Young Eagles helps young people soar

Susan Flanagan
Published on November 17, 2010
St. John's pilot and aircraft owner Alastair Allan (left) poses with Young Ealges past and present. Kneeling is Mitchell Ryall, now the holder of pilot licences for both gliders and powered aircraft. Current Eagles include Shawn Lundrigan-Smith (left), Shane Smith (in cockpit) and Chris Jackson (right).
Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

If you know a young person between the ages of eight and 17 who is interested in aviation, they might be ready to become a Young Eagle.

Since the inception of the Young Eagles Program, more than 1.5 million Young Eagles worldwide have experienced flight in a small aircraft. Most get a chance to handle the controls and fly themselves.

“It all started with the 100th anniversary of flight by the Wright Brothers,” says Alastair Allan, the Young Eagles’ flight leader in St. John’s.

He’s been volunteering his time and expertise for more than a decade.

The United States-based recreational aviation association EAA — originally known as the Experimental Aircraft Association — wanted to do something to celebrate the centennial of powered flight on Dec. 17, 2003.

“So, they asked the pilot community to fly a million kids worldwide — free of charge,” said Allan.

“By the anniversary, we had achieved our goal.”

He said the flights were so successful they decided to continue them beyond the centennial.

“The kids are thrilled and the pilots enjoy the opportunity to share their love of flight with young people,” he says.

“And you’d be surprised at how many Young Eagles go on to get their own licence. Some are now on their way to becoming or are commercial pilots.

“One day I was flying with a Young Eagle and we were coming in for a landing the same time as a passenger jet. The first officer of the jet said, ‘We’ll wait for the Young Eagle in the real aeroplane to land first.’ The next thing we see is the crew waving out the window of this huge jet. It turned out that a girl I had flown was the first officer on that flight.”

Allan has taken about 120 Young Eagles into the skies so far, many of those more than once. And it’s all free of charge.

Allan takes care of all landing fees, fuel and insurance, not to mention the plane.

“It’s immensely satisfying to help make a youngster’s dream come true,” he says.

Being a Young Eagle doesn’t just mean going for a ride though, Allan stressed. Taking a Young Eagles flight means actually doing the job of the co-pilot in his dual-control, two-seater trainer.

Matthew Furlong of St. John’s had never been on an airplane before he made his Young Eagles flight.

“The first time he flew, he flew the aircraft around Bell Island,” says Allan, who has never encountered a problem while flying with a Young Eagle.

“Pilots are cool-headed and trained in every eventuality,” Allan says. “The planes are on a regular maintenance program and I only fly Young Eagles when the weather is fine.”

Mitchell Ryall of St. John’s met Allan through his Big Brother, Steve Kent.

That meeting and a subsequent Young Eagles flight changed Ryall’s life.

“I remember him with big glasses. He looked like Harry Potter,” Allan says of Ryall, who took his first Young Eagles flight on June 10, 2001.

“I wouldn’t have started on the path I’m on (if not for Young Eagles),” says Ryall, who was so taken with his first flight, he continued on with Allan and flew again and again, becoming familiar with navigation, radio and airmanship.

Allan suggested Ryall join the Air Cadets as soon as he was old enough, as he knew Ryall could get his pilot’s licence through cadets. Ryall had two years to wait and during that time he continued to fly and learn with Allan.

“Each flight, (Allan) would go into more and more detail,” says Ryall.

“I started to learn weight and balance calculations. I started planning routes. You’d have to check the winds. I definitely made lots of mistakes at first, but under Alastair’s careful supervision, I got it right. He drilled into us that safety is the No. 1 thing. And planning and preparation. If something were to go wrong, you’d have a backup plan.”

Through Air Cadets, Ryall obtained not one, but two, pilot’s licences — a glider licence and a private pilot’s licence. Now when the two friends go flying together, Ryall can officially take the controls.

“Definitely that one (Young Eagles) flight started a lot of things,” says Ryall.

“It sparked my interest in flying. I joined cadets where I spent seven years, got two pilot licences and I became a rifle coach. I taught at (Canadian Forces Base) Connaught in Ontario and here, and I ended up becoming a squadron commander and ran a unit.”

That’s a lot to fit into 19 years and that’s not the end of Ryall’s achievements. He has completed all three levels of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards and he became the second youngest officer ever to join the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

And if that’s not enough. Ryall has more goals in mind. Next on his list is obtaining his night flying licence and possibly his float plane licence.

For all this, Ryall credits his mentor and friend, Alastair Allan, and the Young Eagles flying program.


Susan Flanagan is a freelance writer and mother of four Young Eagles (and the wife of one Big Eagle) in St. John’s.