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Dreams take wing

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

Kelli Blankenship liked the sense of acceleration before takeoff. Her brother Jim favored the bird’s-eye view that only an airplane can provide.

The Pawleys Island area residents, who attend the online South Carolina Virtual Charter School, were part of a group of roughly half a dozen students who participated in the Young Eagles flight program this week at Georgetown County Airport.

“I want to be involved in aeronautics and one day have my own company,” Jim, 13, said. “The program is a great experience.”

“I wanted to study electrical engineering,” said Kelli, 16. “But once I started flying, I changed my mind. I really love being in the air.”

The Young Eagles program started in 1993 with a goal of taking a million students worldwide on their first flight before 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers initial flight. The program, which is sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, met its goal and proved so popular among young people that it has continued operations.

Chuck Yeager and Harrison Ford have been among the national chairmen for the Young Eagles, but the students at the airport were more taken with Dan Drost and Doug Decker, the two pilots who were present on Wednesday.

Drost received his pilot’s license in 1964 and is a retired flight test engineer. He has run the Young Eagles program in Georgetown County for the last five years. Decker is a retired executive from Johnson Controls, who learned to fly, to better cover his expansive sales territory in Utah.

“I’ll always remember the first time I soloed,” Decker told the students as they gathered in one of the airport’s lounges. “We went out on the runway. Then my instructor got out and said, ‘You’re going by yourself. Go around the pattern and land.’ I was nervous, but I did it. After I finished, it was like, ‘Wow, I just flew that thing.’ ”

Drost believes that same sense of wonder is what drives interest in the Young Eagles program.

“We want to get kids out from behind their computers and show them there is a whole world out there,” Drost said. “We’ve had a lot of students who have taken their first flight with us and have gone on to be involved in the aeronautics industry. We want to see more of that.”

Drost flew a two-seat vintage British Chipmunk during Wednesday’s demonstration while Decker piloted a five-seat Beechcraft Bonanza.

While the Blankenships had flown with Drost before, it was their first time in Decker’s plane. “Flying in the [Bonanza] is a different experience,” Jim said. “It’s a very different feel, and there is a lot more space.”

Due to its history though, the Chipmunk remained the most popular with students.

“It’s a classic,” Kelli said. “When you first sit down, you feel kind of squashed. But once you get used to it, you are OK. And I love going down the runway to take off. You can feel the acceleration, and when you take off, it feels like you are part of the plane.”

Wednesday’s flight patterns took students over parts of Murrells Inlet, Litchfield, Pawleys Island and Georgetown.

“You have a view no one else does,” Jim Blankenship said. “It’s beautiful.”

“Everything looks so small,” Kelli Blankenship said. “I really like going over Georgetown. When you’re on the ground, it seems so disorganized the way the traffic is coming and going. But when you are in the air and looking down, it seems so organized and planned out.”

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