BELFAST — It is an experience that is almost always preceded by fear, and one that almost always ends in wonder.

The act of flying for the first time inspires waves of evolving, and often conflicting, emotions. A national group with a chapter in Belfast is hoping to harness those emotions and, hopefully, direct them toward careers in aeronautics.

Launched in 1992, the Young Eagles program has dedicated 30 years to giving youth ages 8-17 their first free ride in an airplane. The Young Eagles program is sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association and has chapters throughout the United States and internationally. The program was developed by EAA as a means of introducing young people to flight.

“If we can provide young people with an easy and free way to experience aviation, they might see that as an opportunity from a vocational standpoint” said Kenn Ortmann, a member of the Belfast Young Eagles chapter and manager of Belfast Municipal Airport.

Ortmann and the Belfast Young Eagles chapter will provide free flights for youth on Sept. 17 at the Belfast Municipal Airport. To register, go to the Belfast Municipal Airport website.

The Belfast Young Eagles chapter has taken around 300 young people on their first flight. Ortmann has piloted nearly 150 of them himself.

Young Eagles youth will get a great view of Belfast during their flight. Photo by Jim Leonard

“It’s special every time,” Ortmann said.

The way it works is surprisingly simple. Local chapters decide to host events that attract pilots, mostly of small aircraft. The Sept. 17 event at Belfast Municipal Airport is simply called a “coffee and doughnuts fly-in.”

“You usually get a pretty good number of pilots who will come to an event,” Ortmann said. “Pilots will use any excuse to fly.”

The Young Eagle flights coincide with these events. Several pilots, all of whom have passed safety training specific to Young Eagles flight protocols, will ferry young people on their first ride.

Flights generally last about 10 minutes. Flights are preceded by discussions about the aircraft and pre-flight protocols. After the flight, Young Eagles issues each young person a log book with a coupon for a free ground training flight course.

“We have a lot of repeat customers,” Ortmann said. “If you’re between 8-17 years old, we’ll take you up even if you’ve flown with us before.”

Such is the case with Liliana Christian of Waldo. Liliana is a senior at Belfast Area High School and has taken advantage of the Young Eagles program for several flights over the years.

Liliana Christian takes her first Young Eagles flight in 2012. Photo courtesy of Michelle Christian

“My first flight was in 2012,” Liliana said. “At first, I was terrified by the idea of even stepping into a plane. Once I was up in the air I was absolutely amazed by the view. I loved the program so much, I went every year until I was too old.”

Liliana says her experience provided her with more than just a flight in an aircraft.

“The Young Eagles program ended up giving me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone and take risks. Life is all about choices. You can stick to the comfort of certainty, or you can choose to do something that may intimidate you at first, only to find out you have discovered a new passion.”

That is precisely the sentiment EAA and Young Eagles hope to inspire.

“There’s so much to do in aviation,” Ortmann said. “There’s flying, of course, but fixing aircraft, working in (airport) communication and so many other potential careers. We hope to help young people make those connections.

Liliana agrees.

“I’m sure many people have been impacted by the Young Eagles program, finding a new skill set, hobby, or even a future career,” she said.