Inspiring Generations of Future Aviators

Story by Laz Denes

Annual Young Eagles Events Offers Free Flights for Kids.

“I belong in the sky,” says Erin Mason, assistant manager of the Wood County Airport, echoing the nearly uncontrollable enthusiasm of Anastasia Pickering. Anastasia was just 9 years old in the spring of 2022 when she got to ride in a plane at the Mineola airport.

Anastasia was one of 75 local youngsters who participated in that year’s Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles free flight program. Thanks to EAA member pilots who have volunteered their time and personal aircraft since the annual program’s start in 1992, more than 2.3 million youngsters between the ages of 8 and 17 have experienced free introductory flights at airports across the country. Many of those young people are inspired to pursue careers in the aviation industry.

“It’s all about trying to catch that enthusiasm when they’re young, and Anastasia’s pilot said she was just the best little co-pilot,” says Erin. “She was one of many kids whose whole world got changed that day, realizing that they can grow up to be pilots or mechanics or engineers, any of the countless jobs there are in aviation.”

After a hiatus in 2023, the Young Eagles program returns to Wood County this spring. It will be part of the traditional Young Eagles programs held on back-to-back weekends in the area. The other will take place at Sulphur Springs Airport, where Young Eagles coordinator Brian Irby caught the flying bug at 9 when his mom signed him up for a free flight at that very facility in 2003.

Pilot Larry Bradshaw volunteers to fly for the Young Eagles.


Today, Brian helps run a family metal building business that specializes in constructing horse arenas. A majority of the company’s job sites are on the west side of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and Brian commutes by plane. He sold his first plane, a four-seat Cessna 172, last December after buying a slightly larger and more powerful Piper Comanche.

“When I was a kid in 2003, that first and only Young Eagles flight really sparked the fire for me. I thought it was cool, and I’ve been crazy about planes ever since,” says Brian, who set a goal of obtaining his private pilot’s license when he turned 17, the minimum age allowed.

“Well, it turns out I didn’t get after it enough, but four years ago I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, so I started flight school and finally got my license this past July. It’s great to be able to avoid all the DFW traffic commuting to and from our job sites. Flying is faster and much more enjoyable.”

Growing up with family in Southern California and New Jersey, Erin, too, began experiencing the joys of flying at a young age, albeit riding in commercial jetliners. She enjoyed it so much that she jumped at the chance to become an aircraft mechanic when she enlisted in the Navy after high school. She ultimately specialized in F/A-18 fighter jets.

After the Navy, Erin moved to the area with her husband, Drew, a Quitman native, and began a three-and-a-half-year run working for Southwest Airlines at Love Field in Dallas. She started out as a ramp agent with an eye on someday moving into one of the airline’s coveted mechanic positions.

When Erin and Drew decided to start a family, she learned of the newly created assistant manager position at Wood County Airport, just 10 minutes from home. She started her new job just in time to take part in the 2022 Young Eagles event. It was the first time she had heard of the program, but she became an immediate supporter and a huge fan of general aviation.


“It was amazing to see pilots volunteering their time and taking kids up, some who have never been in the air and most of whom have never flown in a small plane,” Erin says. “They talk to the pilot and do a walkaround and learn about what they look for preflight. Then they take off, cruise around Lake Fork, come back and land, and then get a certificate and a whole hour logged in their flight book. It’s a whole day of this fun with the kids, and their enthusiasm and the environment are just amazing.”

Pilot Ben Hines takes a group of kids flying for the Young Eagles program.

Excitement among Young Eagles participants can often be off the charts. Brian recalls one 10-year-old boy from San Antonio trekking with his family to the Sulphur Springs event last May, dressed in an actual flight suit and carrying his own personal flight logbook.

Information and scheduling for upcoming Young Eagles events in the area and throughout the country can be found at the EAA website,

“The aviation community, especially pilots, have a passion for what they do, and it fuels them and makes them want to share it,” says Erin, who also has begun the process of obtaining her pilot’s license. “The Young Eagles program is all about showing kids just how easy it is, how fun it is and encouraging them to consider careers in aviation. It creates the feeling of knowing that getting a pilot’s license can be a reality for anybody.”