Minn. pilot has taken 600 area kids on free flights through Young Eagles program
ST. PAUL -- Madison Doffing was born after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the annual photos of the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center had made her fearful of flying.
“I’d be afraid that we would crash,” she said.
On Saturday, Jan. 12, she put that fear to rest when William “Bill” Steier took her up in his Cessna 172 Skyhawk as part of the Young Eagles program which introduces children to aviation. It was a big day for Steier, too, as he passed a significant milestone. He has taken over 600 students on free flights since joining the program in 1997. Madison, 13, and her brother Tyler, 12, of Cottage Grove were numbers 627 and 628.
After a pre-flight check and a few instructions, Steier, the siblings and their dad, Jason, hopped in the red-and-white four-seater and headed down the runway at Fleming Field Municipal Airport in South St. Paul. Their flight path took them along the south side of the Mississippi River to Hastings to see where the St. Croix River mixes with the Mississippi. From there, they flew over Prescott, Wis. and looked west to see the Twin Cities skyline.
It took about 30 minutes, but it may have changed Madison’s life.
“It was fun,” she said excitedly. “There was some turbulence, but I think it was awesome.” She said she is now thinking about a career as a flight attendant.
Steier listened to her describe the flight and nodded, grinning from ear to ear. That’s exactly why he does this, he said, to pass along his passion for flying to the next generation.
Aviation for the next generation
The Young Eagles program was launched in 1992 by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) following a a survey of EAA members on the priorities of the organization’s future. Over 90 percent said it was imperative to introduce young people to the world of aviation, so the Young Eagles was initiated with the goal of giving kids ages 8 to 17 an explanation of the safe operation of airplanes, a brief description of the principles of flight and a demonstration in the air.
The worldwide organization is run by more than 50,000 volunteers who donate their time and aircraft. Through the efforts of its 200,000 members, over 2 million young people have had the chance to fly.
The trip ends with the student signing his or her name into what the organization calls the “ World’s Largest Logbook,” which is on display at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis., and online. Finally, the participant is given information on how to get a pilot’s license.
Flying is a family affair
Steier, 57, of Inver Grove Heights was bitten by the flying bug early in life.
He was a farm boy in Iowa and his uncle, formerly a pilot in the Korean War, was a crop duster.
“I was just 5 years old,” he said of his first ride. “I could barely see over the seat.”
His dad and older brother bought an airplane, as did many of his relatives.
“It’s kind of in the family,” he said.
He got his pilot’s license at age 17 and later went into aircraft mechanics, maintaining planes for Northwest Airlines and other Twin Cities corporations.
As a pilot, he joined EAA, so the Young Eagles program was a natural transition. His chapter, 1229, is based in Fleming Field and has about 60 members. He and his wife Julie are Young Eagles coordinators.
The brave, the scared, the sick
In the early days the chapter would host large groups, as big as 200 at a time. Now the majority of Young Eagle flights take place during the chapter’s spring and fall breakfast fundraisers. Otherwise, individuals find the group online, as the Doffings did, and set up an appointment.
Then they come to his hangar, which looks more like a home with couches, a foosball table and a kitchen, except for the two airplanes parked inside.
Over the years Steier has had all kinds of kids in his Cessna. Some barely said a word during the trip, others babbled excitedly. Some joked around with friends and others sang songs.
“I’ve had a few of them get sick, but those are usually the parents,” he said. “There was only one time I turned the airplane around.”
During that trip, a boy about 11 years old became so frightened, Steier said, he felt he needed to take him back to the hangar. His buddies, unhappy to have their flight cut short, gave the boy such a hard time on the trip back that Steier told them they were done for the day.
Making a difference
A few of his participants went on to become pilots themselves. He’s not sure how many but knows a couple of them work for local airlines.
The EAA did a study in 2011 to see if its efforts to encourage kids into aviation careers was working. It found that program participants are 5.4 times more likely to become a pilot, that 9 percent of those new pilots are female and that the odds of them choosing to fly went up the older the participant was.
The program has had some high-profile chairmen over the years. Famous test pilot Chuck Yeager, actor Harrison Ford and Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, famous for safely landing a disabled airliner in the Hudson River, have held leadership positions in the program.
Of all the kids whom Steier has encouraged over the years, he laughs when asked about his own. Neither his son nor his daughter became pilots.
“I really tried hard not to push them,” he said.