Robert Rockmaker chokes up as he speaks to the 14 kids seated around a table in an airplane hangar in Ronkonkoma, telling them that their new AeroChapter aviation club is making aviation history.
"I'm so happy to see all of you here," he says. "It's very emotional for me. You're the first chapter of our national association."
It was Rockmaker's vision as the founder and chief executive of the Flight School Association of North America, an umbrella group dedicated to the business of flight training, to start a network of children's aviation clubs across the country, a sort of Boy and Girl Scouts of aerospace.
Rockmaker launched it this spring with the help of the Mid Island Flight School in Ronkonkoma, based at MacArthur Airport. That club for kids grades 6 through 12 now meets the fourth Thursday of every month; three other clubs are in the process of forming in other states.
"The intent of the association is not to make you all pilots," he tells the group at a recent meeting, handing them membership cards. Rockmaker, a 47-year veteran of the industry who got his private pilot license at age 17, urges the club members to consider becoming aerospace engineers, air traffic controllers, ground mechanics and commercial airline executives.
Adam Moussa, 13, of Bohemia, says the club fascinates him because he wants to gain "the knowledge of how to go up in the air and control something that's not as light as a bird but can fly like one."
"I really wish that something like this had existed when I was a kid," says aerobatic pilot Sean Martens, 35, of Garden City, who attended the same meeting as Rockmaker as a guest speaker. "I would have loved it."
Martens brought his gleaming red Extra300L aerobatic plane, called the Red Raptor, and let the kids step behind a velvet rope to get up close. "This airplane is almost completely made out of carbon fiber. Everything is light and hollow," he says. It flies at speeds of 200 miles per hour, and the pilot is strapped into a five-point harness.
Martens lets some kids climb into the cockpit and others try on his backpack parachute. "The reason you wear a parachute is not because you think you're going to crash the airplane. It's because the FAA requires it," he tells them.
Martens surprises the children with a raffle to let two of them go up with him in the plane on future dates. "It's not for the faint of heart," he warns. "If you don't like roller coasters I wouldn't advise getting in here."
Indiana Lewis, 13, of Brentwood, wins a flight. "I want to see the view, see how it looks upside down," he says. Interim club president Dylan Diaz, 16, of Commack, also wins. "It's such an exhilarating experience being up in a small plane," he says. "You feel every movement in the sky."
Family members were invited to this particular meeting. Ronald Wood of Manorville, whose grandson, Lexington Carrera, 11, is a member, calls the club fantastic. "Judging by the expression on these youngsters' faces, they were very impressed by the whole demonstration," he says.
WHEN | WHERE Next meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Mid Island Flight School, 101 Hering Dr., Ronkonkoma
INFO $25 annual dues for members, first meeting is free; 631-588-5400; midislandair.com
MORE FOR YOUNG AVIATORS
AeroCamp is a one-week day camp program at Mid Island Flight School in Ronkonkoma, 631-588-5400. Camp for kids entering grades 6 to 8 is already over; camp for grades 9 to 12 starts Monday, $749. Kids learn about airplane flight controls, airport traffic patterns and pilot a plane with a certified flight instructor.
The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City has a new "Aviators, Poets and Dreamers" exhibit open through Labor Day that exhibits poems and poetic writings from famous pilots and aviators. Included with museum admission of $14 per adult and $12 for children 12 and younger. 516-572-4111; cradleofaviation.org.
Eastern Suffolk BOCES offers a two-year Suffolk Aviation Academy program at the Bixhorn Technical Center in Bellport for 11th- and 12th-graders that culminates in a private pilot license. A Suffolk County high school district must recommend the student, and the district pays the tuition. For more information, call 631-286-6500.