Friday, October 13, 2017

Steve Christensen: Platte mayor donates plane rides through Young Eagle program

Platte Mayor and Young Eagles Coordinator Steve Christensen stands in front of an aeronautical map on Wednesday inside the pilot's lounge and meeting space at Platte Municipal Airport.

PLATTE — When he's not in City Hall, Platte Mayor Steve Christensen can likely be found with his head in the clouds.

The 64-year-old has been the coordinator for chapter 289 of Young Eagles for six years. And in that time, he's taken hundreds of children and teenagers on free airplane rides in an attempt to "provide a service" to the community.

"To see a kid's face when you get them in an airplane and they're nervous, not knowing if they can handle it ... the grins on their faces when you land, that's the coolest thing," Christensen said. "If they like aviation that's a caveat but the look on their face and when they run up to their parents and say, 'Wow,' that's what it's all about."

The rides aren't necessarily designed to recruit pilots, but rather to encourage children to learn more about the world of aviation. If they become interested in pursuing it as a career, that's just an added bonus, Christensen said.

Started in 1992, the national Young Eagles program features hundreds of volunteer pilots who take boys and girls ages 8 to 17 on plane rides. Each pilot volunteers their time, aircraft and gas for the approximately 30-minute flights, and teaches each participant about the plane they will ride in and how to be safe in the air.

"It's all about safety," Christensen said.

Though he strives to make children's dreams of getting into the sky a reality, Christensen is quick to cancel any time he feels flight conditions aren't ideal. And if he hasn't done three take offs and landings in the past 30 days, Christensen refuses to take a passenger with him.

"It wouldn't be any fun if you don't make it back down safely," Christensen said. "I always want my passengers to be comfortable, but I want to be comfortable, too."

Christensen takes a handful of passengers at once, and allows the oldest to sit next to him and operate some of the plane's controls. The youngest Eagles are able to look out his plane's windows and "see the world from above."

And the benefits don't end when the plane lands.

When a person completes a Young Eagle ride, they receive a certificate and their name is entered into the World's Largest Logbook, which is kept on permanent display at the EAA Air Adventure Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. They are also given a logbook with an access code for a complete free online flight training course and are eligible for a variety of scholarships.

Many have taken advantage of the opportunities, with six of this summer's Eagles beginning flight training — the most ever, Christensen said. Throughout the summer months, nearly 400 children were taken on flights.

Chapter 289 is based out of Tea, but provides flights throughout the region, including Platte, Gregory, Watertown, Pipestone, Mitchell and more. Typically, small towns generate the best turnout, as large cities generally have more events that contradict with Young Eagle flight rallies, Christensen said.

'Something I can give back'

For Christensen, a love of flying came early.

When he was young, Christensen showed a strong interest in the field, but assumed it was too expensive, so he pursued other careers. For 13 years he was an instrumental music instructor and later on spent 14 years as a law enforcement officer. Then, when his oldest daughter graduated from college, Christensen told his wife he was ready to invest in aviation, and he also began his tenure as mayor.

And although being leading a town can be stressful, Christensen said he can always find solace in his aircraft.

"You're up there and there's no safety net, but it's looking down at God's creation and it's totally different seeing miles of patchwork quilts, especially this time of year with all the changing colors," Christensen said. "It's beautiful and it's something I can give back to the community that I enjoy and try to instill some of that in kids, and if I don't, at least I tried."

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