We have a lot of data on the more than 1.6 million young people who have taken an airplane ride in the hugely successful EAA Young Eagles program.
We know the Young Eagle’s age, gender, and where they live. We can also match records and learn which youngsters have advanced to becoming certificated pilots. But I have a question about Young Eagles that I don’t believe the data answers: What kind of airplane made the greatest impression, new or old?
EAA members have flown Young Eagles in every conceivable type of airplane from the most basic to some of the most advanced. EAA members fly the kids in their favorite airplane and that means almost every conceivable type of general aviation aircraft has taken a Young Eagle flying.
What I began to wonder is what impresses a young person most about flying? Is it the very close to nature, low and slow flight of a basic two-seater, or is it the glitter of a glass panel and high performance of an advanced airplane? In other words, what delivers more “wow factor,” a T-Craft or a Cirrus?
Since I don’t know the answer to that I – and you – are free to speculate. It would seem that the glass panel with its huge displays, moving maps, even synthetic view of the world ahead would impress a kid who just put down his electronic game or “i-something” device to climb into the airplane.
On the other hand, kids love activities and sports with real action. Clinging to the shear face of a rock, zooming a skateboard up and down the sides of a half pipe, or careening down a snow-covered mountain with both feet locked into what looks like a little surfboard is nothing kids did in my day. And none of those activities involve electronics, except that the best kids can text with both thumbs while snowboarding the steepest run at the resort.
Two of the earliest airplane flights that I can remember in my life spanned the airplane performance gap 50 or so years ago. One was in an Ercoupe and the other in a Bonanza.
What I remember about the Ercoupe is that it was, well, kid size. I wasn’t very big at the time, and the Ercoupe still isn’t. I remember stepping over the door sill and down into the tiny cockpit, but without sitting on a cushion or anything I still had a great view in just about any direction.
The Ercoupe was clearly a flying machine with no pretense of being a luxury car or serious mode of transportation. Only the basics were present. The main fuel tank sat almost in my lap and fuel lines from the wing tank were right there in the open. And I could almost reach out and touch the wings with their fabric covering.
Perhaps the strongest memory of flying in the Ercoupe was sliding down the side windows after takeoff and letting the slipstream blow through. The little Ercoupe is about as pure of a sensation of flying as one could hope for as a kid.
On the other hand the Bonanza was a purposeful machine. The door closed with a thunk. The interior was on par with the Buicks that my dad favored. And the big Continental rumbled with an obvious authority and strength that impresses any boy, no matter what a powerful engine is bolted to.
I remember the takeoff speed of the Bonanza as being simply amazing. And the climb rate blew away the basic two seat airplanes I had flown in before. There was the landing gear to raise, and the prop control to fiddle with. The Bonanza was clearly an airplane designed to go places.
If you had asked me back then which airplane impressed me most, I don’t know what I would have said, except that I liked both. I didn’t want to choose, but to fly anything and everything.
As soon as I could I learned to fly, but it was in the most basic airplanes – a little Piper Colt and a Cessna 140. Maybe the Ercoupe did have the greatest influence after all.
But then I have been lucky enough to fly the highest-performing civilian airplanes in existence, and I did get to own a Bonanza, and I have used general aviation airplanes for reliable IFR travel for more than 35 years. Maybe it was the Bonanza ride that set me on that path.
We could ask Young Eagles what type of airplane impresses them most, but would the information be of any value? Now that I think about it, the answer is probably no. It’s flying that matters. For those who get it, what you fly matters little. For those who don’t get it, it doesn’t matter either.