Youths' Dreams Soar in Aviation Program's Planes

Times Staff Writer

Soaring 1,700 feet above ground in a Cessna 172 RG, Kenny Roy peered out the side windows, catching glimpses of the San Diego Freeway and the Compton courthouse.

Turning the yoke to the right, he checked the single-engine plane's instruments and faintly announced his return to the Compton Airport.

Kenny was in complete control. But every so often, he lifted himself in the pilot's seat to see a few more inches over the instrument panel. After all, the four-seater was not designed for a 14-year-old who is 5 feet 2.

Kenny got an early start on flying through Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum. The museum's Aero Squad After School Program, in its second year at Compton Airport, helps children complete their homework and teaches aviation skills with training ranging from flight simulator programs to flying lessons.

Under FAA regulations, a child must be at least 16 years old to receive a student pilot certificate, which permits the student to fly alone. The student must be at least 17 to receive a private pilot's license and 18 to apply for a commercial license. Anyone younger than 16 must be accompanied by a flight instructor while piloting a plane.

On a recent flight, Kenny's instructor -- prepared for any emergency -- sat back with his hands folded for most of the ride, including takeoff and landing.

"I haven't seen anyone that young" fly, said the instructor, Ben Sporcic, 28. "And the opportunity [the kids] have to do this -- I'm jealous."

Kenny had wanted to fly since 2002, when he got a Flight Simulator game for his computer.

Kenny said he would stay with the Compton program "until I get my pilot's license and my commercial and my instructor's license. And then I'll teach here."

Kenny's mother, Linetta Esters, said she was nervous and skeptical when Kenny joined the program. But after he started, she said, it "sucked me in and I was like, 'Wow!' The program is helping him grow and be mature."

The museum welcomes 40 to 80 children after school or on weekends, says its founder, Robin Petgrave. The children finish their school homework, take flight simulation classes, attend ground school and complete what Petgrave calls "community service." About 50 youths are currently involved in flight training, Petgrave said.

The community service ranges from cleaning computer monitors to operating the Sky Cafe, which sells candy, smoothies and hot chocolate. The children earn $5 an hour for their work. In place of money, they earn "museum dollars," which pay for flying lessons or time on the museum's computers.

Instead of paying $70 to $150 an hour in cash for a flight lesson, participating students pay membership fees, ranging from $25 to $75. Parents who cannot afford membership may pay the fees by performing community service at the $5-an-hour rate.

After-school participants and aviation explorers (those who have a more serious interest in flying) take their first flight lesson after reaching level 4 on the museum's flight simulation program or earning enough museum dollars to pay for lessons, which Petgrave said cost 90 museum dollars an hour.

Kenny runs the Sky Cafe as part of his community service. As manager, he trains other children, sets product prices and cleans the space.

Working at the cafe helped him earn enough museum dollars to learn to fly five types of single-engine airplanes.

In those planes, seeing over the instrument panel is not a problem for Kenny, who also has completed all eight levels of the museum's flight simulation program, which uses a computer to teach airplane procedures, skills and maneuvers. He has successfully piloted a virtual Boeing 737 with the computer program.

Petgrave, 41, said that if Kenny continues at this pace, he would have a commercial pilot's license and a flight instructor's certificate by high school graduation. Still, Kenny, a freshman at Wilson High School in Long Beach, looks forward to November 2005, when he turns 16 and can fly without an instructor.

Sit down with Richard Olmos, a 10-year-old aviation explorer, and he'll point out various aircraft instruments and their functions and boast of his flying prowess. Already, he said, he can pilot a Tomahawk airplane and various Cessnas with an instructor alongside him.

"This program keeps us out of the streets," said Richard, who witnessed a shooting outside his Compton home six months ago. "We don't like to stay home, so we come here all the time."

Richard has learned aerodynamics, aircraft maintenance and aviation regulations. "If you're 10 and you get to sit in the pilot's seat and pilot the airplane yourself, you know you can do it," said Kenneth Phillips, curator for aerospace science at the California Science Center, next to USC. Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin invited the museum to move to the city airport in 2001. "It's fantastic," Perrodin said. Petgrave opened the nonprofit museum in Torrance in 1998.

Now the museum displays a World War II training plane, combat and utility helicopters and a special exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first group of black military pilots. Some local members of the national organization serve as program volunteers.

With 20 volunteers and 10 paid staff members, the museum operates through donations and lesson fees from Petgrave's Aero Squad flight school.

Petgrave, born in Jamaica and raised in Massachusetts, said he built his helicopter flight school -- Bravo Helicopters & Wing in Torrance -- into a $3.5-million company in nine years. He made a name for himself by executing helicopter stunts in movies and music videos.

But in 2000, the corporation filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. Petgrave opened Celebrity Helicopters, which offers sightseeing tours and helicopter training, and the Aero Squad flight school.

The flight school has teamed up with Orange Coast College to offer college credit and make student loans available for flight training and ground lessons.

Petgrave hopes some museum students will take advantage of the program. Already, two museum aviation explorers have become licensed pilots.

"The greats [in aviation] didn't start thinking about flying until they were older," Petgrave said. "So, what will happen when [these children] are 19? Something great in aviation will come out of this place."

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