Two planes taxi on the Presque Isle runway during Monday's Young Eagle Flights event, where youth ages 8 to 17 could enjoy a free flight. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A unique club in Aroostook County wants to help kids catch the flying bug and become pilots someday.

The newly formed Northern Maine Flying Club sponsored a Young Eagle Flights event on Memorial Day where volunteer pilots took 147 kids on free plane rides. Started in 1992 by the Experimental Aircraft Association, the program has one mission: to inspire kids in the world of aviation. It’s the only program of its kind, and in its 30-year history has allowed more than 2 million kids nationwide to have their first free flight.

A lack of pilots nationwide, spurred by layoffs and economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has hit Maine, too. United Airlines announced in December it would temporarily suspend 14 airport routes to Washington Dulles, including some from the Bangor International Airport, due to the pilot shortage. Presque Isle’s service was unaffected, but the flying club wants to make sure area youth are exposed to careers in aviation by starting them out with a love of flying.

A plane heads down the taxiway toward the runway in Presque Isle with local youth on board during Young Eagle Flights on Monday. Behind the plane to the right is part of the General Aviation Terminal, where the event was headquartered. Credit: Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald

“It’s a growing need we have right now in the U.S. where pilots are retiring, and a lot of that was prompted when the airlines shut down during the pandemic. We need people to rise into their places,” Chris Carroll, a pilot member of the Northern Maine Flying Club, said Wednesday.

Eight pilots flew for the event Monday, Carroll said. Pilot Todd Sprague, club operations manager, took 21 kids up in his plane throughout the day.

The whole point of Young Eagles is to expose kids, many of whom have never flown before, to aviation as a hobby or career, Carroll said.

“Flying is a generational thing. Oftentimes your father was a pilot, your grandfather was a pilot, your mother may have been a pilot. It’s something that can get passed down,” he said.

The pilots present were all volunteers, said Kim Smith, city information officer and Presque Isle Air Museum representative.

“How many times do you hear young people say, ‘There’s nothing to do here’?” Smith said. “This is exciting, and it’s all free.”

The Northern Maine Flying Club began in 2021 and includes pilots and members of the public all working together to make flying accessible to the local community. Club members and the Experimental Aircraft Association collaborated to bring the Young Eagle flights to Presque Isle.

A pilot and his young passengers head back to the General Aviation Terminal in Presque Isle. Volunteer pilots gave free rides to youth as part of Young Eagle Flights, designed to introduce kids to the thrill of aviation. Credit: Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald

Despite some wind, Memorial Day was perfect for the flights, where kids from 8 to 17 years old could experience a free plane ride. A steady stream of families and onlookers turned out for the flights, based at the General Aviation Terminal near the Presque Isle International Airport. Speakers broadcast the pilots’ chatter for all to hear.

Maine Forest Service Ranger Pilot Joel Tourtelotte, originally from Presque Isle and now based out of Old Town, flew a helicopter in for display on the runway. Young people had a chance to clamber aboard and sit in the cockpit, while Tourtelotte explained some of what Forest Service pilots do.

Though their primary mission is wildland fires, ranger pilots also perform search and rescue, support law enforcement and engage in a variety of tasks for state departments such as moose surveys, Tourtelotte said.

Craig Green, a Presque Isle city councilor and one of the coordinators of the local event, said organizers were very pleased with the turnout.

“This is not just about a ride. It’s to broaden the horizons of Aroostook County children and help them to understand there are careers in aviation and aerospace,” Green said.

He said the event really serves to remind everyone that Aroostook County doesn’t need to take a backseat to any part of the country when it comes to aviation. What local children lack is opportunity, and Monday’s program aimed to help remedy that.

The club’s whole purpose is to support aviation in Presque Isle and Aroostook County in general, Carroll said. Presque Isle has a rich history, stemming from its wartime connections and beyond, and the aviation community is a tight-knit group that wants to share their love of flying with all who will listen.

“The Northern Maine Flying Club is new, and we’re here to stay,” Carroll said. “We want to see that aviation community continue.”