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Looking Through the Fence: A Young Eagle's Story

By Joel Hargis, President EAA Chapter 534, and Jason Fitzwater

January 23, 2014 - Recruiting Young Eagles can be a challenge. Finding young people with a genuine interest in aviation is even tougher. Then there is Jason Fitzwater, 18, of Leesburg, Florida, one of EAA Chapter 534's most successful Young Eagles. Joel Hargis, EAA 1074421, of Eustis, Florida, and chapter president, tells the story with Fitzwater.

Joel Hargis: One afternoon at the airport I was hanging out with my A&P/IA and pilot Arnold Holmes in his hangar. Arnold was at the time EAA Chapter 534 president. We were as per usual talking about airplanes and flying when we noticed a father and son looking through the fence at the airfield. I noticed the young man was about 16, and being our Young Eagle coordinator at the time, I encouraged them to come through the gate to get a closer look. They were reluctant at first but with more friendly encouragement, they came in.

Arnold and I chatted with them for several minutes and explained our Young Eagle program and the teen seemed very excited about it. They said they would be there for our next fly day. What we did not know at the time was, well, let me let Jason tell you.

Jason Fitzwater: I can remember a day when I was really little walking around the Webster Flea Market and seeing a shirt with an F/A-18 and carrier on it. Since then I have always known that I wanted to join the Navy and become a Naval aviator.

Once I got a little older - around 10 or so - I remember begging my parents to take me to the Leesburg airport to let me take flying lessons. Little did I know that I was way under the solo age of 16, but I couldn't wait to get in the cockpit.

In the days before there were gates on all the airport roads, my dad and I would drive around and look in all the open hangars. Then one day I remember Joel spotting us looking through the fence. He came over and asked if I would like a free ride. As we talked and got to know each other a little better, I accepted his invitation. It all started right there.

JH: So the day Jason came in for his flight, we hooked him up with Dave Teisch, who is one of our veteran pilots who gives Young Eagle rides in his Lake Amphibian. Dave spends a lot of time when flying Young Eagles, generally including a 45-minute ride with a couple of water landings as our airport, Leesburg Municipal (KLEE) is surrounded by lakes. When they came back, Jason could not get the smile off of his face. To say he was excited is an understatement.

JF: After my first Young Eagles flight, and as soon as school got out, I practically moved onto the airport - spending every waking moment there working toward my private pilot certificate. My first training flight was exciting, but it paled in comparison to my first solo flight. I knew I could do it but was still nervous. Everything was going fine and as I took off for the first time by myself I realized that I had to get it back on the ground by myself. I think I lost a pound of body fat for every minute I was up in the air from sweating.

I remember all three of my touch-and-goes like it was yesterday. The first was probably my best; the wheels squealed a little, but it was still smooth. After I stuck the first one, my confidence level went way up and I knew that I would be fine. The second one was not as smooth but still good. Finally, the third one was the most exciting. As soon as the wheels touched down I could not stop smiling for I knew that I had just flown an aircraft successfully by myself for the first time. Once I taxied back and parked, I was on cloud nine, nothing could stop me.

The hardest part of the training for me was the book work. I had to work tremendously hard to pass the written exam. I remember times where I would go in and my instructor would tell me that we were not even going to get in the airplane that day.

In contrast, flying came fairly natural to me. I mean there were some frustrating moments, but for the most part I was able to pick up the skills rather quickly. My love for aviation allowed me to have a positive outlook on even the most difficult aspects of flying. In the weeks before my check ride I was flying three and four days a week, trying to perfect my skills.

Finally I was ready for my checkride and scheduled it for my 17th birthday, November 7, 2012. I had the examiner and the plane all set - even had a prearranged absence from school! Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate so we called it off until the following Saturday.

I showed up on test day with perfect weather. I got everything ready, said a final prayer with my family and took off for Crystal River airport. Once I arrived I met my examiner, and she calmed me down right away. We must have sat in her office for nearly two hours doing the oral exam. My brain was fried even before we got to the flying portion.

When we finally got into the airplane, we taxied onto the runway and she told me to fly the course I planned to Daytona Beach. Right before take-off I realized that I had left my map in the baggage compartment. I thought I flunked right there. After the examiner crawled through the plane and found my map we took off. Luckily, I performed all of my maneuvers within the standards.

One thing that stuck out and I think helped me pass, was that she mentioned she was proud of me for calling off my first attempt to take the test. Although it was a tough decision, and at times I was tempted to go ahead and risk it, I am so thankful that with the guidance of my instructor and parents I decided to call that first attempt off. I think that if I would have gone through with it in that weather, I would have instantly failed.

Now that I have my private pilot certificate, I have been looking for ways that I can use it and keep my skills fresh. Recently I was able to be a Young Eagle pilot. It was so special because I was once a Young Eagle and to be able to give back to the program that helped me get started meant a great deal to me. Practically every dollar I earn goes into my flying fund. I like to spend every moment I can up in the air. There is no greater feeling. Being in the air gives you a totally different perspective on life. I would not trade all of the sweat and frustration that went into this for anything on earth!

JH: So this is a great story that exemplifies what Young Eagles is all about! Young Eagles lets us help someone go from Young Eagle to Young Eagle pilot. You never know who you might find peeking through the fence, or run into going through our daily life. We all need to keep our eyes and ears open, as you never know when you might recruit the next pilot.

Jason is a senior in high school and has his application into the Naval Academy to fulfill his dream in becoming a Naval aviator.
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