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1:42 AM Wed, Sept. 19th

To the skies: Aero Derby gives young aviators chance to spread their wings

The Daily Courier/Jo. L. Keener

The Daily Courier/Jo. L. Keener

PRESCOTT - A plane flies low over the ground, coasting beautifully over green grass with a graceful arc. Then, disaster strikes. The plane veers toward the ground. A wing snaps off and the plane rolls end over end before coming to rest as a piled of splintered wreckage.

It's a small setback. The student picks the plane up, brushes off the dirt and starts rebuilding. Making mistakes is just another part of the learning process for the teens participating in the Great American Aero Derby program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

ERAU annually conducts the Aero Derby so teens can learn the principles of aviation by building and designing model airplanes. AeroRacers Inc. provides the planes and sponsors the event. AeroRacers' president Luc Bausch is an ERAU graduate who helps with the program.

"I graduated in 1989 and I wanted to give back to the kids," he said. "The program gets kids excited about planes. Our company's slogan is 'hands-on, brains-on,' and that's exactly how the kids work in the Aero Derby."

Bausch said he modeled the Aero Derby on the Soap Box Derby and decided to use it as a vehicle to teach aviation principles. "As prizes for the derby, we give away over $25,000 in scholarships to Embry-Riddle," said Bill Thompson, the director of Enrollment Management at ERAU. "The program is a great way to get kids into aviation. Many of them have a real interest and if they want to pursue a career, we're a good match."

Ryan Middleton, 15, is one such person.

"I plan to go to Embry-Riddle. I want to be an Air Force pilot," he said. "This is my first year in this program. I've learned a lot, and it's been a lot of fun. Luc is a great teacher, he makes things really easy."

The contests that award scholarships include flight contests for longest-flying airplanes, divided into Gold Division, ages 15 through 18, and Silver Division, ages 11 through 14, as well as a Design Contest, in which students design their own aircraft and build them using the available materials.

Kim Jenkins, 14, and Preston Lindsey, 14, are in the program for the second year. Jenkins won the Unlimited Division of the Design contest two years ago, and Lindsey won first place in the Silver Division last year.

"Our planes are almost done," Kim said.

"We personalize them as much as we can."

"Since this is the second year for both of us, I guess we're like professionals," Lindsey added. "But, we messed up, like ... everything ... so maybe not. We're having a lot of fun, though." Thompson reflected on the program's successes, and how it will affect future generations of aviators.

"This is one of the most engaging activities available for kids," said Thompson. "I know it's made a difference. There are several students who were only able to attend Embry-Riddle due to scholarships they won in the program. Also, they learn so much. They don't realize just how much aviation knowledge they walk away with."

Bausch conducts smaller Aero Racer sessions across the West Coast, but the ERAU program is the most in-depth. The competition portion of the program will take place Saturday at Haas Commons on the ERAU campus. The flight competition will be from 7 to 11 a.m. and the design competition will be from 1 to 2 p.m. For more information, call 777-3919.

Contact the reporter at dmeurer@prescottaz.com