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Pilots Take Kids Up In The Skies Above Wisconsin To Encourage Aviation Careers


Lots of programs seeking to inspire kids tell them to reach for the skies. Well, one group takes that message literally. It's giving children from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to fly a plane. Reporter LaToya Dennis of member station WUWM went to Madison, Wis., to check it out.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: Above the Clouds began in Boston seven years ago and is now in Madison, too. Kids are referred to the program through social service agencies or by church groups, and a few are chosen to go up in a plane. On a recent sunny fall day, seven of them came to the Middleton Municipal Airport just west of Madison. Volunteers greeted them enthusiastically.


DENNIS: Nia Burris is 16 and in the 10th grade and excited about getting her first flight lesson. Before boarding, she's ushered into a small room and given a lesson on how planes operate by pilot Susan Schwaab.

SUSAN SCHWAAB: So when this aileron goes down, it's making more of a curve to the wind, isn't it?


SCHWAAB: And then it lifts, and when...

N BURRIS: Does it turn like that?

SCHWAAB: Exactly. That's exactly how we turn.

DENNIS: Are you ready to take the reins yourself? Do you want to do that?

N BURRIS: I mean, yeah - not the whole way, but yeah, for a little bit.

DENNIS: About 20 minutes later, Burris heads to the tarmac to conduct a safety check before takeoff. It's a Cessna 172, a small plane that seats four people.

SCHWAAB: Make sure gas is good, oil is good, there's no dents or anything. So...

DENNIS: And then it's time. We climb into the plane, Burris sitting on a pillow on the passenger side to give her a bit of a boost.

N BURRIS: Clear prop.

SCHWAAB: All right. OK.


DENNIS: After the plane takes off, Schwaab gives Burris an aerial tour of Madison and then gives her the yoke so she can fly the plane by herself. Once back on the ground, Nia Burris is greeted by her mom Armani.

N BURRIS: It was fun.

ARMANI BURRIS: It was amazing?


DENNIS: Ten-year-old Byron Binion winds up on a different plane today, but things didn't go quite as planned.

BYRON BINION: It went OK. I started to feel a little sick, so I had to go back.

DENNIS: Pilot Susan Schwaab says the goal of this group isn't to get kids to become pilots, though that has happened.

SCHWAAB: Maybe they need a little inspiration, and that's really kind of the point of the program. It's not specifically to make kids into pilots but just to inspire kids and show them all the opportunities.

DENNIS: Corwin Huang got inspired when he flew with the group about six years ago. It was his first time ever on a plane. Huang is in his final year at the University of St. Louis studying aviation and is now a pilot. In a few weeks, he'll return to Boston to take kids out on their first flight.

CORWIN HUANG: That would be really big for me because it's something that helped me get started with aviation. It helped me get started with feeling confident in my ability to learn and to do something that was actually bigger than myself.


DENNIS: Back in Madison, Nia Burris says that while she's now flown a plane, there's still one important thing she hasn't done.

N BURRIS: Driver's license - you know, that could definitely - that I got to focus on first.

DENNIS: For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

LaToya Dennis joined WUWM in October 2006 as a reporter / producer. LaToya began her career in public radio as a part-time reporter for WKAR AM/FM in East Lansing, Michigan. She worked as general assignment reporter for WKAR for one and a half years while working toward a master's degree in Journalism from Michigan State University. While at WKAR, she covered General Motors plant closings, city and state government, and education among other critical subjects.