AURORA | Kiera Kapler banked the propeller plane sharply down and toward the left, aiming the nose toward a placid reservoir somewhere southeast of Centennial. A red booster seat helped her see over the dashboard.
Kapler, 8, was one of many children Saturday morning given free rides in small planes and helicopters from Centennial Airport.
She also opted to fly the plane and did so for much of the 20-minute flight.
The skies were smooth and clear. While Kapler giggled and banked the plane about 1,500 feet above the Front Range, retired Major General John Barry instructed her to adjust the controls ever-so gently.
“Get the wings level,” he told her. To the northwest, Denver skyscrapers jutted up from the metro center, tiny as toothpicks compared to leviathan Pikes and Longs peaks.
Barry assumed the controls soon after and steered his aircraft, a four-seater, 215-horsepower Tecnam propeller plane, into a smooth landing at the Centennial airport. In bleachers, a few dozen families with children waited for their turn to ride in seven planes and a helicopter. Kids squealed with delight or walked solemnly toward the planes in nervous anticipation.
The program, called Young Eagles, is run nationally by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and has a strong presence on Colorado’s Front Range. In total, about 2.4 million children have taken flights since the program took off in 1992 — all for free, thanks to volunteers offering their planes and time. The idea behind Young Eagles is to inspire the next generation of aviation enthusiasts and industry workers by showing them exactly why flying can be so exhilarating.
That was the motivation for Jake Laubhan, 14, an Arvada student who said he is already interested in aviation and decided to get up early on Saturday and wait patiently for his turn to fly.
For Barry, CEO of Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, each child with a newfound love for flying could help address a national shortage of aviation pilots and air traffic control staffers.
Before taxiing to the runway, Barry talked Kapler through a series of function tests pilots undertake before each flight. The propeller sputtered and rumbled to life as Barry checked the engine at different revolutions per minute; he then checked the brakes, circuit breaker, master switch and tested the wing flaps.
A former Air Force fighter pilot, Barry knows a thing or two about planes. He runs the local Young Eagles events from the Wings museum extension on Centennial Airport, the Blue Sky Gallery.
Patrick Ivers, 23, also volunteered to fly children on Saturday. He’s a recreational flyer with a propeller plane of his own, working on obtaining a commercial pilot license. A boy and his father climbed into the plane.
While Barry hopes the program will address a commercial staffing shortage, the children could be flying planes in no time.
In Colorado, children can fly alone at 16 years old and earn a Federal Aviation Administration private license test as young as 17, Barry said. For glider planes, children 14 and older can fly alone, according to Barry.
He said he doesn’t worry when the children command the controls.
When Barry taxied the plane to the Blue Sky Gallery, Barry asked Kiera if she’d enjoyed the flight.
“You gonna tell your parents you flew the plane all by yourself?” Barry asked.
“Yeah,” she said, beaming. “I’m also gonna say it was the best ride ever.”
At the Gallery, as the propellers slowed and stopped circulating, Barry and Kapler stepped out of the plane. Kiera hugged her father, Mike. He said his grandfather had taken him up for a flight when he was about Kiera’s age, and he’d never forgotten it.