PHOTO/JOANNE MURRAY; Experimental Aircraft Association Reno Chapter member Paul Watson and a passenger in his home built RV-7 plane.

Without any formal flight training, passenger Darren Harrison recently landed a single-engine Cessna airplane after the pilot suffered a medical emergency and passed out.

Harrison, a recent guest on NBC’s Today! show, explained that he used intuition and “common sense” when he took over for the unconscious pilot. “I knew if I went up and yanked that the airplane would stall,” he told Today host Savannah Guthrie. “And I also knew at the rate we were going, we were probably going way too fast and it would rip the wings off the airplane.”

Harrison saved his own life and the lives of the pilot and another passenger by following the step-by-step instructions of an FAA traffic controller/flight instructor at a Florida airport.

While most passengers will never face such an emergency, being able to fly a plane is a goal shared by many people who wonder if they would have the skill to become a pilot. Reno’s Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1361 had those folks in mind when it designed its free introduction to the process of becoming a pilot.  The local EAA group is among more than 900 association chapters nationally that advocate  for general aviation interests.

The learn-to-fly event called “Flying Start” for adults is set for Saturday, May 28, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Reno-Stead Airport terminal building, 4895 Texas Ave. in Reno. The event will inform would-be pilots about how to find instructors, which certificates are needed and explain the costs of training and the many choices of equipment and flying activities.  At the end of the session, a free introductory flight with a chapter pilot in a small airplane is available by appointment.

Flying offers a unique perspective

“It’s a great opportunity to see the whole picture of what it would take to learn to fly and seeing the world from the cockpit,” said Jan Bishop of Reno, EAA chapter member and former Washoe County School District elementary teacher. 

David Leiting of the Experimental Aircraft Association emphasized the attraction of recreational flying: “You see the countryside from a whole different point of view. You can travel the country in a unique fashion and enjoy the experience from above.”

The Flying Start program first took off in 2018 to provide information and incentives for people who have shown an interest in flying.  Many of them have taken advantage of an EAA program that gives them a free ride in a general aviation airplane.

“Everyone starts in a small airplane,” said Leiting, who manages the EAA’s Young Eagles and Eagle Flight program.  “General aviation is the bedrock for early aviation training.”

EDITOR'S NOTE, 05/19/22: Registrations for the Flying Start event on May 28 have filled up, organizers said, but the EEA chapter is collecting the names and contact information of people who are interested in future Flying Start events. Details available by emailing Don Kajans at

The EAA Flying Start program has caught on nationwide, with more than 200 events offered since 2018, and a record 55 events scheduled for May 2022, he said. The current pilot shortage affecting the charter, military and airline sectors is attracting more would-be pilots. 

The Reno EAA chapter is the only one in the Northern Nevada/Sierra area offering the Flying Start program, said chapter president Tracy Rhodes, a former U.S. Air Force and Northwest Airlines pilot.  He said the national shortage of pilots is the result of the convergence of several policy changes.

PHOTO/CONNOR MADISON: Experimental aircraft at the EAA’s AirVenture 2021 event in in Oshkosh, WI.

Supply and demand

“It was a perfect storm,” Rhodes said. “In 2009, the FAA changed the retirement age from 60 to 65 for airline pilots. That really slowed down retirements as many airline pilots stayed the extra five years, some because they liked the lifestyle and others because they got started as airline pilots late in life and needed the extra years to increase their retirement entitlement.”

Around same time, Congress mandated that the FAA increase the hours needed for co-pilots to fly airliners, from 300 hours to 1,500 hours. These changes narrowed the pipeline of experienced pilots, Rhodes said. “It takes a long time to get that extra 1,200 hours.”

By 2011, pilot retirements ramped back up and the incoming stream of fledgling aviators was reduced to a trickle. Starting in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged airline travel, and the military — traditionally a source of well-qualified second-career pilots for airlines — met budget cuts by offering incentives to its pilots to stay in their cockpits instead of training new pilots.  Airlines needed fewer pilots and offered early-outs and retirements.

Then when the pandemic waned and the public began traveling on airlines again, the shortage of pilots as well as experienced FAA inspectors and examiners could not meet the renewed demand.

Airlines, flight schools and the EAA have been recruiting flight students with bonuses, scholarships, job guarantees and incentives.  For example, attendees of a Flying Start program who continue learning by taking and passing the FAA written exam can qualify for reimbursement of the $175 exam fee, Leiting said.

Opportunities for women aviators are more available now than at any time since World War II, Bishop said.  For 56 years, Bishop’s father, Frank Nervino, managed the airport in Beckworth, Calif., about 30 miles west of the Reno-Stead airport.  As a girl, she worked in a hanger covering vintage airplanes with fabric and eventually her dad taught her to fly. Nervino, who trained Navy pilots, encouraged women to fly and to learn the mechanics of airplanes.

“Young women are really moving along in getting ratings as commercial pilots, in the airlines and as instructors,” Bishop said.

PHOTO/MARCIA PIKE: Experimental Aircraft Association member Paul Watson prepares to take off in his RV-7.

Event offers guide to flight training process

The May 28 is free, but was limited to 20 participants, a quota that was filled fast.  The workshop includes a description of the flight-training process and a guide to the options for flight training in the local area. Participants also will learn about the types of aircraft typically used for flight instruction. 

Emma Justice and AJ Griffith, instructors from NV Flight, a flight school based at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, will answer questions.  EAA chapter pilots will describe their training and experiences.

At the conclusion of Flying Start’s classroom activities, participants will be able to schedule a ride on an EAA Eagle Flight. Some flights may be conducted on the afternoon of the event, but most will be scheduled later. Participants who want further training can be eligible for EAA incentives and an Eagle Flight pilot will be assigned to students as mentors.

Flying Start attendees will be offered free trial EAA memberships, a subscription Sport Aviation magazine and access to webinars and videos on the EAA website.  The most significant benefit, however, is the ready-made support system at a local EAA chapter where budding pilots can ask questions, get advice and support and make connections with other pilots.

Reno EAA hosts other classes

The Reno EAA 1361 Chapter, one of about 900 chapters nationwide, has 43 members.  In addition to the Flying Start program, the chapter offers a “Young Eagles Build and Fly” hands-on workshop in June, in partnership with the Reno Radio Control Club. That workshop is open to 10 young pilots who want to build and fly a single radio-controlled model.  It’s an extra learning opportunity for youngsters who may also get a free Young Eagles ride with a chapter pilot in a small airplane.

The chapter also holds valuable continuing-education meetings online for pilots to learn about the demands of flying on instruments and in visual flight conditions. At each session, the EAA provides a topic for discussion and an educational scenario, and Rhodes puts together a 10-question quiz.  At monthly meetings, the chapter offers pilots the chance to “hangar fly,” a discussion with experienced pilots.  The group participates in the Reno Air Races as managers of the volunteers who drive and provide safety on the trams that transport race fans up and down the ramps at the annual Stead event. 

EAA membership also attracts pilots to the largest world event in aviation, the annual AirVenture fly-in at its headquarters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  In 2021, more than 600,000 attendees descended on the Wittman Regional Airport in 10,000 airplanes ranging from two-seat Piper Cubs to massive transport jets.  This year’s AirVenture is set for July 25-31.

PHOTO/EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT ASSOCIATION: AirVenture 2021 display by Connor Madison. .

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