Nevada Union High School teen is 1,000th youth flier for Grass Valley pilot |

Nevada Union High School teen is 1,000th youth flier for Grass Valley pilot

Jesse Plaza Young Eagle #1000.
Submitted photo |

Know & Go

Who: Free flights with pilots from Experimental Aircraft Association, Chapter 1175

What: Annual Young Eagles rally day.

Where: Nevada County Airport, 13083 John Bauer Ave., Grass Valley

When: 9 a.m. to noon, June 13

For more information or to schedule a flight: Bill Sommers, 530-272-3577

At 16, when most teens are consumed with the prospect of driving cars, Jesse Plaza got to handle a much larger vehicle.

On Sunday, Jesse, a sophomore at Nevada Union High School, became the 1,000th youth to pilot an airplane under the guidance of Grass Valley pilot Bill Sommers.

“I really enjoyed flying the plane,” said Jesse, who spent five minutes in the pilot’s seat during a session with Sommers and three other teens at Nevada County Airport in Grass Valley. “I look forward to doing it again soon — it was a lot of fun.”

Sommers, 74, a retired Los Angeles City Fire Department fire captain, has been volunteering by taking kids flying since 2001 as part of the Young Eagles program run by the local chapter of the Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association.

“I flew 204 kids in 2014 and mailed out over 1,400 photos at a cost of about $900. But, like MasterCard says, ‘All those smiling kids’ faces were worth all my time and costs!’”Bill SommersGrass Valley pilot

A licensed pilot since 1996, Sommers also gives the young pilots a certificate and a log book after their flights. Later, he mails them photos of themselves at the controls — all at his own expense.

“I flew 204 kids in 2014 and mailed out over 1,400 photos at a cost of about $900,” Sommers said. “But, like MasterCard says, ‘All those smiling kids’ faces were worth all my time and costs!’”

Sommers said he also is gratified to know that several of his young proteges have gone on to get their pilots’ licenses and launch careers in aviation.

“Getting to meet so many wonderful youths is a great reward for me,” Sommers said.

During his 14 years of participating in Young Eagles, he has flown kids in his 1985 four-seat Piper Warrior out of 43 airports in six states — but mostly airports in Northern California.

According to Sommers, Sunday’s milestone 1,000th flight with Jesse was part of two 40-minute flights, each with two young pilots.

Jesse and fellow Grass Valley resident and Nevada Union sophomore Austin Wales were in the first 40-minute trip, which included a landing halfway through to switch seats.

“Each flight was about 40 minutes with a landing after 20 minutes to allow the two kids to switch front and rear seats so that each of them could be in the co-pilot’s seat for a takeoff and landing,” Sommers said. “While in the front seat, all four kids got a chance to fly the plane for five minutes.”

In the second 40-minute flight were 13-year-old Katie Lyons of Penn Valley and 12-year-old Shayden Eagleheart of Nevada City. Both girls are seventh graders at Nevada City School of The Arts.

“It was an experience I will never forget,” Shayden said.

Some of the local sights the young pilots got to see from the air included the historic Bridgeport Covered Bridge, Bullard’s Bar Dam and the Sutter Buttes.

Sommers, donning his teacher and tour guide hats, was quick to point out trivia, such as the Bridgeport Bridge being the longest single-span covered bridge in the U.S. (and the world) and Sutter Buttes being the planet’s smallest mountain range.

“Bullard’s Bar Dam is the fifth tallest dam in the United States,” Sommers said he told the kids. “They also learned that Oroville Dam, 40 miles to the north, is the U.S.’s tallest dam at 770 feet tall — and 44 feet taller than Hoover Dam near Las Vegas.”

Other sights opened up the teens’ vistas beyond the local landscape.

“In the distance they saw Folsom Lake,” he added. “And 80 miles away, they could see Mt. Diablo near San Francisco.” Later this year, Sommers will be joined by about a dozen fellow pilot volunteers from the local Chapter 1175 of EAA to offer flights for large groups of kids. The event is EAA’s annual Young Eagles rally day, from 9 a.m. to noon June 13 at Nevada County Airport.

At least 60 kids receive a free flight during the event, said Sommers, who ranks 59th out of all EAA pilots and ninth for California pilots in numbers of youth flights given.

“In the last 20 years, the Young Eagles program has given free flights to nearly two million youths ages eight to 17,” Sommers said. “Those kids have been given fun and educational flights by well over 50,000 volunteering pilots.”

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email or call 530-477-4239.

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