Blind World Magazine

Young Eagles program helps visually impaired kids experience flying.

Monterey Herald, California.
Sunday, May 14, 2006.


Given a choice, most people will select the window seat on an airplane. Gazing toward the ground from thousands of feet high is often a long flight's saving grace.

But what if your eyes didn't let you see out that window?

For seven visually impaired Monterey County students Saturday, it wasn't about the view.

An outing at Salinas Municipal Airport, sponsored by the Young Eagles program of the Experimental Aircraft Association, helped these seven kids, ranging from 11 to 18 years old, experience the thrill of flight in ways no commercial airliner could duplicate.

"We're giving them a first-time opportunity to feel, touch and smell an airplane," said Pat Smith, president of the association's Salinas chapter.

Some of the kids had flown commercially, but this was the first time for them to ride in a small plane and feel what it's like to be buffeted by winds, or feel the buoyancy of lift. The sensations of flight didn't depend on what their eyes told them.

The Young Eagles program took flight in 1993. Since then, it has helped nearly 1.3 million kids around the world earn their wings. Though the Salinas chapter is in its seventh year, this was only the second flight especially for the visually impaired.

"It was like a roller coaster," said 13-year-old Gennelle Watkins, an eighth-grader at Washington Middle School in Salinas. "But I wasn't scared."

Visually impaired doesn't mean blind. Of the seven who were present Saturday, only one relied on a walking stick. What it does mean, though, is that everyday activities taken for granted by most people, such as reading and driving, are a challenge.

Each child spent about 20 minutes in the air from Salinas to Castroville. For some, recognizing the ocean or a mountain range was a stretch, while the group's less severely impaired saw the valley's agricultural fields for the first time as green squares in the ground.

One advantage of small-plane flight for the kids was the ability of small planes to stay closer to the ground than commercial airliners.

After the last plane landed, the group took part in a one-hour flight school, during which Smith briefed his listeners on the basics of flying.

"When you explain (flight), you can't explain in visual terms," said Smith. "You have to explain in physical, feeling terms. That's the challenge."

"I liked seeing the fields, the buildings, the mountains," said 11-year-old Daniel Cavazos, to whom anything more than a few inches from his eyes is a blur.

Cavazos, a fifth-grader at El Gabilan Elementary School in Salinas, suffers from optic nerve hypoplasia, meaning that his optic nerve isn't fully developed. His vision is so limited that his text books feature extra large print to overcome his 20/400 vision, and he needs to use a monocular to see the chalk board.

While Cavazos is restricted in many ways -- he probably won't ever drive -- his parents breathe a sigh of relief that he is more autonomous than they feared he would be.

"He surprises us with his adaptability," said Cavazos' father, Albert. "He loves to draw. Give him some paper and a pencil, and he's good to go for hours."

When Cavazos returned from his flight, he emerged from the plane with a wide grin, then was wrapped in a big hug from his Miranda, 4, who was concerned her big brother had left for Texas. The Cavazos' have extended family in the Lonestar State.

Pilot Jeff Cuskey has been taking Young Eagles up in his Cessna 172 for six years. One of four pilots who donated their air time and fuel tank Saturday, the retired naval commander never gets tired of giving kids a birds-eye view of the county.

"Every time I do it, it's a great deal of fun," said Cuskey. "I love the enthusiasm of the students."

Cuskey does all he can to enrich his passengers' experiences, involving them in the flight as more than just observers from the sky.

"Once we get up to altitude, I have them hold onto the controls and feel all the forces," said Cuskey. "Then I let them fly the airplane. You should see their faces when they get a chance to do that."

On Saturday, Cuskey was impressed by the aviation knowledge demonstrated his young co-pilot, an 18-year-old named Andy who employs a walking stick. During the flight, they discussed fighter planes such as the F-14 and the F-18, a subject Andy became familiar with while taking part in the junior Naval ROTC program. He was familiar with the man Cuskey was communicating with over the radio.

"Andy listens to the police band, and so he recognized one of the airport controllers by voice," said Cuskey. "He said that he likes this controller because he's always really nice when he talks to the pilots."

Now that they have completed a Young Eagles flight, the seven kids will have their names entered into what Smith referred to as the world's biggest log book. Located at the Young Eagles headquarters in Oshkosh, Wis., it holds the names of all the organization's participants.

"For us pilots, it's an eye-opener," said Smith. "We take so many things for granted, and these kids really bring us back to the humbleness of it all."

End of article.

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