The dream of flying is as old as mankind. Greek mythology tells us about a youngster who steals his father’s wax-melded wings and actually manages to rise into the sky, but when, in his recklessness he flies too close to the sun, the wax melts and he plummets to his death. Today, we all know that materials for planes are constantly getting improved. What I didn’t know is that youngsters like Icarus are building their own planes these days and learn how to fly them. Right here in Western Washington, in an unobtrusive hangar with the number 6 on its door, on Thun Field in Puyallup.
“TeenFlight Puyallup was started seven years ago,” Kevin Behrent, one of its founders, remembers. “My kids grew up hanging out in the hangar, watching and helping me build my plane.” All co-founders of the TeenFlight program are members of the local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 326 based at Pierce County Airport Thun Field. They wanted to do more for kids than their yearly EAA Young Eagles event where they fly hundreds of children aged between 8 and17 for free.
“The concept was to build a career path into one of the biggest industries in our state,” Kevin says. The program of the non-profit organization (teenflight.org/) was to be free for its participants. Sponsors like Alaska Airlines, the Green River Chapter of the Washington Pilots Association and numerous private donors enable Kevin and his team of volunteer instructors to supply the teenagers with everything that is necessary to construct a plane to flying lessons and even a sport pilot license. “Currently, the bulk of our funding is through the selling of completed planes and individual donations,” Kevin explains. “We are always looking for additional funding sources to help cover our costs and grow our program.”
Originally, the program targeted sophomore, junior, and senior students. They enroll, pass through a curriculum of modules in the construction field, write a test, and then may fly one of the planes they built. “These days, we include also Freshmen with TeenFlight,” Kevin says, pointing out one boy whose dad makes the trip with him to Hangar 6 from as far as Sammamish. “The advantage of being that age is that, after taking our tests, they can even enroll in an early college program as a junior and end up with a high school degree, an associate’s degree, the much coveted AMP or AMT certificate, and foreshortened college time on their further career path.”
I look around the hangar which is teeming with teenagers, male and female. Everybody is working quietly, mostly in teams. Two wings are sitting on work benches to be wired. A number of youngsters are busy around a cockpit with some instructors. Another group is dremeling away at stabilizers. There are dads-turned-volunteers; there are young adults who have gone through the program and are working in the aviation industry today, who return to Hangar 6 to relive their experience and to give back. And in the middle of it all is Roxy, a blonde Labrador, who gets some loving patting whenever one of the young industrious people is passing by. The atmosphere is incredibly calming and friendly.
“Currently, we have 40 students who work on our planes each and every Sunday and Monday night,” Kevin says, then helps a girl find a bigger drill in a tool chest. “This year’s TeenFlight program is already fully booked. Enrollment for TeenFlight 2020 starts in April – and it doesn’t matter which school district the kids come from.”
I approach a group of teenagers who are working at attaching a propeller to TeenFlight plane number 4. How did they hear of TeenFlight Puyallup and what are their future plans? “I went to an Alaska Aviation Day,” says Brishum, who wants to be a pilot.
Outside, Bruce Archer is waiting for his daughter Allex’s return from her very first flight. He tells me that becoming a pilot one day has been her dream ever since she was nine years old. “She wants to join up with the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) once she’s finished her education.”
But TeenFlight Puyallup is also good for some real surprise stories. “My mother was told about the program by a cousin of mine who participated in the program. She made me go, too,” remembers teenager Yubby, while busying himself with a wrench. “I didn’t even like planes. Now I want to become an aircraft mechanic.”
As I leave Hangar 6, TF1 is just returning with her pilot, senior student Allex. A number of other students surround the plane to congratulate her on her performance. Another aviation career in the making – and no Icarus with TeenFlight Puyallup.