Harrison Ford: Promoting Aviation through Young Eagles

Harrison Ford: Promoting Aviation through Young Eagles
By Di Freeze

It’s the morning of July 28, and Harrison Ford is getting ready to fly in the lead AeroShell Aerobatic Team T-6 at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2005.

“One of the few pleasures of celebrity is rides that have come my way,” Ford says, as the pilots perform preflights nearby. “Like this morning, I’m really looking forward to flying with the AeroShell team. I’m riding everything from an F-16 to the Tiltrotor. It’s been a wonderful experience to fly those machines for a brief period of time.”

At one time, although he loves flying his de Havilland Beaver to small fly-ins around Wyoming, Ford’s aversion to large crowds kept him away from gatherings like AirVenture. But he’s participating in the happenings in Oshkosh for the second year, and seems to have acclimated nicely.

“This is a stunning experience, for anybody—pilot or non-pilot—to come here and see this huge array of different airplanes, and so many people behaving so well,” he said. “You put this many people together, you’re bound to have problems, but never here.”

Ford believes that’s possible because aviation “fosters good citizen skills.”

“Look around you; there’s not a scrap of paper anywhere on the ground,” he said. “They leave this place clean as a whistle. Five thousand volunteers put this convention together! That’s extraordi nary.”

He says that one of the things he loves about aviation is the company of other pilots, whether at a gathering like Oshkosh or at small airports he lands at around the country.
“There’s a special kinship,” he said.

Harrison Ford: Promoting Aviation Through Young Eagles

Harrison Ford: Promoting Aviation Through Young Eagles

The fact that Ford is sitting in a tent at Oshkosh talking about his second experience at the annual convention, attended by approximately 700,000 people this year, can be credited to a vital group of people within the Experimental Aircraft Association. When Greg Anderson, at the time EAA senior vice president of development, first asked Ford to take on the role of chairman of the Young Eagles program, Ford hesitated from answering immediately. But it wasn’t because he had doubts about the program.

“I became acquainted with Young Eagles in Jackson,” he said. “I have a number of friends who, for years, have been involved with Young Eagles and they pressed me into service. I really loved it.”

And his hesitation wasn’t about time—even though his acting career does limit the amount of time he can spend doing Young Eagles activities.

“It was a daunting prospect taking over from Chuck Yeager, who was a wonderful representative for the program,” he explained. “But for years I’ve been enthusiastic about the program, so I thought it would be a little payback to spend some time helping promote aviation.”

Once he said yes, he found the task an easy one.

“It was no different than what I’d been doing,” he said. “It’s just that on paper I was suddenly the chairman of the Young Eagles program.”

When he took on the role officially in March 2004, Ford had already flown over 80 Young Eagles.

“He’s a natural fit to help lead us to even greater achievements as EAA members prepare the next generation of aviators,” EAA President Tom Poberezny said at that time.

While at AirVenture, Ford attended the 2005 Gathering of Eagles, held on July 28, which honored Young Eagles, as well as YE pilots and volunteers, and attended an awards program held at Theater in the Woods on July 27. That night, Steve Buss, executive director of Young Eagles, expectantly asked Ford if there was any chance he was going to sign on for two more years.

“Nothing would please me more,” Ford said, to cheers from those gathered.

Meeting Sky King

Harrison Ford, who has signed up for two more years as the chairman of Young Eagles, got his private pilot’s license in the mid-1990s.

Harrison Ford, who has signed up for two more years as the chairman of Young Eagles, got his private pilot’s license in the mid-1990s.

Harrison Ford, born in Chicago, on July 13, 1942, became fascinated by aviation at an early age.

“Aviation captured my imagination when I was very young,” Ford said. “When I was growing up, there was no television. There was radio, and one of the shows that I used to listen to was ‘Sky King.’ I really enjoyed it. My dad was in advertising, and one of his accounts was that show. I got a chance to meet Sky King.”

His interest in aviation continued. After graduating from high school in 1960, Ford attended Ripon College, in Wisconsin.

“While I was in college, I scraped together enough money to take maybe five or six lessons, in a TriPacer,” he said.

The lessons were taken at Wild Rose Idlewild Airport in Wild Rose, Wis.

“The $11 an hour for a pilot instructor in an airplane was more than I could bear at the time,” he said. “I had to give it up.”

During his last year at Ripon, Ford got involved in theater, which led to a move to California, and eventually his first un-credited film appearance in “Dead Heat on a Merry Go Round” (1966). That led to his role as hot-rodder Bob Falfa in George Lucas’ huge hit, “American Graffiti” (1973). Between roles, Ford made extra money as a carpenter.

In 1977, after appearing in a dozen films, he starred in Lucas’ blockbuster, “Star Wars,” as Han Solo. After appearing in several more movies, including “Hanover Street,” his first romantic lead, in which he played a pilot, Ford returned to the role of Han Solo, in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), which was immediately followed by another smash hit, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). After his first time on the big screen as Indiana Jones, Ford turned back to sci-fi, with another hit, “Blade Runner” (1982).

Throughout the 1980s, Ford vehicles included “Return of the Jedi,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Witness” (which brought him a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as John Book), “The Mosquito Coast,” “Frantic,” “Working Girl” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” He started off the 1990s with “Presumed Innocent,” and continued with “Regarding Henry,” “Patriot Games” (his first of two movies in which he played CIA agent Jack Ryan), “The Fugitive,” “Clear and Present Danger” and “Sabrina,” for which he received a Golden Globe nomination.

In the mid-1990s, Ford, who had already developed a passion for motorcycles, was reminded of his earlier interest in aviation. While riding around with pilot Sydney Pollack, the director of “Sabrina,” in his Lear 55 and 60, and while relaxing in the backseat of various Gulfstreams, Ford came to a realization.

“Last night at dinner, Steve Fossett mentioned that he got an airplane for business and he realized, after a period of time, that the guys in front were having more fun than he was; that’s exactly the feeling I had,” Ford said. “So I went up and started watching what they were doing and it rekindled my interest in doing it myself. I wasn’t sure, at the age of 54, or 55, that I still had the capacity to learn something that I saw as very complicated and difficult; I’ve never been a great student. But my passion for the experience went a long way to help me focus on learning to fly.”

He said it helped that he had a “patient instructor.” After buying a used Gulfstream II, of which the interior would be refurbished and the avionics updated, Ford “deputized” one of his pilots, Terry Bender, telling him it was a condition of employment to teach him to fly. They started out flying a Cessna 182 out of Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“My two training environments were Jackson and Teterboro, New Jersey,” Ford said. “There cannot be two more different environments to fly in. It was my good luck to learn in that kind of environment, because it taught me a great deal more. It was a ‘compressed education,’ especially at Teterboro.”

Ford went from a Cessna 182 to a Cessna 206, in which he got his license. He remembers his solo vividly.

“I remember it very well, because I scared Terry to death,” he said. “I was in a 206, and landing a 206, you bounce on that nose wheel, and you go porpoising down; I got sideways over the grass. It was OK, but I still feel sorry for him.”

Ford says he’s only been flying for about 10 years, but that it’s changed his life.

“The addiction grows rapidly,” he said.

Harrison Ford participated in a question-and-answer section with Steve Buss, Young Eagles executive director, at Theater in the Woods.

Harrison Ford participated in a question-and-answer section with Steve Buss, Young Eagles executive director, at Theater in the Woods.

He gives his opinion as to why people become so enamored with aviation.

“I think, as much as anything else, it’s discovering the third dimension,” he said. “Those of us who are bound to the Earth by gravity—and lack of an airplane—don’t really see the world the way a pilot does. There’s so much beauty in flight. I think that’s a very important part of it.”

Ford has said that part of the appeal of flying his own plane, beyond the beauty of flight, is “anonymity.” In an interview with Playboy in July 2002, he said that while flying, he was no longer Harrison Ford; he became “November 1128 Sierra.” He said that beyond that cloak of anonymity, the appeal is also “freedom and responsibility.” But when it comes to flying, one word stands out the most.

“It would have to be responsibility,” he said. “For the safety of the passengers, for being a good neighbor, taking care of your airplane, taking care of yourself, being fit for flight. All of those things are very important.”


Ford, who once traveled extensively in his former Gulfstream IVSP, arrived at Oshkosh in his Cessna Citation CJ3 jet. That aircraft recently replaced his Pilatus PC-12 turboprop. Although he says the CJ3 is the “most exciting” airplane he’s ever flown, he has only good to say about the PC-12.

“It’s a wonderful airplane,” he said. “I love it, but it was my ‘traveling machine,’ and I needed to go a little faster. I went over to Europe two or three times and back, and it was always a great adventure and a great deal of fun. It’s just that it was eating up a lot of time.”

Although the CJ3 may be the most exciting airplane he’s ever flown, Ford has room in his heart—and his hangar—for a variety of aircraft. He says he has “a nicely rounded stable.”

“I have more airplanes than it’s fair for anybody to have,” he says with a grin. That stable includes an Aviat Husky A-1B two-seat taildragger, a Beech Bonanza B36T3 and a Cessna Grand Caravan. But that’s not all. When asked by a Young Eagle what his favorite “aircraft sound” was, he quickly answered.

“I love the sound of a round engine,” he said. “My de Havilland Beaver has a Pratt & Whitney 985. It’s a beautiful sound.”

Ford, who wrapped up “Firewall” this spring and is now filming “Godspeed,” also recently acquired a 1929 Waco Taperwing. He said he’s always wanted an open-cockpit aircraft.

“I’d always wanted to fly that kind of airplane,” he said. “I never really saw the one I wanted until I saw this airplane. I’ve had it for about five months, four months of which I’ve been making a movie, so I’ve had no chance to fly it.”

Shortly after the release of “Air Force One,” Ford became interested in rotary wing. That desire developed while he was in Hawaii, playing Quinn Harris, a de Havilland Beaver pilot, in “Six Days, Seven Nights” (released in 1998).

“I was being picked up every day in a Bell Jet Ranger, to fly to beautiful places, to be dropped off on the top of a mountain. After the second or third day, I got the fellow that was flying me to put duals in; by the time I left Hawaii, I had 24 hours in it,” he grinned. “I came back here and finished up my rotorcraft license. I really enjoy flying helicopters.”

He keeps his Bell 407 helicopter and other aircraft at Santa Monica Airport.

“I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles,” he said. “I have two kids in school there.”

Just like he likes a variety of aircraft, Ford loves flying in different environments.

“Every flight is different,” he said. “The challenge is different in every kind of environment. I love flying in the mountains; I love flying on little back country strips. That sort of thing is challenging and rewarding.”

A few years ago, the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation honored Ford for combining his skills as a pilot with his commitment to conservation. In addition to flying environmental reconnaissance missions in his helicopter, Ford has also volunteered his services flying search and rescue near his 800-acre ranch in Jackson Hole, and has rescued stranded hikers on two different occasions.

Young Eagles

In July 1992, Academy Award winning actor Cliff Robertson announced the launch of EAA’s Young Eagles program. The program had the original goal of flying one million young people, ages 8-17, by Dec. 17, 2003, the date celebrated as the centennial of powered, sustained flight. Robertson served as chairman from the program’s founding through 1994, when Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager accepted the role. Under those two chairmen, the program grew into the largest youth aviation education program ever created. The initial goal was realized on Oct. 25, 2003, when EAA member Rick Ellis flew 15-year-old Andrew Grant of German Valley, Ill.

Harrison Ford and AeroShell lead pilot Alan Henley prepare for an early morning T-6 flight.

Harrison Ford and AeroShell lead pilot Alan Henley prepare for an early morning T-6 flight.

When Ford initially accepted the role of chairman, EAA had decided to move on with the program by establishing different goals and a different focus.

“We want to touch more kids, give them the opportunity to go on with flight as an avocation or vocation,” Poberezny said at the time.

The continuing goal was to touch the lives of 100,000 young people per year through the program and to establish a mentor relationship after the flight. As of August 18, the log of Young Eagles flown numbered 1,162,160. More than 39,000 volunteer pilots have been involved since Young Eagles was founded, as well as 50,000 volunteers on the ground that put the program together.

Ford, who is involved with an EAA chapter in Driggs, Idaho, just over the mountains from Jackson Hole, talks excitedly about the Young Eagles Day they held recently.

“We flew 290 kids,” he said. “I had the pleasure of giving 43 kids a ride in my de Havilland Beaver. There’s no pleasure in the world that compares to seeing the excitement in a kid’s eyes when they get their first taste of general aviation. I haven’t been able to do it every year, because of work pressure, but those days are great days for me.”

In the handful of years he’s been flying Young Eagles, Ford has flown more than 200 youth. He says he’s flown children in helicopters, but he normally flies them in the Beaver.

“I can put five of them in it,” he said. “They have a great time. It makes a nice, ‘healthy’ noise, and it’s a beautiful airplane. They’re really excited about flying in it.”

He says that pilots get involved with Young Eagles to “share their enthusiasm for aviation with a generation of young people,” and that the most important lesson a pilot can teach a child is that flying involves more than “freedom and the excitement of flight.”

“I feel it’s our responsibility as people who have enjoyed the freedom of flight, to pass on, as our legacy, that opportunity and that experience to the children of today,” he said. “One of the wonderful things about aviation is that freedom and responsibility are great things for kids to be exposed to. To be able to see the world in a three-dimensional way, and to give them a sense of the possibility that they might enjoy that freedom themselves, if they work for it.

“There are attendant responsibilities. There’s a process that has to be learned and understood, and there’s a lot of problem-solving involved in flight. One of the things we want them to feel is that they have the potential themselves to become involved in aviation, in whatever area they want.”

Ford hesitates from talking about a most “memorable” Young Eagles experience.

“Each experience is different,” he said. “I’ve flown with some wonderful kids. I can’t say that there’s one moment that stands out. On almost every flight, there are a couple of wonderful, magical moments.”

Although he doesn’t do it for the praise, Ford gets plenty of thank-you letters.

“The kids really appreciate it,” he said. “The parents also appreciate it, because they see the enthusiasm and excitement that their kids are feeling.”

Potential pilots in Ford’s family

The 63-year-old megastar said that his children, of which the oldest is 38, fly with him all the time, but none of them have shown an interest so far in becoming a pilot.

“Some of them are more interested in aviation than others,” he said.

Ford only has one child that is “Young Eagles” age.

“I have a daughter who’s 14, and a son who’s slightly over the line; he’s 18,” he said.

But he does have hope.

“Although none of them have shown an interest in becoming a pilot at this point, it often comes later in life,” he said. “Calista and I have a 4 and a half year old, Liam. His first word was airplane—actually, ‘applane.’ He had his first chance to see an air show yesterday. He was mesmerized by it. It was really fun to watch him enjoy it. I think we have a chance there.”

Ford has also transformed Calista Flockhart into a lover of flight.

“She was a very nervous flier until she had a chance to sit up front and see the face of the pilot she was flying with, to tell her everything was all right,” he said. “Now she loves it.”

In fact, Flockhart would now like to learn to fly.

“She’s been talking about it for a while,” Ford said. “It’s just a matter of finding that block of time. She’s a little busy with a 4-and-a-half-year-old kid.”

Ford is also training his dogs to love flight as well, although at this point, he says they’re “learning to like” flying.

Concern about GA

Ford jokes that there’s a hidden bonus to flying youth.

“One of the things I found out is that when you have an airplane full of kids, you make better landings,” he grins.

But he quickly gets serious again when he talks about threats to general aviation and how young people can become advocates for GA.

“I believe general aviation is under serious threat from a variety of misunderstandings and fears,” Ford said. “People don’t understand what we’re doing and why we do it.”

He said that apprehension due to the threat of a small airplane in the wrong hands has been blown wildly out of proportion.

“The political pressure to close airports, to limit the freedoms of general aviation, are understandable, but they have to be countered by the will to maintain our freedoms that we enjoy in general aviation,” he said. “We need to address those issues, or we’re going to lose airports, and lose opportunities for more people to become a part of aviation.

“To do that, we need to build a constituency; we need to reach out to young people and say, ‘This is something important. This is something worth saving.’ This is not EAA’s message; this is mine. We need to reach out to young people, and hope that they will join us in becoming advocates for general aviation.”