When it comes to kids, Nevada County pilot strives to go the extra mile
March 3, 2017
When Bill Sommers digs into something, you can bet he's not going to go just halfway. It helps explain how in the past 16 years Sommers has managed to give more than 1,400 free flights to youngsters as a Young Eagle volunteer pilot.
He's flown across the U.S. more than once. He's hit the southern most, eastern most, northern most and western most airports in the country.
And he did it all after turning 55 and retiring at 60.
In the beginning
In the late '50s he learned at 17 he wanted to be a firefighter. He "rode the rigs" in Chicago with a buddy's dad until he was all-but a member of the team. By the early '60s he took the Skokie Fire Department exam and was hired out of a host of applicants. Sommers said Skokie was the second-rated department in the state behind Chicago.
In 1968 he landed a job with the Los Angeles Fire Department (yes, he admitted, there was a lady involved with that choice) and by 1977 he was a captain. He held that job for 23 or 24 years until he retired and moved to Grass Valley.
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In 1994 Sommers made himself a bucket list. Included on that list were things like getting his private pilot's license (March, 1996 at age 55), retiring from LAFD (Success in July 2000) and retire to Grass Valley (accomplished a month later).
Birth of a new dream
Armed with a fairly new pilot's license and a new home in the Gold Country, Sommers found a new passion: taking children for plane rides on Young Eagles flights.
Sommers explained that back in 1992, the Experimental Aircraft Association found there was a shortage of pilots. As a result, the Young Eagles program was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Since that date, more than 2 million children, mostly between the ages of 8 and 17, have received Young Eagles flights. Each flight is provided by one of an army of volunteer pilots.
In Nevada County, usually on the second Saturday in June, the Nevada County Airport plays host to Young Eagles day. A number of pilots who keep their planes at the local airport fuel up and take kids for free airplane rides.
Sommers moved to the area in 2000 and joined EAA Chapter 1175 at the Nevada County Air Park.
"It was at our monthly meeting in April 2001, when they started planning for their yearly Young Eagles event … that I was asked to participate," Sommer said. "Before the June event I was sitting in my barber's chair and spoke of the upcoming event."
It turned out his barber had a 17-year-old son, Aaron Heasley, that was Sommers' first Young Eagle. They took to the skies on May 13, 2001. (Sommers took him flying again, just for fun, when he was 31.)
Sommers flew seven kids on Young Eagles day and 11 more the rest of that year. By then, the seed was planted and already starting to sprout.
Flying up the log book
Sommers took that to another level. Two years ago, during the calendar year he flew a personal best 272 kids. He's flown Young Eagle flights out of 17 different airports. He's flown all the way around the outside of the country, landing at the southern-most, eastern-most, northern-most and western-most airports before returning to Grass Valley.
Through the years he added the 14th, 15th and 16th items to his bucket list. In 2005, he added that he wanted to fly 500 Young Eagles kids. Five years later, on May 7, 2010, he crossed that off his list.
In 2013, he added the desire to fly his 1,000th Young Eagle. On March 15, 2015 he crossed that off his list. (For the record, he's now blown past 1,400 and is headed for 1,500.)
No. 16, added last year, is his hope to "live long enough and be healthy enough to become a UFO." (United Flying Octogenarian.) According to his records, there are around 1,250 "UFOs" in the world.
A special place in his heart
When Sommers was 12, he had a fishing trip planned with his dad, a Chicago cop. Duties prevented his dad from going that day, and it was one of those small things that made a big impact.
"Because I always remembered how disappointed I was that day, it has become my mode to never disappoint a child, if at all possible," Sommers said, adding he's usually the one flying late-arriving kids after the signup tables are all shut down.
In June of 2003, Sommers was working his third Young Eagles day. That's when he met 7-year-old Meyer Zumwalt, who spent most of his time in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy. Meyer was with his mom, dad and two older siblings. Well, Young Eagles can't get their official certificates until they turn 8, and Meyer was three weeks shy.
Sommers did two things: First, he took young Meyer up with his older brother and sister. And since Meyer didn't get his official certificate, Sommers invited Meyer back on June 22, his birthday.
Meyer got another flight — this time in the front seat where, because he had decent use of his right hand and arm, Sommers allowed him to take control and fly the plane on his own. Meyer also got his certificate.
Sommers has mentioned that a number of Young Eagles pilots will shy away from taking kids with special needs on flights. That's never been the case with Sommers. If he can get them in the air, he's going to make it happen.
Sommers doesn't want the press. He doesn't want the story to be about him. He wrote an entry the National EAA published for its newsletter about Meyer, leaving his own name out of it. For Sommers, it's all about the kids.
And while every kid who takes a Young Eagles flight gets a certificate and a spot in what the organization calls the World's Largest Logbook, Sommers goes a step further.
Each kid gets a hand at the controls. Sommers is obviously right there and keeping everything under control, but if a child goes up with Sommers and wants to give it a try, he makes sure it happens.
Oh, and he snaps a quick picture as well.
Then, when the dust settles, everyone is safe and sound back on the ground, Sommers really goes to work. He heads home, downloads the photos, prints them out and sends them off in the mail.
"In this day and age, there's just something about sending those in the mail," Sommers said. "The kids really get a kick out of getting something solid, addressed to them, in the mail."
Above the pack
Sommers keeps an eye on what's happening in the flying world. He said there's usually somewhere between 50,000-55,000 licensed pilots.
When it comes to those who have flown the most Young Eagles, he knows the top three live in Roseburg, Oregon, Oshkosh and Helena, Montana, respectively. He's pretty sure he sits currently at No. 25, and he said there are around 16 or so ahead of him who are still active.
When asked why he does it … why he flies so many Young Eagles without any expectation of anything in return … why he goes the extra mile and sends printed pictures via snail mail to everyone who takes a ride with him … he just smiles and turns to his mantra.
"Never in your life will you ever stand taller than when you bend over to help a child."
Ross Maak is City Editor at The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4229.
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