the throttle a little bit, let them do some turns ... as much as they can and as much as they feel safe and comfortable with," Francoeur said. "Every time I've come down, they've had a smile ear-to-ear."
He added that it's one of his hopes that he can teach enough kids how to fly that they themselves can instruct others and keep the interest fresh and constant.
Whether one is just curious about general aviation or an active member of the club, EAA Chapter 377 facilitates both a forum and an opportunity to experience flight.
"You gotta have a reason to fly," Shortridge said, and that's in part what the monthly fly-ins are for.
EAA Chapter 377 gathers aviators from across the region and beyond for monthly fly-ins at locations varying in size and distance, from airports such as that in Liberal to small, and sometimes unpaved, landing strips abutting pilots' homes in the countryside.
Membership in the chapter can range from people passively interested in general aviation just getting the newsletter to those actually participating in the fly-ins.
For such passionate pilots, the fly-ins are an opportunity to mingle with likeminded people and give them another excuse to get up in the air.
And anyone who's interested is invited.
"It's all about flying and food and having fun," Shortridge said, noting the casual nature of the monthly meetings.
Not everyone in the group has a plane of their own — those that don't, can hitch a ride with someone else or rent one at the airport.
Francoeur rents a plane each time he goes up, and he flies students often. Even though it can get costly, he is more than happy to pay out of pocket just to see the kids' excitement and awe before and after they fly.
"Just seeing that look of wonder when they realize they're 3,000 feet up in the air is worth every moment," he said.
He said students building remote-controlled airplanes in his Flight Club can get a better appreciation of what it takes to not only fly but actually build an airworthy machine, even if they might never build a whole plane with their own bare hands.
While not all pilots in EAA build their whole planes from start to finish, Stallings has built two.
As both planes are single-seat aircraft, Stallings can only fly solo to fly-ins right now. He admits he kind of likes it that way.
"You don't have to worry about other people's safety in flight or the extra insurance and things like that," he said.
But he is now planning to build another plane — a two-seater this time.
"My wife's interested, and she'd like to come (to the monthly fly-ins), but right now I just have one seat, so when I build a two-seat plane, then she'll probably come with me," he said.
The pilots fly regularly, saying that doing so not only keeps them proficient but also allows them to indulge in their passion for general aviation.
"Just the idea of getting off the ground, just get up in the air. It's a free feeling," Stallings said. "... (You get to) do some things that people can't do. It's just fun being able to go someplace."
Francoeur also spoke of the therapeutic aspect of being able to take flight.
"An hour in an airplane is like an entire week of vacation for me," he said. "I can go up there and let it all go and enjoy myself."
Like Francoeur, helping students experience flight, Shortridge prefers to have company when she's up in the air. She enjoys sharing her enthusiasm with someone in the cockpit of her Piper Comanche 260, which she affectionately calls "Thumper," more than she does flying solo.
"It's just a lot more fun with someone else," she said, chuckling and adding that it's always a good time for her, "as long as the person with me doesn't have any more fun than I do."
What she likes best about it is sharing that passion with people who've either never flown before or who have only experienced commercial airliner flights.
She took off to do just that Monday morning, heading east to fly over and point out some of her friends' small airstrips next to their fields between Garden City and Meade, before swinging around to get a good view of the wind farm near Montezuma.
"It all looks amazing from way up here, doesn't it?" she said, noting the breaks in the cloud cover that let the sun illuminate some spots in a landscape marred by the effects of the ongoing drought.
Shortridge said that in good weather conditions, the flight is so smooth that the plane pretty much flies itself, and only during a few seconds of turbulence Monday did she have to hold on to the yoke and stabilize the aircraft.
Flying over Garden City Monday, she got a look — for the first time — from above of the new Garden City High School building, marveling at the expanse of the facility and joking that whenever she takes kids up, they all try to identify various buildings as they pass high above the city's rooftops.
Shortridge and Francoeur see value in generating youth interest and involvement in general aviation through Young Eagle flights.
"People that give Young Eagle rides, they're an asset to the community because they give kids an opportunity to see something that they might not have seen," he said.
And, they say, aviation is not only a lifestyle for some but also an important part of the economy of such small agricultural communities as those sprinkled throughout southwest Kansas.
"There's a lot of money that comes in and out of Garden City," Shortridge said. "And it starts right here (at the airport)."
That makes raising interest in aviation among youths even more important for the community, and Francoeur already has seen the fruits of his labors go beyond just the fun to be had during Young Eagle flights or extra joyrides.
"And I've already had a couple of kids that I've taken for rides that are on that path (to becoming pilots)," he said.
Francoeur hopes to get his two children flying as soon as possible so that they, too, can partake in all that the open skies have to offer.
"As long as I can keep flying, I'll keep flying kids to show them that there's something else out there," he said.
People interested can look up their closest EAA pilot on the organization's website, www.eaa.org.
The local chapter's website can be found at www.eaa377.org with contact information and notices on when and where the next fly-ins will be held.