A Flying Start

by Mar 27, 2024Kids, Southport Oak Island

Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 939, led by Rich and Ginny Largent at Cape Fear Regional Jetport in Southport, is committed to passing on the love of aviation to the next generation through the Young Eagles program.

When Rich Largent was a young boy watching Sky King on Saturday mornings, he knew he wanted to be a pilot. Like many boys growing up in the 1950s, he was fascinated with the world of aviation and loved learning about planes, building them and dreaming of the chance to fly them.

That dream appeared to be squashed when the county eye examiner came to school when Largent was in the 7th grade and told him he needed glasses. Back then, you had to have 20/20 uncorrected vision to be a pilot. Largent’s life took its turns and, as it does for many recreational pilots, the dream came alive again in his 30s. He was presented with an opportunity to buy a plane, and without even one lesson under his belt, he took the leap of faith and went for it!

The plane was ferried from Florida to his home in Virginia, and nine months later, his childhood dream was fulfilled as he had earned his private pilot license (PPL). The next day, he took his future wife, Ginny, out on their first date. Thirty-four years later, they are leading the Southport Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter and volunteering their time to pass on the love of aviation to the next generation.

EAA started in 1953 as a small group of aviation enthusiasts who enjoyed homebuilding aircraft. It is now a worldwide organization representing all aspects of recreational aviation with more than 1,000 chapters, including the Southport chapter, 939. Largent is the president of Chapter 939, which describes itself this way:
“We are a group of aviation enthusiasts, aircraft builders and pilots who get together with like-minded people to share ideas, exchange information, encourage safety, serve the local aviation community and have a lot of fun doing so. Whether you fly, build, restore or simply enjoy airplanes and aviation, you are welcome to attend our events and join our Chapter.”

Cape Fear Regional Jetport

Many local EAA chapters still focus primarily on homebuilding, but the Southport community is fortunate that Chapter 939 (with much thanks to the Largent’s leadership) is passionate about EAA’s most popular program, Young Eagles.

Launched in 1992, the Young Eagles program has dedicated more than 30 years to giving youth ages 8 through 17 their first free ride in an airplane. The only program of its kind, its sole purpose is to introduce and inspire children in the world of aviation. To date, more than 2.3 million young people have enjoyed a free introductory flight through Young Eagles, all thanks to the generosity of local EAA members and pilots.

EAA Chapter 939 has flown more than 3,000 Young Eagles since 2004, all due to the generous hearts of the many pilots who donate their time, aircraft, fuel and oil.

Chapter 939 hosts at least three Young Eagles rallies annually, and numerous pilots fly youngsters on their own with the hope of spurring on the child’s love of aviation. When an aircraft returns from a Young Eagles flight, it’s hard to tell whose smile is bigger, the pilot’s or the Young Eagle’s.

Levi Burk, age 11, was one of those Young Eagles this year. “At first, I was nervous because it was a little bumpy … but then it was amazing!” Levi says. “I could see golf courses and boats on the water and different parts of the bottom of the ocean. I may even want to be a pilot someday now! He even let me take the controls and fly and do a couple turns!”

EAA Youth Oak Island NC

It is difficult for many parents to comprehend that these flights truly are free of charge. Levi’s father, Kevin, drove him from Hampstead for this opportunity and was so grateful for the experience. With a big smile on his face, Kevin went around thanking all the volunteers and pilots. And that is all the Largents say the pilots ask for: a smile and a thank you.

Ginny Largent has been Chapter 939’s Young Eagles coordinator since 2010, doing the behind-the-scenes paperwork and communications to make it all happen. And Largent has been flying Young Eagles for more than two decades in their Cessna 172. To date, he has flown more than 1,500 children through Young Eagles! The reward of seeing children’s eyes light up and the cross-generational love of aviation being passed on is worth all the effort.

He recalls a favorite memory of a Young Eagles flight: “One year there was a truly precocious young man who honestly just had a very bad attitude. He wasn’t being respectful to his mom. He was very mouthy, pretty arrogant. He got into the front seat with two other Young Eagles in the back. I was really wondering how this was going to go. He kept telling me how he knows about all of this and has a flight simulator at home and knows how to do all this. I let him take the controls and the second he touched the controls he became a totally different young man. I let him fly for 10 minutes. We came back and I landed, and he was quiet and sitting so peaceful. When we got out of the airplane we walked back to the sign-in desk. Here comes his mom, and he got all excited and said, ‘Mom, mom this was great! The man let me fly the airplane!’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Mister this has been the best day of my life.’ So, you remember moments like that. That boy was transformed that day. Did he go on to be a pilot? Have great character? Who knows? But I know for those 10 minutes he was all in and having the time of his life.”

Simulators and virtual experiences just cannot touch reality, and the Largents love when young people find this out. They take great joy in seeing children become fascinated with aviation like they have been their whole lives.

Experimental Aircraft Association CF Jetport

Since joining EAA, most summers the Largents would join half a million other pilots and aviation lovers in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for EAA’s annual AirVenture, the largest air show in the world. There they linked up with other Young Eagles volunteers from all around the world and soon realized they were part of something much bigger than themselves and something very special. EAA Young Eagles volunteers became like family to them, and each summer AirVenture felt like a family reunion.

“We try to bring that same sense of community and family here,” Ginny says. “We are very fortunate that our chapter is like a family and all the members and their spouses are so supportive and share the same vision.”

That vision to pass on the joy of aviation does not stop at the Young Eagles flight. After children have taken their free flight, they all receive a Young Eagles logbook with a code that gives them access to be a member of EAA for free. They get their hours logged like an official pilot and are registered in the World’s Largest logbook on EAA’s Young Eagles website. They have the incredible opportunity to take free online ground school Flight Training classes through Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

The Southport EAA Chapter also hosts a free workshop once a year to introduce teenagers to many diverse aspects of aviation and the opportunities in this field.

Chapter 939’s generosity does not stop there. As mentioned, the pilots do not get any reimbursement for their time, fuel or aircraft use, but the pilots do earn Young Eagles credits for each youngster they fly. Annually, EAA sends these credits back as cash to the chapter for use in supporting Young Eagles activities and to be used to offset the cost of the tuition for a young person from the area to attend Air Academy, a week-long summer camp in Oshkosh.

Chapter 939 also has instituted a Private Pilot Scholarship that Ginny developed. The $3,000 to $5,000 scholarship is awarded annually to a local young person to help him/her offset the cost of pursuing their PPL. In addition, the chapter applies annually for the Ray Aviation Scholarship that is administered by EAA National. The chapter has been fortunate to receive this grant, which is currently for $11,000, four of the last five years. Four young people have been awarded this scholarship, and three out of the four have received their PPL and one is currently in flight training.

Chapter 939 hosts several pancake breakfasts open to the community to support its desire to send one child every year to EAA Air Academy and to help fund the chapter’s Private Pilot Scholarship.

Youth EAA CF Jetport

“We are so grateful how the community supports us and comes to events and understands how invaluable it is to give children these experiences that they otherwise would never get the chance to,” Ginny says.

Largent adds, “We are also so grateful for the Cape Fear Jetport with Director Howie Franklin’s leadership. He really understands that the local airport is not a set apart place for the super wealthy but is meant to be a facility that is part of the community. Howie really shares our vision that the community should be connected to the airport. And Young Eagles is a huge part of that.”

Chapter 939 invites the public to enjoy the airport and the world of aviation, to bring children for a Young Eagles flight and to attend EAA events. Come out and support the local chapter that is generously igniting the spark of young people in this generation, just like Sky King did for the Boomers.

Want to visit?
EAA Chapter 939Cape Fear Regional Jetport, Southport
chapters.eaa.org/eaa939
If you are interested in the Young Eagles program, contact Ginny Largent at (910) 457-6894 (no texts) or ginnylargent@gmail.com

Photography by Casey Lauren Townsend