Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | FEATURE
Igniting the flying bug
Osceola pilots offer up free flights for Unity third-graders
Greg Marsten | Staff writer
OSCEOLA – The evening sky on Wednesday, June 11, held a thin, cloudless haze, with miles of visibility and an azure-blue cast that drew people outdoors into still-chilly lakes and to their bug-laced gardens.
But for a handful of Unity Elementary School third-graders, it was the perfect evening for a cruise – several hundred feet above the landscape.
Gathering outside the fueling station at L.O. Simenstad Municipal Airport at Osceola, approximately two dozen Unity Elementary School students in Debbie Petzel’s third-grade class joined a few parents to take advantage of a unique flying opportunity. “I’ve been doing this for what seems like forever,” Petzel said as she organized the students and parents into smaller groups, connecting them with volunteer pilots as they fueled, prepped and prepared their slick airplanes on the tarmac.
While she no longer flies, Petzel is an avid fan of aviation, and she has been working with the pilots and volunteers at Osceola to bring the annual flying day to life for the better part of two decades. “I’m hooked. It’s an addiction!” Petzel joked, as she explained how she has continued to make flying accessible to her students, most of whom have never been off the ground prior to this experience.
“The guys at the airport just seem to like doing it; they have been amazing,” Petzel said. “It’s fun to get the kids interested in aviation.”
Amateur pilot Jeff Meyer worked with Petzel to coordinate the passengers with the pilots as the taxiway became abuzz with activity, as planes and passengers began to merge.
Meyer is the former Osceola Medical Center CEO, but also an enthusiastic fan of aviation, as well as serving on the airport’s board of directors. “The (volunteer pilots) are a mix of private owners and a few from the (Wild River Flying) club,” he said, noting that the airport also has a glider club.
Meyer talked about the lengths many of the amateur pilots take in their often decades-old machines, and noted that it’s not unusual for a plane to be older than its pilot. “There are lots of FAA details to follow and lots of protocols,” he said. “But a lot of these guys are continually updating their planes – new radios, paint, even new upholstery.”
FAA regulations are notably strict, and in spite of the age of the planes, they are amazingly well-maintained machines, and they all seem freshly washed and preened for the kids flying night.
“They do a lot of work on them and really take pride in their planes,” Meyer said, adding that most of the planes the kids would be flying in that night would be Cessna 172s and 182s, with a Cessna Cardinal or two in between. “It’s a real variety of planes.”
Petzel noted that several of the volunteer pilots have been doing the kids event for years, and several of them even are the second generation of volunteer fliers, like Brent Lindstrom of the flying club. “It’s his third or fourth year doing this, and his dad before that!” Petzel said as Lindstrom wrangled a few Unity kids to one of the flying club’s four planes.
Petzel heaped huge praise on the pilots and the airport’s board and members who continually support the opportunity to bring flight to the lives of youngsters in the area. “They donate everything, all of it!” Petzel noted. “It’s really a great thing they do, and the kids just love it.”
Petzel has worked with a number of pilots to organize the event over the years and credits noted pilot and trainer Woody Minar for the effort. She called him “essential” to the kids flying day, and while he could not be at the latest version, Meyer and others made the evening seamless.
“This was our sixth year. The parents and kids get so excited,” Minar stated later. “But I think the pilots are even more excited to share their hobby and passion and share what they see when they fly with those who don’t.”
Minar is not alone in connecting the event to light a spark in kids’ imaginations. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is promoting kids week, and uses the Osceola promotional event to enhance and possibly ignite the “flying bug” in kids, and maybe even in some parents.
While the kids and parents waited on the tarmac, a few of the adults seemed somewhat nervous about flying in the small planes, but they eventually all took to the skies. While all the planes carry 1-gallon zipper freezer bags for each passenger, just in case their stomachs turn, Petzel was proud to point out that she cannot recall a single upended lunch yet.
“Nope, it’s never happened!” Petzel said proudly. “To be honest, I think the kids are way tougher than the adults. They’re pretty fearless and definitely more adventurous!”
Bob Poutre of Osceola was one of the pilots offering up rides that night with his meticulously maintained 1983 Cessna 182 Skylane as the ride of the evening. The 230-horsepower plane was immaculate, with fresh upholstery and a bevy of NASA-esque digital instrumentation to complement the multitude of factory gauges and warning lights.
Poutre offered a ride to the author as well as third-grader Sam and his mother, Lisa. He took the trio through every stage of a preflight preparation, from checking the fuel quality in each tank to cleaning intake ports and leading edges, checking control functions and more, always showing the importance of safety and maintenance.
Young Sam paid strict attention to every aspect, and even asked a few questions along the way, later offering up his knowledge of basic physics and the low- versus high-pressure physics that make flight possible.
Poutre was impressed as the youngster took to the passenger seat, with Sam later noting that while this was his first time in an airplane, he once flew in a helicopter briefly, but that it didn’t get that high up.
Poutre went through a “run-up” on the Skylane with the brakes locked, revving the powerful six-cylinder Continental engine up to 1,700 rpms before he waited his turn on the taxiway.
Sam was calm but excited as he sat beside Poutre, who donned a Skylane baseball cap just as he was about to spool the Cessna up for flight. “I always wear my lucky hat,” Poutre said with a grin. “It hasn’t failed me yet!”
The pilots waited their turns as the evening rolled on, and they used every bit of the 5,000-foot Osceola runway over the next two hours, as they took off to the east, heading northeast past Deer Lake, eventually circling Balsam Lake and Unity School.
“This is way up there!” Sam exclaimed as the Skylane climbed and settled in at about 110 mph.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re going that fast, but we are,” Poutre said, adding little facts about the plane and talking about his own plane sojourns, which have taken him across the country over his 15 years of flying.
Lisa looked down at Balsam Lake and pointed out various structures and objects to her son, whose grin now seemed permanent. “You can squeeze the (Unity running) track with your finger!” Lisa joked. “It all looks pretty tiny up here.”
Poutre circled Balsam Lake, so the duo could see Sam’s grandfather’s automotive-repair business below, and other landmarks earned an occasional finger point.
“We live in an absolutely beautiful place, don’t we?” Poutre commented, with the passengers concurring.
The pilots coordinated to go in loosely the same flight plans, with a return down the St. Croix River. They could see the roaring river and intriguing hydroelectric dam that looked like a curved porch step for a giant from the air, a foamy broth of light-brown water downstream leaving random patterns from the air.
Poutre let his young passenger take the yoke for a spell over the Cushing area, heading west. Sam immediately got the hang of it, and made a clean left turn, dropping the wing down gently and leveling the climb after a few brief instructions.
“You’ve got this, Sam!” Poutre exclaimed in the headset, as the soon-to-be fourth-grader kept a steely gaze on the horizon, checking his wings and leveling off the plane like a seasoned pro.
His smile was contagious, and he made a smooth right turn with equal aplomb, as the radio chatter of the other pilots served as a background soundtrack of Sam’s first minutes at the helm.
“Rock your wings, so we can tell where you are,” one of the pilots asked, and a plane to the east did a brief dance so they could tell which plane was which.
Sam handed the control back to Poutre who continued down the scenic river way. “You’re a natural,” Poutre commented to Sam, grinning widely as he looked at the river below.
Even the various gravel and traprock pits looked like geometric landscaping from the air, and the flight rolled down past Dresser and approached the airport from the west before Poutre gently set the Skylane down on the black tarmac with a little skid and a taste of G-force as the brakes scrubbed off speed.
“That was amazing,” Lisa exclaimed. “Really, really great.”
Poutre taxied back to his parking area, and after a few formalities, he once again surveyed the plane, with young Sam following his every word, and again asking questions.
As a fresh group of fliers headed toward Poutre’s Cessna, he smiled and shook Sam’s hand, impressed by the youngster’s avionic intrigue.
“The hat hasn’t failed me yet!” Poutre jokes as tipped his lucky hat and bid farewell to Sam and his mother.
Back at the airport office, several of the kids who had just returned told their stories with marked excitement, noting the “wing shake” they did to signal the other fliers.
“It was way awesome!” Mason said. “I liked the side turns and when they had us wobble the wings.”
Young Peyton beside him concurred, smiling as she told of the how her stomach turned a bit when they wobbled the wings.
“I just thought it was way cool,” young Harrison said from the same bench. “I want to go again!”
Petzel continued to coordinate pilots, planes and young passengers as the evening faded, taking photos of the groups and asking the kids about their experience, which just happened to occur on the second-to-last day of school.
“It was a blast!” she said later. “The kids were so funny and so well-behaved. What a fabulous night! I can’t wait until the next batch of third-graders to show up.”
There is only one cure for the flying bug.