It wasn't the usual takeoff from Torrance Municipal Airport. When the cream-and-maroon Citabria Adventure broke its bond with Earth, George Butts pulled back hard on the stick. The little aerobatic plane shot skyward at a near vertical angle, like a roller coaster making its first ascent.
In back, G-forces shoved 12-year-old Jon Miller of Los Angeles into his seat. Then he was momentarily weightless as Butts quickly leveled off at the top of his climb. By the time they returned almost 30 minutes later, Jon had experienced dives, banking turns and low-level passes over Santa Monica Bay.
It was the boy's first flight in a small plane, but odds are it won't be his last.
"Thaaaat waaaas funnnn!" Jon said as he walked from the Citabria, holding his arms out like wings. "He just went 'whoosh.' "
The Experimental Aircraft Assn. had produced the desired effect.
Jon was one of about 40 middle school students who participated this month in the organization's Young Eagles program at the Torrance airport. Offered by hundreds of association chapters across the United States, the program is designed to foster an interest in aviation among the nation's youth by providing free demonstration flights with private pilots.
Since 1992, more than 1.4 million young people in the United States and Canada have participated in Young Eagles, the largest aviation program for children in the country. The South Bay chapter, which held the Torrance event, has flown about 6,000 participants, most of them referred to the program by schools, advertising, youth groups or word of mouth.
"The kids get to see someone in the cockpit who is responsible and who has trained to be safe and effective in that cockpit," said actor and Young Eagles chairman Harrison Ford, who has flown more than 200 children in his aircraft. "It is also good for them to see that there are adults in the field who are interested in their futures and encouraging them to stay in school and study. This encourages kids in all the right directions."
The Experimental Aircraft Assn., which has about 170,000 members, started the program to encourage young people to consider aviation as a hobby or career and to help reverse a steady decline in general aviation that began in 1980.
General aviation includes aerobatic aircraft, historic airplanes, helicopters, corporate jets, private planes and nonscheduled commercial service. It is considered a critical part of the nation's transportation system and represents a $150-billion-a-year industry.
Commercial airlines draw most of their recruits from among general aviation pilots, not just from those with military flying experience. If general aviation is not thriving, association officials say, the pool of civilian pilots will shrink, and there will be less improvement in aircraft design and safety.
Federal Aviation Administration statistics show that the number of licensed private pilots in the United States plummeted from a high of 357,479 in 1980 to 228,475 in 2007, a 36% decline. The number of licensed pilots, including those with commercial and air transport ratings, has dropped from 827,071 to 624,007, or roughly 25%, in the same period.
Nearly 18,000 general aviation planes were made for U.S. customers in 1978, the highest annual total in the last 30 years. In 2005, 2,857 were built, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Assn.
The rising cost of aircraft and flight lessons is driving the decline, association officials say, along with a lack of interest among young people who have had little exposure to aviation and don't consider it an attractive or romantic pursuit as previous generations did. Lessons to obtain a private pilot's license with an instrument rating cost between $9,000 and $14,000.
"The decline in general aviation has been going on a long time," said Glenn Parkison, the Young Eagles coordinator for the Experimental Aircraft Assn.'s South Bay chapter. "The pilot population is aging, and the World War II pilots who were the backbone of general aviation for decades are dying off. For young people, it just has not been on their radar screens."
The association's officials think that many Young Eagles participants have become pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, executives for aviation companies and airport officials, but the program has not reversed the decline in licensed private pilots.
To help restore interest, the South Bay chapter holds eight daylong classes a year.
The typical program includes a ground school to familiarize participants with the basics of aircraft design and the importance of aviation. The instruction is followed by demonstration flights with association members who volunteer their time and airplanes.
Earlier this month, students from Orville Wright and John Burroughs middle schools in Los Angeles were on hand for the latest class. Most had never flown before, but the Wright students were all members of the school's aviation program.