During past ChehalisFests, the Chehalis-Centralia Airport has hosted free “Young Eagle Flights” for kids ages 8 to 17. For the event in 2019, 14 pilots flew about 210 children in one day. The flights last about 15 minutes and the young passengers usually have an opportunity to control the plane, if they’re comfortable.
But in 2020, there was no ChehalisFest and no Young Eagle Flights. Even as concerns about the pandemic waned in the early summer months, Airport Operations Coordinator Brandon Rakes and his team just didn’t see how they could host a one-day event of 2019’s magnitude.
Instead, they opted to hold Young Eagle Flights between four pilots over the course of July. This way, pilots could have one-on-one interaction with each family, creating a more personal experience, while avoiding a large gathering.
Three hundred kids signed up for the flights. On Monday morning, Rakes still had two days left of overflow flights planned. The calls simply didn’t stop coming and the staff didn’t want to turn anyone away.
It ended up being better than ever, he said. Getting this many kids up in the air is something they will now strive to do year-after-year.
For a lot of these kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a plane at all. For others, it may be the beginning of their pursuit of a career in aviation, which is exactly why they do the program in the first place.
“If we can expose these kids to aviation, this might be something that opens up an opportunity for them that they weren’t otherwise thinking about. I know, for me, I grew up in Morton and Mossyrock. And we just didn’t have these opportunities,” Rakes said.
The Chehalis-Centralia Airport is one chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EEA), an organization with the mission of getting kids into aviation. Young Eagle Flights are one piece of that. After the flight, kids can be signed up as EEA members for free. As members, they receive a digital copy of the EEA magazine, admission to over 300 museums nationwide and access to a free first flight lesson.
“Every flight is special. When you take a kid up that’s never flown in an airplane before, it’s always a good time. But I think, when you see the kids really light up … that is a neat thing. When you see it really reach them at that level,” Rakes said. “This has been a lot of flights and my log book is so out of date right now because I need to log all these flights, but the thing is, I’m not burned out on it. It’s one of those things where each time I do it, even if I’m really tired before or really tired after, when I’m doing these flights, it’s awesome.”
Future of the Airport
Brandon Rakes’ job is best described in three parts: keeping the airport running, managing commercial operations, and community outreach and education. The first piece is self-explanatory. But commercial operations?
The airport may be a department of the City of Chehalis, but the majority of its revenue is brought in through leasing airport property to businesses all the way from the north end of U-Haul up to I-5 Toyota.
“If you could clean-sheet design how a municipal airport should be designed, this is how to do it, because we benefit the city of Chehalis by generating tax revenue from the businesses that are there,” Rakes said. “On airport property, there’s roughly 1,600 people who are employed from the businesses that are over there, which is huge. And then there’s roughly $9 million a year in sales tax revenue collected from that and about $1.2 million of that stays local.”
Looking to the future, the airport may be ideally located to be a hub for companies such as Joby, an airplane rideshare service.
Imagine a month where 20 members of a retirement home in Lewis County need to drive up to Seattle for a medical appointment. Rakes sees a future where instead, one Seattle doctor could take a 40-minute flight down to the Chehalis-Centralia Airport and see their local patients over the course of two days.
These are dreams of a not-so-distant future, he said, but the small staff at the airport may not be able to execute these technologies without the help of a younger generation of pilots, which is where the Young Eagle Flights and the third piece of Rakes’ job description come in.
“We’re on the next chapter of aviation,” Rakes said. “It’s important to get these kids reached because these are going to be the people that help carry a lot of this technology across the finish line.”