Wild blue yonder opens to youngsters at Pearson

Volunteer pilots let kids explore the skies during open Cockpit Day

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Justin Baxter, 9, of Vancouver climbed out of a 1998 Van's Aircraft RV-6A. His eyes sparkled with excitement.

"I had a spectacular flight," he declared.

He rattled off all of the mountains he saw: Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Hood.

"That would be at least four mountains," he marveled.

Justin was one of about 85 kids, ages 8-17, who showed up Saturday to fly, with the help of a pilot, several small planes as part of the Pearson Field Education Center's Open Cockpit Day, organized by the Fort Vancouver National Trust.

"The whole idea is to give kids their first flight in an airplane," said Laureano Mier, the trust's director of aviation and education programs.

Enthusiasm like Justin's is what has fueled pilots from the Experimental Aircraft Association, Hillsboro's Chapter 105 and Vancouver's Chapter 782, to volunteer their time and resources at the event year after year, said Vancouver pilot Stan VanGrunsven, Justin's flight companion on Saturday. The Pearson Open Cockpit Day started about three years ago, but the EAA has been giving students airplane rides for much longer than that, Mier said.

"Once in a while, you get a really top student who is above your expectations," VanGrunsven said.

Pilots show the kids the working parts of the plane, make sure they're wearing protective gear and then take them up on a 15- to 30-minute flight. Some of the pilots allow the kids to operate the controls while in flight.

"When you are taking off and powering up the engine, you can feel yourself being forced back in the seat, but once you're in the air, it lightens up a bit," said Noah Brands, 15, of Vancouver. "It was really cool."

Noah's dad, Ed Brands, said Noah has dreamed of being a pilot since he was 4."He just had to overcome his fear of heights," Brands said.

Mier said it's always gratifying to see when the educational programs spark a passion for aviation in a student.

Only about 60 flights were offered Saturday, so as not to wear out the nine volunteer pilots, but rain checks were handed

out to about 25 other kids, who may come back for a flight on another day, said Martha Sampson, Young Eagles coordinator for EAA Chapter 105.

Sampson said pilots give their time, energy, plane and about $100 for fuel to provide each child with a ride on a plane.

Children who weren't old enough to go in the air with the pilots didn't miss out on the fun. The trust set up a flight simulator and opened up the cockpits of two antique planes for the younger crowd. There also were rocket launching and glider construction activities.

Not at the museum

Open Cockpit Day, and the trust's other aviation education programs, have survived despite the trust's loss of management control at the Pearson Air Museum.

On Feb. 4, the National Park Service, which owns the museum property but not its contents, demanded that the trust hand over the keys and alarm codes for the museum. The trust relinquished control to the Park Service, but not before moving out the museum's displays -- most of its antique airplanes.

Instead of holding programs and events in the museum, the trust now hosts them at Vancouver's Pearson Field.

The Park Service, the city of Vancouver and the trust are currently in mediation to determine the future of the museum.

About 5,700 people have petitioned the Park Service to allow the trust's aviation educational programs and exhibits to return to the museum, Sampson said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.