Kids fly free.
That phrase has a special meaning for the 1.6 million kids who have experienced their first ride in an airplane with a pilot from the Experimental Aircraft Association – a pilot like retired Lt. Col. Bill Butler of Mundelein.
The national organization offers flights free of charge to youngsters through its Young Eagles program, said Burt Spencer, coordinator of the program for EAA Chapter 414 in Lake County. Spencer also is Butler’s grandson.
The local chapter of the EAA has flown more than 5,000 kids out of regional airports since 1992, Spencer said, and Butler is responsible for giving more than one-fifth of those children their first flight.
The 81-year-old and his comrades will fly even more children during several upcoming Young Eagles events.
Butler went on the record with Lake County Journal reporter Stephanie N. Lehman to talk about the thrill of flight and the reason he flys kids.
Lehman: How long have you a pilot?
Butler: I didn’t get my license until somewhere around ’84. But when I was in the military, I had 98 air combat missions in Vietnam alone, so I did a lot of flying, but I was not a pilot … . I went to work for Baxter and retired from them in 1990, and since then I’ve been very deeply involved [in flying]. I’m past president of this chapter [of the EAA].
Lehman: What do you enjoy about flying?
Butler: There’s a rush, a real thrill, especially on a beautiful day. My wife just loves it, [to] fly cross country … . You see the world; the freedom. And there’s so much training involved, and you’re constantly striving to do it safely. Not only study, but practice … being able to do it well and practice, it gives you a good feeling.
Lehman: What is the EAA and what is its purpose?
Butler: The Experimental Aircraft Association was formed for people who were building light aircraft, then it broadened to those who just maintained or just loved aviation. You don’t have to be a pilot to belong; we have volunteers who help us when we have these rallies. But [it’s purpose is to] just help foster knowledge and appreciation of aircraft. It’s a way of spending an afternoon at the airport … .
Lehman: What is the Young Eagles program?
Butler: The Young Eagles program was designed to introduce youngsters, young children between the ages of 8 and 17, to aviation – give them their first airplane ride and orient them to what makes an airplane fly and the thrill of getting up and looking down. In fact, they marvel. [I’ll say], “Well, I’m only doing 120 miles an hour.” [They say], “What?!” “Well, look down there. See, those cars? I’m passing them all.” They’ll say, “They look like little ants!” Or, we’ll fly over Great America. “I’ve never seen Great America from the air.” The thrill.
I have actually given youngsters rides in airplanes only years later to have them come up to me [and say], “Remember me? You gave me my first airplane ride. I’m now a pilot working for a certain airline, because I became interested.” That’s what the program was designed to do, to orient youngsters to the thrill of flight.
Lehman: Why is that important to you and the EAA? Has there been a drop in the number of kids interested in flying?
Butler: Perhaps there has been a slight drop. I would think, yes, because there are fewer and fewer people getting their license, because, let’s face it, airplanes are not cheap. But it’s important to me ... .
We have air shows, as an example, with lots of people, and to see the thrill of these little kids, and to give them a ride, [they’re] beaming. [It’s] wonderful. They’re a little frightened on the take off and the landing, so I’m very, very careful to do it well and not scare them, to get a real nice touchdown, smooth.
Lehman: How do you prepare kids for their first flight?
Butler: We give them a safety briefing – stay away from the prop, don’t open anything, don’t touch anything … . We brief them on how to get out of the airplane, all of the emergency procedures – this is done before the flight.
And then we take a photograph, we give them a picture of the aircraft and the pilot, and we give them a certificate that they can hang on the wall of their Young Eagle flight. And we tell them they’re now going to be registered in the world’s largest logbook. If they ever go to Oshkosh, they can go to the computer and in the logbook will be the date, time and place [of their flight]. They can go online and get this information. So, there’s a lot of little things done for the children so they’ll remember their flight ... . I remember my first airplane ride … I remember it like it was yesterday. You don’t forget these things.
Lehman: What do the kids say when they’re done with that first ride?
Butler: All smiles. And, even more … they’re very thankful. The mother and father, “Thank you!” They want to shake hands. I think they’re very appreciative, because, let’s face it, it’s a thrill.
Lehman: You’ve flown how many kids?
Butler: [I’ve flown] 1,220 kids since ’92. My best year, though, was 163 in one year … . I’ve flown as many as 39 in one day.
Lehman: What is your hope when you give a child a ride? Do you want them all to become pilots?
Butler: Not really. I just want them to enjoy themselves and absorb it. And if it’s a nice day, I’ll let them handle the controls. I’ll tell them what we’re doing. And I’ll try to point [things] out. Sometimes you can see Chicago … “Look at that view, you can see the whole shore line,” I’ll say. “Now look to the north. You can see Milwaukee ... .” And on occasion, if you get up high enough, you can see Michigan. So, we point all these things out, and that’s what makes it a little more memorable.
Who he is: Retired lieutenant colonel in U.S. Army; also worked at Baxter for 20 years
Village of residence: Mundelein
Family: Wife, Lily; two children, Arlene Herrick and Richard Butler; five grandchildren, Jenni, Bryan, Burt, Scott and Ben; and one great-grandchild, Daniel
Hobbies: Collecting coins and other items
Upcoming EAA Chapter 414 Young Eagles’ flights:
• Saturday, April 16 – 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., host facility Stick & Rudder Flying Club, Waukegan Regional Airport, 2341 W. Beach Road, in Waukegan
• May 21 – 9 a.m. 1 p.m., Skill Aviation, Waukegan Regional Airport, 2346 W. Beach Road, in Waukegan
• Aug. 13 – 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Campbell Airport, 22733 W. Townline Road, in Grayslake
• Sept. 10 – 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Air Show, Waukegan Regional Airport
• Oct. 8 – 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Skill Aviation, Waukegan Regional Airport, 2346 W. Beach Road, in Waukegan
To reserve a spot or to learn more, contact Burt Spencer at 224-484-0414, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.eaa414.org.