Zenith Aircraft Co.
ZENITH AIRCRAFT AT WORK AROUND THE
YOUTH FLIGHT TAKES OFF! LITERALLY!
A year and a half is a
long time when youre a teenager. Its a very
That statement may not seem to have much significance,
and it may not even seem to belong at all in an aviation
magazine, but it does. Actually, this may be the best
place to make that particular point. But only if it is
just a first step. The next step is for you to think
about it, carry the idea around for a few days, and then
start thinking about what you can do with this valuable
You see, a year and a half ago a new organization formed
with a rather unique purpose. I have written about it
before in these pages, but as they continue to get closer
to their stated goal, I think its important to
periodically update the story. And since they just
achieved a major leap towards completing their task, I
thought this was as good a time as any to get closer to
the conclusion of the story. Which to be honest is more
the culmination of a dream than a conclusion. But that
may well be up to you in the long run.
In the small to medium sized town of Winter Haven,
Florida there are a number of highly gifted aviation
buffs on hand at Gilbert Field on any given day. They
have several things in common. They are friendly,
knowledgeable, outgoing men and women that, in the words
of long time pilot/mechanic/aviation guru Grover Summers,
"Mostly have either white hair or no hair."
Which is to say they are well past 39 years old - the age
Jack Benny chose to live the better part of his life.
Knowing this, they made a decision to do something
extraordinary in an effort to bring some new and
substantially younger faces onto the field on a regular
basis. And they decided to do it in an unusual way. They
wouldnt be satisfied with bussing out a group of
kids to give rides to here and there. They would make a
whole new batch of pilots. And in the bargain, introduce
a group of teenagers to the intricacies and specifics of
amateur-built aircraft at the same time. The idea was to
buy a kit aircraft out of their own funds, recruit a
group of random area teenagers to do the actual building
of the aircraft, and upon completion, teach them to fly
it. A bold idea to be sure. And the idea alone would have
been enough to satisfy many an airport bum Im sure.
The real difference between this group of do-gooders and
the average group of do-gooders is that this group
actually did what they set out to do. The program is
called Youth Flight, and the group in Winter Haven is
known as Falcon Wing, Squadron 1. Other groups hoping to
become Squadron 2 and 3 have shown interest and will
undoubtedly take a page from this first groups book
as they put their programs together and wade through the
morass of red tape and you-cant-do that-isms they
will be facing.
What kind of obstacles will they have to put up with?
Perhaps theyll talk to the FAA fellow that I tried
to get information from, who was good enough to point out
that the FAA would have to investigate this organization
closely to determine if building and flying an airplane
was indeed an aviation related activity. It is in my
neighborhood, but apparently in his there was every
possibility that it may fall under the category of
commercial fishing or animal husbandry. They may also
have to deal with airport officials like the woman who
felt that free parking for group members
automobiles was an unnecessary perk until it was pointed
out to her that no other cars on the entire airport were
required to pay for parking.
Lets just say that there are a lot of absolutely
pointless obstructions that can and will be thrown up
overnight to try to preclude any good deeds being
perpetrated on the behalf of others. There are lawyers
and bureaucrats that spend their entire careers seeing to
that. And they get paid to do it. These folks involved in
Youth Flight are not only volunteering, they are spending
their own money to enjoy the privilege of doing it.
Initially, they were doing it for teenagers that they
didnt even know. These kids came from far and wide
to participate. And the participation took some effort.
As I said, a year and a half is a long time to a
teenager. Well, when they got started they didnt
have any idea how long it would take. After all, these
kids had no experience with aviation to speak of They
were a variety of ages, both sexes and a couple different
racial groups. But they had in common a desire to put in
the time it would take to accomplish their own goals. The
minimum requirement was to put in 100 hours of work on
the aircraft, a Zenith Zodiac CH-601, side by side
seating, low wing monoplane of all metal construction.
The gold ring at the end of the ride was that the kids
would be entitled to earn their private pilots
licenses for the price of fuel alone. Area flight
instructors volunteered their time to take on one or two
students each. And the organization agreed to take on the
cost of the maintenance and upkeep of the aircraft. This
means a reasonably adept student could conceivably earn
his or her pilots license for less than $500. Not a
bad deal no matter how you look at it.
To keep construction costs to a minimum, the adult
members of the Youth Flight organization encouraged
donations from a variety of aviation related businesses
that would help them get this bird in the air without
violating members bank accounts. And slowly, but
surely, the efforts of the older and the younger members
paid off. The avionics, propeller and even paint for the
airplane were donated. And as the construction continued
under the watchful eyes of experienced veterans, the
beast more and more began to take on the look of an
airplane a safe, sturdy training machine that would
enable the teenagers to get what they came for.
If you make it to Sun n Fun this year, look around
closely to find the red, white and blue machine with the
tinted bubble canopy. Youll notice it because it
will be the one emblazoned with the names of those
companies that threw their hats into the ring to help out
along its back. And because it will be the one with
teenagers gathered around it that dont look awed by
it, or intimidated by its possibilities. They built it
after all. Who could be more comfortable at the stick
than the members of the crew that built her?
On a rainy and overcast Sunday afternoon, February 16,
1997 Youth Flight elder Grover Summers, who is as
experienced a test pilot as youre likely to find,
climbed into the cockpit of N229FF and fired up the
engine in front of a crowd of young builders and their
parents. Smiles were rampant as Grover taxied out to
runway 4. They became virtually epidemic as he poured the
coal to her and rotated the nimble vehicle into the air
officially to announce to all the world that Youth
Flight, Falcon Wing, Squadron I had succeeded. The
aircraft built by kids who were, for the most part, too
young to drive, flew just beautifully, hands-off right
from the first. And by the time this article goes to
press and gets into your hands you can bet that the
person sitting in the left seat of that aircraft will be
a young man or woman that has earned the very special
privilege of flying an aircraft that their own hands had
a part in bringing to life. What are the odds that their
lives wont be profoundly affected by this
Oh yes ... and as for the notion that kids today are
quitters, or lazy, of the twenty three teenagers that
began the program 18 months ago, three moved out of the
area, and eighteen of them are still actively involved in
the program. Thats a pretty good percentage in
anyones book, Id say.
Now, you just have to decide what you want to do about
this interesting development in experimental aviation.
And I think youd have to agree that this is truly
experimental. Do you get involved? Do you look into
starting a similar organization, or even another Squadron
in your area? Or do you do nothing? Its all up to
what you feel comfortable with. But if you are really
interested in expanding aviation and seeing the number of
new pilots increase rather than decrease, or maybe just
finding a way to cut the cost of your own flying while
helping others get ahead at the same time, you might want
to consider having a chat with these folks while you
prowl the grounds of Sun'n Fun this year.
For additional information
on Youth Flight contact:Dick Gibbs, 316 West Lake Ave.,
Auburndale, FL 33823 (941) 967-8043.
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article represents the viewpoints of the author, and not
necessarily those of Zenith Aircraft Company.