They boarded their flights mostly nervous and quiet, but by the time they landed about a half an hour later, many of the youngsters at the Wiarton Keppel International Airport on Saturday were happy and chatty.
Close to 100 children and youth took part in the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association Flight 68’s COPA for Kids event at the airport on Saturday, where they got a free flight around the area in one of four planes taking part, followed by after-flight hot dogs and refreshments.
Pilot Jim Cook from Owen Sound said he has been taking kids up in his plane for probably 20 years now and it is something he really enjoys doing. He says he tries to calm the nerves of his young passengers before they take off.
“I get the kids making scary faces and I take their pictures,” Cook said after a morning flight. “It is a real hoot.”
Cook said the best part is watching the kids at the end of the flight when they come out of the airplane smiling.
“For them it was a huge challenge,” said Cook. “Some kids they really don’t show any emotion. You ask them if they are bored, but they are not bored. They are tied up in knots.”
Cook was taking kids up three at a time in his ’47 Stinson tail-dragger on Saturday. After takeoff they would do a circuit around the area that included a flight over nearby Sauble Beach, before returning to the airport near Wiarton.
Cook said since he started taking youngsters up he has even had a few call him back years later to tell him that they had become pilots.
“They got the bug from their first flight so you just never know,” said Cook. “It feels fantastic. I do it because it is fun. I like kids and it is just great fun.”
Cook said it is important to get the kids up in the air as a way of expanding their horizons and let them know there are all kinds of things they can do.
“It teaches them not to be scared of flying,” said Cook. “A lot of people are scared of flying, but if they start a little bit young and get up in a small plane, maybe we can get rid of that fear.”
Cook said he was lucky in that he grew up around airplanes as his father was manager at the Brockville airport and he later on became an air traffic controller.
“I pretty much have it in my blood,” said Cook, who has been flying for more than 25 years after waiting until he was in his 30s to get his licence.
“I have been loving it ever since, so this is a bit of a give-back.”
For sisters Abigail Brown, 11, and Chloe Brown, 8, of Hepworth it was their first time going up in a small plane, having flown once before on a jet.
Chloe said it was a really cool experience, seeing how small the cars and horses were from the air.
“The haybales were really small, like marshmallows,” Abigail said, admitting she was nervous before takeoff, but it got better once they were in the air.
She said she was really nervous when they made the turns, with one side of the plane towards the ground and one side towards the sky.
Abigail said she held on tight to their fellow passenger Isabelle Arcalas, 11, because she was scared.
But both girls said they would try it again.
John Burt, co-captain of COPA Flight 68 said they have taken up more than 1,800 youngsters at the airport since 1998. The event was first known as Young Eagles before COPA International took over.
Burt said they are trying to interest the kids in becoming pilots because there is a great demand for them, from commercial pilots, to passenger flight pilots to search and rescue pilots.
“All the airlines are looking for pilots all the time and they are taking the good pilots they are training right now,” said Burt.
He said a big part of the pilot shortage is the cost. When they first started the program more than 20 years ago, getting a pilot’s licence was fairly cheap and there was a government program in place to fund it.
But Burt says the cost of getting a pilots licence today is in the neighbourhood of $30,000 to $40,000.
“It is like a college education,” he said. “But there is a need and it can be a great career.”