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Pilot makes a difference in Young Eagles’ lives
Story and photo by Barbara A. Schmitz
 

Jack Lewis of North Branch, Michigan, in front of his Piper Warrior called “The Lovebird.” He has flown about 1,079 Young Eagles, many with special needs. He is also EAA Chapter 1303’s Young Eagles coordinator.

Jack Lewis remembers a young man with significant emotional problems. He struggled in school and didn’t fit in.

But then Lewis gave him a Young Eagles ride, opening the boy up to the possibilities and awakening his passion for flight. That young man is now in college, pursing an aviation degree from Northern Michigan University.

It’s youth like that—the ones you can tell that you really touched—that make the time and effort put into the Young Eagles program worth it.

“You see a change,” Lewis said. “It’s like a metamorphosis. They board the plane as a caterpillar and they leave it as a butterfly.

“I like to think that we plant a seed. My goal is to introduce as many young people to aviation as I can, and to help them see the many careers and opportunities that center around aviation.”

Lewis has been flying Young Eagles for more than 12 years. He flies a lot of special needs youth and their siblings with EAA Chapter 1303 in Lapeer, Michigan, where he also serves as the chapter’s Young Eagles coordinator. He has more than 1,079 flights to his name, and has spent countless hours also working with the ground crew at EAA flight rallies.

“Each child has a different reaction,” he said. “It ranges from total amazement to being stoic—that is, until the flight is over and they’re on the ground. Then they’re jumping around.”

Lewis, who has been in a wheelchair since breaking his back in an accident in 1981, said his example allows youth to see that limitations shouldn’t stop them from accomplishing something extraordinary.

Although Lewis was interested in aviation as a child, it wasn’t something he pursued until after his accident. In 1987, he attended a speech where the presenter challenged the audience to take one dream and make it happen.

“I couldn’t identify a dream I had,” he said. “Since the accident, all I had focused on was surviving.”

“Flying fed my soul,” Lewis said. “It was the internal fuel that kept me pushing past the hard times.”

That’s also one of the messages he brings to the Young Eagles he flies. “Aviation is really a lot like life. Before you take off, you file a flight plan and have an idea where you’re going. But sometimes you need to deviate from the flight plan. You need to be flexible…”

Lewis hopes that he can have an impact on some of the Young Eagles. “Often parents of children with special needs are more restrictive because they don’t want their child to be discouraged,” he said. “I hope they see me and rethink the parameters of what is possible.”

Young Eagles Executive Director Steve Buss said the Young Eagles program has provided more than 1.55 million free flights to youth, thanks to 43,000 volunteer pilots and more than 80,000 ground crew members who have given of their time and talents since the program began in 1992.

“For a lot of the pilots, the Young Eagles program is a place for them to give back,” Buss said. “Someone gave them a break—either took them for a ride, recommended a flight instructor, or whatever—and this is a way to pay back that favor while having fun.”

Young Eagles flights will be given between 9 a.m.- noon on Thursday and Friday, depending on weather and air traffic conditions. To sign up for a flight, or learn more about the program, stop by the Young Eagles booth, located near the intersection of Waukau Avenue and Knapp Street Road. The building is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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