ST. PETERSBURG — When the Cessna 182 reached cruising altitude, the Sunshine Skyway Bride a miniature ribbon of grey over blue water below, pilot Larry Langebrake handed the controls to 8-year-old Wade O’Gradney.
O’Gradney slowly banked to the right until a strip of green land bordered with white sand came into view, the bay side of Fort Desoto Park.
“Look at the people,” O’Gradney said, glancing down at a scattering of colorful beach umbrellas and sunbathers spread out along the park’s North Beach area.
“Yeah, they look like ants, don’t they?” Langebrake said.
This was not O’Gradney’s first time piloting an aircraft.
In June, he logged his first pilot hours at one of three events hosted each year at Albert Whitted Airport by Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 47 and the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, local pilots took children ages 8 to 17 for free air tours of St. Petersburg.
The national association, based in Oshkosh, Wis,, encourages kids to attend these Young Eagles flight events multiple times to log in pilot hours and follow up with more training in an online program, which can lead to scholarships for formal flight classes.
The Albert Whitted program alone has taken 4,000 children and teens in the air while the national organization has taken more than 1.5 million for free flights since starting in 1992.
On Saturday, dozens of families waited beneath a tent next to the runway watching a procession of Cessnas, Pipers and other small airplanes taxi and takeoff.
“We expose them to flying and try to get them interested and give them a chance to see what airplanes are all about,” Langebrake said.
“Some kids, they really want to know everything there is to know about the engines and the propellers; other kids are just really interested in the feeling of flight.”
Carlos, Ciara and Nina Shirley, and Breanna Llamas enjoyed different parts of the flight experience.
“It was fun. I got to drive, and I almost crashed us because she told me to look at a boat, so I looked at the boat and started turning the wrong way,” said Carlos, 12, of South Pasadena.
For Ciara Shirley, 11, a highlight was seeing the great expanse of sparkling water of the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay from 1,000 feet.
The youngest of the bunch, Nina Shirley, 8, just seemed happy to be back on the runway at the end of her flight.
“I was really scared,” she said.