If we don’t get more young people interested in every aspect of general aviation, it will simply disappear as we know it,” Hal Shevers, the founder and chairman of Sporty’s Pilot Shop, tells me as he punctuates his sentence with a long pause and his piercing eyes. In any other setting, such a statement from one of aviation’s most colorful figures might seem a bit stern. I’m sitting across the table from Shevers, having lunch at Santa Monica’s famed Typhoon restaurant, however, and his warm smile and animated gestures soften the edge of his observation.
As a flight school’s Cessna bounces down runway 21 in the panoramic window behind Shevers, I’m reminded that what he’s saying is startlingly true: General aviation is in trouble as the pilot population ages and new student enrollment declines. Without new people to fly, maintain and support GA aircraft, our aviation environment will be severely altered. Shevers, though, is doing something about it.
In 2007, Sporty’s Pilot Shop conducted an online auction of a Cessna Citation Mustang. The winning bid netted a profit of approximately $500,000, which gave Shevers the seed money he needed to launch something he had conceived years before: the Sporty’s Foundation. The idea behind the foundation is to fund worthwhile programs that will grow the GA community—especially through youths. Its goal is to foster a healthy aviation industry today and, especially, in years to come.
In the almost 50 years that Sporty’s has been in business, Shevers has always given generously to the aviation community, grateful for what he says are the rewards of being an aviator. The Sporty’s Foundation is an opportunity to continue that philanthropy and promote the excitement and life-enhancing potential of aviation. The foundation’s main goal is to attract kids to flying through a variety of means.
Most pilots are familiar with the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles (www.youngeagles.org) program. Through the Young Eagles, EAA chapters around the world offer free airplane rides to kids aged 8 to 17. Since its inception in 1992, the Young Eagles program has flown more than 1.3 million kids in 90 countries with over 41,000 volunteer pilots. The problem with the Young Eagles is one of follow-up: once the kids experience their ride, little is done to promote further aviation interaction.
Shevers and his foundation team saw this lack of follow-up as an opportunity, and created the “Next Step” program in conjunction with the EAA. The Sporty’s Foundation is offering two tools to Young Eagles as a next step to their introduction to aviation: an official logbook and a training course. The special logbook, supplied by Sporty’s, is designed to record details of a Young Eagle’s first flight and to allow volunteer pilots to show their right-seaters how to log time. Volunteer pilots also encourage them to record other aviation events (e.g., air shows) in their logbook.
The second component is a unique access code that allows a Young Eagle to access Sporty’s Complete Pilot Training Course online. Any pilot who has ever purchased a Sporty’s course knows the quality of this offering and realizes the positive impact it’ll have on a child interested in aviation. The Sporty’s Foundation also offers the course to past Young Eagles. “It’s the complete course with streaming video, 3-D animation, test preparation—everything,” says Shevers, “they don’t need any additional books or software.” Complete information on the Next Step program is available on the Young Eagles website at www.youngeagles.org/sportys_faq.pdf.
Mark Wiesenhahn is the vice president of Sporty’s Pilot Shop and one of the foundation’s team members. “The first step is getting kids to the airport,” says Wiesenhahn about the foundation’s work with Young Eagles. “That seems to be the toughest part. But if they enjoy their flight, their passion for aviation seems to take over.” He talks about some of the other programs in which the Sporty’s Foundation is involved, such as Aviation Explorers, which is part of the Boy Scouts of America program and involves youths (between 14 and 20) in aviation. “The Explorers are near and dear to our hearts,” adds Wiesenhahn. “The program is a fantastic way to expose young people to aviation careers.”
The foundation is also involved with Youth Aviation Adventure (www.youthaviationadventure.org), a one-day program for kids 12 to 18 that was originally a merit-badge curriculum for Boy Scouts. The YAA program now includes non-scouts, and routes kids through nine aviation “stations” where they learn about everything from weather to maintenance. Wiesenhahn focuses on the wide range of aviation interests that the Sporty’s Foundation is trying to promote. “We know that mechanics are a huge part of general aviation and we support initiatives that have to do with maintenance and engineering. It’s not only for pilots,” he notes.
Wiesenhahn wants the world to know that the Sporty’s Foundation doesn’t operate alone: It depends on donations to expand its ability to give to all the programs that request funding. Back at Santa Monica, Shevers makes the same point: “On our website, we now have the ability for individuals to donate,” he says. “We want to allow everyone who has been rewarded by aviation to have the chance to give back.” A unique feature of the foundation is that it receives so much support directly from Sporty’s retail business. All administrative costs are underwritten by Sporty’s Pilot Shop. That means 100% of every dollar donated goes directly to fund aviation initiatives. In 2008 alone, the Sporty’s Foundation gave over $151,000 dollars to aviation groups and individuals in all facets of the industry.
A few days after my lunch with Hal Shevers, I had the opportunity to talk about aviation to a group of youths. Afterward, a bright-eyed girl and her parents came up to ask me about learning to fly. The girl’s name was Karissa; it was plain to see that she had been bitten by the bug. “It’s always been my dream to see the world from the air,” she said, unable to quell her 12-year-old enthusiasm. “How do I do it?” As I went through the basics of aviation training, I was grateful for people like Hal Shevers and his Sporty’s Foundation and their desire to stoke this tiny spark of aviation enthusiasm. Aviation needs kids like Karissa, and with the help of the Sporty’s Foundation, more kids like her will be able to find their place in the sky. Visit www.sportysfoundation.org.