Saturday, January 14, 2012

Program offers children a future in flight

GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic
Ethan Hughes makes his pre-flight check before making an afternoon flight over Yakima Jan. 11, 2012. Hughes took his first flight at age 7 with local pilot Dick Pingrey as part of the Young Eagles Program and has stayed involved in aviation ever since. Hughes now works for CubCrafters building and refurbishing aircraft. He has a private pilot's license but is working on his commercial license to become a test pilot for the company.

Pilot Dick Pingrey
GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. — Ethan Hughes clearly remembers how his first airplane ride at age 7 launched him into a life of aviation.

He was at the Yakima airport when he boarded Selah pilot Dick Pingrey's Cessna 182. He was belted in a rear seat, and the plane suddenly left the runway.

"What I remember most was just the takeoff, watching the earth shrink away," he said. "That was the most memorable part of it -- that first takeoff."

Now 24, the Selah resident assembles new airplanes and refurbishes older ones for CubCrafters in Yakima, the state's second-largest airplane manufacturer behind Boeing.

But if it weren't for Pingrey and a program designed give youths the experience of flying, Hughes said he may not be pursuing a career in aviation.

"I had the interest in aviation, but I just didn't know where to go with it," he said.

Hughes isn't the only one who embarked on an aviation career after getting an airplane ride from Pingrey.

Samantha Door, 23, of Yakima earned an aviation degree from Central Washington University after getting a ride from Pingrey while she was a high school senior and working as a waitress in a local restaurant.

"He took me up on an introductory flight and I loved it," she said.

Hughes and Door are just two of hundreds in the Yakima Valley, and more than 1.6 million nationally, who have gotten free airplane rides through the Young Eagles program, which was formed by the national Experimental Aircraft Association to bolster interest in aviation.

And Pingrey, 79, is one of about 30 local pilots and roughly 45,000 nationwide who donate time, fuel and plane hours to give youth rides.

He has flown more than 300 kids, ranging in age from 7 to 17, since the local program began in 1990, and is considered one its top pilots.

"I want to promote aviation and I want to promote opportunity for kids to have a career in aviation," he said.

Interest in aviation began to decline as pilots from World War II and the Korean War began passing away, said Kevin Hazaert, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis.

"There was no active outreach at the time to recruit a new generation of pilots, therefore the pilot population dwindled significantly," he said. "Thus, Young Eagles was formed to grow interest in flight and allow youth to see what potential there is in aviation-based careers."

Now, the association plans to launch a similar program for adults called Eagle Flights, he said.

Hughes said Pingrey, a former pilot for both Pan Am and United Airlines, gave him a brief lesson in aero-dynamics and an overview of the plane's controls before taking him on his first flight.

"I told my friends all about it," Hughes recalled. "You always have that place to go to remember that day."

Not long after his first flight, Hughes began spending time with local pilots, and at age 9 began volunteering at the McAllister Museum of Aviation, giving tours of exhibits.

"That's where I would spend most of my time, weekends and whenever I could get down to the airport," he said. "The museum tells the story of local historical pilots."

He began airplane mechanics at YV-Tech while still in high school and has a private pilot's license. Now he's studying to obtain airframe and power plant licenses as well as a commercial pilot's license.

"I'm training to become a test pilot," he said.

Door began taking flying lessons immediately after her introductory plane ride.

Pingrey helped her secure several scholarships that eventually led to her earning a degree in aviation.

"He did it all for free," she said. "He took an interest in me because I was so interested and I didn't have the funding. He's a wonderful person and very, very giving."

She worked nearly two years as an airport operations officer in Fort Worth, Texas, before returning to the Yakima Valley for family reasons.

She's now working as a fleet manager for a Yakima trucking company, but is searching for a nearby job in aviation.

"I'm actively looking," she said.

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