Pilot Alan White has been fueling aviation dreams for decades. Since 1998, the town of Summit man has given more than 800 young people free airplane rides through the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program.

Breaking the 800 barrier put White in the top 5% of the program’s more than 50,000 pilot participants nationwide, according to Dick Knapinski, director of communications for the association.

White, 72, managed to hit the 800 mark in the midst of the pandemic. Instead of the traditional 70,000-75,000 kids flown nationally per year, Knapinski said, the total for 2020 was under 10,000. Most of those were flown before the end of March 2020 or right at the end of the year. White grounded his own Young Eagles flights through August 2020.

“And then I started doing a few individually with masks and sanitizing headsets, and you name it,” White said, instituting COVID-19 protocol to make the flights safe.

Every year, pilots who fly at least 10 youngsters receive an accomplishment pin. White has earned one every year since he started offering Young Eagles flights.

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“I wanted to get my 10 for ‘20,” White said. “I figured that would be significant in the year 2020. And I managed to get there by flying five kids on New Year’s Eve.”

The Young Eagles program has been introducing young people ages 8-17 to aviation since 1992. When the program reached a milestone of 2 million rides, the EAA used one of White’s quotes for its headline.

“I told them that it was the best excuse I ever came up with to go for an airplane ride,” he said.

The Summit man also enjoys the reaction of the kids as they experience flight, often for the first time. He’s received thank-you letters and updates from kids who took a Young Eagles ride, decided they wanted to fly in the future, and turned their grades around. Some have gone on to become flight instructors, pilots for charter and corporate airplanes, and military pilots with the Navy and National Guard.

“You don’t know for sure if you were the ignition for that fire that they got burning in them or if they had it before, but one way or another they followed through,” White said. “Our message to the kids is, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’”

The EAA Duluth-Superior Chapter 272, which White is a part of, has been meeting virtually over the past year. But there are plans to bring back Young Eagles flight events in 2021, including the chapter’s annual pancake breakfast and Young Eagles event June 12 at the Superior airport. Breakfast will be served from 7 a.m. to noon and free airplane rides will take place from 9 a.m. to noon, weather permitting.

White, who is set to receive his second COVID-19 vaccine dose April 7, said he is currently scheduling individual Young Eagles flights. To set up a flight, call or text 218-348-4033 or email al.white159@gmail.com.

The local chapter inspires young people through a number of activities, including a team project to rebuild an Aeronca sedan airplane and youth scholarships for flight training.

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“The EAA has always been a family-based organization,” White said. “Programs are not a ‘one and done’ things for one person, for one kid. We support people who are interested in aviation, whether they’re pilots or want to be pilots. We support people who are interested in building an airplane themselves for education and recreation. We try to keep our programming inclusive.”

Local student Kai Braaten was recently awarded a Ray Aviation Scholarship through the Duluth/SuperiorEAA Chapter 272. The scholarship provides up to $10,000 for flight training leading to a private pilot’s certificate. Braaten began his flight training in January.

White said the chapter has received authorization for a second Ray Scholarship and they are currently seeking applicants. Candidates must be 15-17 years old and be able to begin flight training within 60 days of receiving the award. Contact Bill Irving, 218-590-9277, visit eaa272.com or its Facebook page for more information.