Pilot-created group grows the interest and knowledge ofchildren who want to fly.

As a kid, Drew Fowler liked planes.

But his interest in a career in aviation took flight after he participated in a Youth Aviation Adventure program as a Boy Scout.

“It definitely had an impact on me,” says Fowler, who graduated from the air traffic controller program at Kent State University last year and is in the process of landing a job in the field. “It grew what was already there.”

Program co-founder Steve Wathen hopes the program, which addresses airplane basics, aviation careers and the dynamics of flight, will prompt more and more young people to pursue careers in aviation. “We want to light a spark,” and show kids that there are many aviation-related jobs that make rewarding careers, he says.

A pilot and aviation enthusiast, Wathen helped launched Youth Aviation Adventure in 1997 after he and a friend helped his son's Boy Scout troop work on their aviation merit badges. The program was so popular with the scouts, Wathen and co-founder Dan Kiser decided to create a nonprofit organization focused on educating boy and girl scouts and other youngsters interested in aviation. They worked with the Ohio State University's College of Education to develop curriculum that would engage students ranging in age from 12 to 18 and allow them to earn scout badges.

During the half-day program, which is offered twice a year in Columbus, participants visit 10 stations learning different facets of aviation, ranging from airport operations and preflight checks to aerodynamics and instrument panels. “We try to make it really interesting,” Wathen says. “You're not sitting in a classroom. It's hands-on.”

Traveling from station to station made the program exciting and fun, says Courtney Dickman, a 13-year-old Columbus resident who recently participated in the program.

“I liked that we didn't stay at any one station too long, and we got to see all different kinds of things—engines, instruments, the runway and taxiway markings and signs,” says the teen, whose mother is an academic advisor at OSU's Center for Aviation Studies and also a pilot. “I loved playing on the flight simulators, and I really liked the Aviation-In-The-Know game. I was really good at that. I also really liked talking to the pilot in the career station.”

A female pilot in the program shared interesting details about her career and a typical work day, Courtney says.

“She helped me understand more about flying as a career. She told me about how she was getting ready to fly to New York to work after the event, since she's a captain at Jet Blue, and how the hours can be so irregular. I like that idea, because I wouldn't like having to get up early and do the same thing every day,” she says. “I really loved spending the day at the airport, flying the flight simulators, and basically being near airplanes all day. I realized that I can do this as a career, and it helped me to make up my mind that that's what I wanted to do and go to college to study. I also met some of the OSU flight school students and now I can't wait to be able to fly.”

Organizers also help participants who want to continue to learn about airplanes and aviation find ways to pursue it, Wathen says. They can recommend clubs or connect them with pilots who will take them up in a plane, Wathen says.

In 2005, YAA began offering its curriculum to other entities throughout the country that wanted to replicate the program for local youth. YAA provides other groups all the materials and training necessary to offer the program at no cost. Currently more than 30 US cities have “squadrons” that put on annual events, Wathen says. “Now we are able to put thousands of kids through the program each year,” he says.

Exposure to these STEM-related careers is especially important because experts predict the airline industry is about to face a pilot shortage, Wathen says. An estimated 22,000 pilots—or 42 percent of the US workforce at the biggest airlines—will retire over the next 10 years, according a recent report by the financial services firm, Cowen & Company. Federal law dictates that pilots retire at age 65.

“By creating more access to airports and planes, we hope we're getting more kids thinking about careers in aviation,” Wathen says. “We want to get kids charged up about aviation.”

Melissa Kossler Dutton is afreelance writer.