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Flying high -- Pilots give local kids a taste of flight

For some Frazee Elementary sixth-graders, Wednesday morning's field trip to the Detroit Lakes/Becker County Airport was about the chance to take their first airplane rides. And for most, it was the first chance to hop in a small plane.

Giving kids a chance to fly was one of the goals for the trip. At least that's what the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association wants to accomplish.

"The program was originally designed to give as many people between the ages of eight and 18 an airplane ride," said Duane Wething, chairman of the local airport commission.

Wething said the success of the program keeps it going. Originally, the task was to give one million people rides, but that number was reached a few years ago.

In Detroit Lakes, Wething said about 2,000 kids, mostly sixth-graders, have gone for short 10-minute flights so far. Lake Park-Audubon Elementary sixth-graders had their chance to fly on Tuesday.

Local pilot and Minnesota highway patrolman Kent Thompson said that part of his reason for volunteering his time and resources is to help spread the love of aviation to a younger generation.

"We need to promote aviation, for one thing," Thompson said. "There's pretty much a worldwide shortage of pilots right now, and that's one of the main purposes of doing this."

For the kids, it was a unanimous response to the flights, as cheers of "cool" and "awesome" resonated near the terminal. One lucky flyer, Hunter Lafreniere, took control for a while, under the constant watch of his pilot, of course.

"I turned," Hunter said.

It's a little harder than some realize, since pedals are involved in steering and to get the plane level after a turn, the yoke needs to be turned in the opposite direction.

Most, though, seemed excited to get the chance to see Detroit Lakes from a birds-eye view. "I was able to see my grandma's house," said student Alexis Fagerlie.

The flights circled clockwise around Detroit Lakes, giving kids the chance to see the entire city. It was different than those accustomed to jetliners as the single-propeller planes bumped their way across the sky. Not to mention the fact that the quarters are tight, with little to no leg room to spare for the taller ones in the class.

Plus, the loud rumbling thundered in everyone's ears. Their only protection was the headsets everyone wore just to be able to talk to one another.

Wething said that all of the pilots and the other volunteers were taking their jobs seriously. Several people staffed tables to manage all the paperwork, including permission slips.

"Each student has to have a release signed by their parent or guardian, so it's not just a matter of coming out and getting a ride," Wething said. "There's a lot of preparation work before they actually fly."

Pilots also took down the names of those who flew with them, for their own record. Plus, the logs are available on the Internet so pilots can look back to see what dates they flew and with whom.

After all is said and done, Thompson said he hopes the day helps kids understand that learning doesn't stop when school ends, since pilots' training never stops.

"To be a good pilot, you're always learning," he said. "That's one of those things in which you need to stay with it. If you don't do it, you lose it."