Young Eagles soar over Brevard County with local pilots


Xchyler Pettis, 12, of Merritt Island, left, 9-year-old Emily Thomforde of Satellite Beach and 15-year-old Caleb Murray of Melbourne pose with pilot Todd Leiss just before taking off in Leiss' Cessna Cardinal on Jan. 26 from the Merritt Island Airport as part of the Young Eagles program.

Chris Bonanno

Experienced pilots helped young boys and girls to soar above Brevard County as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program.

Children ages 8 to 17 took advantage of an opportunity to fly Jan. 26 as part of the Merritt Island Airport-based EAA Chapter 724.

“They’re giving the kids a flight,” said Bobbi Lasher, the EAA Chapter 724 secretary. “It’s 20 to 30 minutes. They’re explaining to the kids a little bit about what’s going on, why the plane is flying ‘cause it’s heavier than air and answering any questions the kids have.”

The program is conducted from the airport three times a year, according to Young Eagles coordinator Don White. About 165 children signed up for the event.

“We’ve been doing this for the last 26 years and we’ve flown almost 8,000 kids locally,’’ White said. “This is a national program and the national program has flown about 2.1 million kids over the last 25 years.”

Among those who flew during the event on Merritt Island was Todd Leiss, who has been a pilot since 1972 and has been with the program for six years.

“I love doing it. It’s wonderful,” Leiss said. “The look in the child’s eyes.”

Leiss took three children up on one flight, including 15-year-old Caleb Murray of Melbourne, 12-year-old Xchyler Pettis of Merritt Island and 9-year-old Emily Thomforde of Satellite Beach.

The trio flew in Leiss’ Cessna Cardinal on a trip that Leiss said took the foursome above the Indian River along with parts of Merritt Island, Port Canaveral and Cocoa Beach.

“It was really fun and I saw a Disney cruise ship and I saw some houses,” Thomforde said. “I want to be a pilot when I grow up.”