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Young Eagles Soar

The original article appeared in the October 2009 edition of Entertainment Fort Smith.


Ryan Waldrop, Dillon Cunningham, and Harley Leakey track A-10 Warthogs from the control tower.


Yes, she was “kind of” scared to take her first airplane ride and try to help fly it, 9-year-old Baleigh Conn said. But the prospect of taking off into the “wild blue yonder” in the Beechcraft six-seater owned by Young Eagles volunteer pilot Keith Greene was exciting enough to subdue Baleigh’s first-flight jitters.

“I’ve never flown at all,’ the Alma Elementary School student said while getting a pre-flight inspection lesson from Greene. “My mom and I have been all over the country – Florida, Washington, Georgia, Alabama and Texas, where I was born, but we always just drive and drive to get there.”

Greene is an Alma Boys and Girls Club volunteer, substitute teacher and recently retired business owner. Since starting the Young Eagles flight program about a year ago, Greene has recruited and flown about 50 Alma-area candidates, at his own expense.

“This is not an Alma Boys and Girls Club program but we’re certainly a part of it now,” said Boys and Girls Club supervisor Melinda Milam. "It’s something one of our most faithful volunteers, Mr. Greene, has made possible for our kids and they love it. Otherwise, most of our kids would never get the chance to something like this and it has really opened their eyes to opportunities they had never even thought of. It has even inspired some students to try harder to make better grades. Once they've flown with Mr. Greene, they never stop talking about it.”


Baleigh Conn concentrates on in-flight instructions from Young Eagles volunteer pilot Keith Greene.


Greene said he decided to take on the Young Eagles program due to personal concerns about an ongoing decline in the numbers of America’s licensed pilots, and his desire to give students a first-hand introduction to joys of flying. In addition to his 1970 Sierra Beechcraft, he owns a 1963 four-passenger Musketeer.

The Young Eagles program was launched in 1992 by the international Experimental Aviation Association. Since then, many of the EAA’s more than 170,000 generous and enthusiastic pilots, including actor Harrison Ford, have volunteered their time and aircraft to make more than 1.4 million free flights possible for boys and girls ages 8 to 17. Their goal for sharing their passion for flying with the students is to hopefully get them interested in aviation before they graduate from high school.

Several Alma Boys and Girls Club students have earned their Young Eagles certification, but there are several more waiting their turn to fly. Greene also was recently approved to share the program with Alma High School’s Navy ROTC students, so that will add another 90 to 100 students to his waiting list.

“What I’m really hoping is that we can get some other area pilots involved in the Young Eagles program, too, so that more local young people can have the opportunity to participate,” Green said. He said he has been told other area pilots have been involved with the Young Eagles in the past, but doesn’t personally know of any others currently participating.

“The Fort Smith area has a rich history in aviation dating from the early 1900s – all a person has to do is visit the Fort Smith airport to see a display of the accomplishments of local people from the early days of aviation,” Greene says. “So, hopefully, some other area pilots will want to help more local young people get interested in aviation, too.”

When students at the Alma Boys and Girls Club express interest to Greene about the Young Eagles, he gives them information about the program to take home to their parents and consent forms for a special field trip to the Fort Smith Regional Airport.


Left: Air traffic control specialist Jim Fuhrman explains radar images to the fascination of Mason Sherly, Harley Leaky, Steven Heckard, and Ryan Waldrop.
Right: Pilot Abigail Mayes grins as she and co-pilot Cain Bull "fly" one of Greene's planes in its Tac Air hanger.


At the airport, Greene and other volunteers take the students in groups of 25 to 30 on a tour of the control tower and radar room, normally off limits to the public. The students then visit the Tac Air hanger where Greene keeps his two planes. Following a quick lunch, the students are allowed to make hands-on, inside and outside inspections of Greene’s planes and ask questions.

Getting familiar with his planes before they take their individual, one-hour flights with Greene helps the students be a little more relaxed – especially if they’ve never flown, Greene says.

While some students may experience a little anxiety before a flight, once they’re soaring through the air at more than 100 mph looking for familiar landmarks below and briefly taking over the controls, they find their experience to be exhilarating and exciting, Greene notes.



Greene presents Baleigh her Young Eagles flight certtificates. Now, her name is in "the world's largest log book" at EAA Air Venture Museum, Qahkosh, Wis.


Witnessing a Young Eagles’ response to getting to fly is payoff enough for Greene, he says. But if Baleigh, or any of the other students in the program, goes on to become a pilot or work in an aviation field, he will be even more certain his time and effort have been well spent.


Young Eagles with Alma Boys and Girls Club staff and volunteers at Tac Air.


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