Gene Salvatore was 22 when his mother died suddenly, an epiphanous moment he credits to the start of his exploration into aviation. “I started to realize that if you want to do things, you better do them,” he said. Flash forward to today, Salvatore is the proud president of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Chapter 855 based in Slatington and, as someone who used to play with model airplanes as a kid, an eager advocate for the EAA Young Eagles program.
He almost didn’t enjoy flying. When he took the initiative to get started in the mid ‘70s, he began with flying lessons at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. “I didn’t like it. They were very regimented; it’s a towered airport, so it was straight and level. You would take off, okay, go straight, make this turn, and come back,” he explained. “I thought, wow, this is so controlled. So I quit.” While reading an issue of National Geographic, he turned the page and saw Dick Johnson in a glider. “I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ I soloed after 18 flights of fifteen minutes each. I think every pilot should start off in a glider.”
Salvatore was born and raised on Staten Island and worked in Manhattan as a union electrician. One day, he was walking through Port Authority Bus Terminal and a magazine caught his eye. “To me, kit planes were always the Volkswagen plane with Snoopy sitting on top of this plywood thing,” he laughed. “So I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘that can’t be a kit plane.’ I bought the magazine and I’m thinking wow, this is doable.”
He and his family moved to Whitehall in 1992; he continued as a glider pilot until 1998, while researching more about kit planes. He decided he wanted to try it. “I told my wife I’m going to build my own.” It took him three and a half (inconsecutive) years to build in his two-car garage. It was ready in 2005. “The nice thing about this airplane is that I can land it anywhere,” he said. “The whole world’s an airport.”
Through kit planes, he discovered the EAA. The Experimental Aircraft Association was founded in 1953 and is comprised of more than 180,000 members worldwide. It acts as a technical counselors program; aviators are able to call someone with more experience and have them come to their shop to be a mentor by offering information and workmanship.
When Salvatore first got involved, chapter 855 was based in Kutztown. He started attending meetings right around the time Kutztown was closing its airport. The president at the time was stepping down and Salvatore, in between back surgeries following an accident at work, had the time to devote to something he had a personal connection to. “Now I could make the commitment,” he said. He volunteered to become the new president and began shopping around in the Lehigh Valley for a new headquarters for 855.
“I came to Roger [Sell] and he said, ‘I just want to help people fly, I’ll do anything you want.’ He became a chapter member and he helps tremendously. He’s one of the best parts of the chapter,” Salvatore said. “And that’s how we ended up here.”
“We were a small chapter then, maybe ten guys all past retirement age. When we got here, some local pilots saw what we were doing and joined up, recruited some younger folks,” said Salvatore. “We got the idea that maybe we could handle a Young Eagles program. It took a year or two to get up the nerve to do it, but so far, it’s all been very successful.”
The Young Eagles program started in 1992 nationwide as a way to introduce young people to general aviation. “You know, with the advent of all these kids playing video games and playing organized sports, slowly but surely, light aircraft and general aviation is starting to take a backseat in the public perception,” said Salvatore. “The perception is that it’s unattainable; airports have locked gates around them. How do you get started? It’s like it’s an elite club and it’s faded from public’s eye. Young Eagles was introduced to introduce kids to airports and people and what’s available.”
“It’s a boys club for expensive toys,” he added, laughing. “You know, I was a kid of the ‘50s. We were hiding under desks in school, doing the whole duck-and-cover thing; we could hear the sonic booms from jet fighters. So back when we were young, all the kids wanted to be pilots. Now it’s hard just to give them a ride.” Young Eagles aims to change that.
The Young Eagles program accepts kids ages eight to 17. It starts with that first flight from an EAA volunteer pilot, and then sets kids up with all the tools and experience they’ll need to continue as they get older.
“It’s a great head-start for them; it turned into a very large program with something like 1.6 million kids now,” said Salvatore. “The most important thing is that we’re trying to show young people is that airports are important. Right now, they’re under attack. People buy homes with airplanes around and they say, ‘How come? I don’t want that noise.’ So they go to airports and tell them to shut down. Unfortunately, they’re very vocal and pilots were not and they started closing airports.” He continued, “Airports are a strategic asset in the U.S. The public doesn’t understand this. We’re lulled into a sense of security that everything is good, that everything will always be this way, that there will never be another war or biblical natural disaster or pestilence and famine. ’You don’t need these things, they’re noisy.’”
According to Salvatore, people don’t realize the importance of aviation. “When you create a mile of roadway, you can go a mile. When you open up a mile of runway, the entire world can come to you. And people don’t realize this, that you still have to learn to fly the little airplanes before you can fly the big airplanes. And we need airline pilots. There’s a shortage of pilots in the U.S. and we’re doing our best to show young people that this could be a great career.”
To do that, EAA chapter 855 hosts two flight rallies per year at the Slatington airport for interested young people and their families. Exactly how many kids show up, Salvatore says, is the $64,000 question.
“That’s why we never know how many hot dogs to buy,” Salvatore laughed. “It’s scary; it grows every time.”
The rallies are not funded by Young Eagles; the pilots donate their time and fuel and the free hot dogs rely on a donation jar.
“It’s a big investment that these people make, but we believe in what we’re doing,” said Salvatore. “We think it’s important for the country, for general aviation and for the kids. Being a pilot is so removed from our culture at this point that it just has to be reintroduced. What a great achievement for a young person to do something that’s real, to fly an airplane not on the computer. Plus, think of how great it is when all of a sudden your child wants to learn about mathematics and geography and geology and science. If they start taking flying lessons, these are all things that they have to learn. And because they want to learn it, they do learn it. So to me, flight lessons are a win-win.”
This year’s spring rally is June 14 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Not only is it Father’s Day weekend, it also happens to fall on International Young Eagles day, so Salvatore hopes for an impressive turnout. The second rally of the year usually falls in mid-October.
“It ends up being a lot of work, but it’s fun though to meet the kids and make small talk,” Salvatore said. “They’re always amazed at take-off. They can’t sit still.”
The kids get one-on-one flights for that reason. “We want each young person to have their own personal flight,” said Salvatore. “Then they get to handle the controls, that’s what we’re trying to do. Although, most are smart enough not to want to do the flying so that they can look around.”
Many of the kids are first-time flyers, especially because Salvatore says flying in a jet doesn’t count. “It really doesn’t. It’s like looking at a calculator compared with someone putting you in a computer room and telling you to run it. It’s a totally different world.”
When Salvatore’s not flying, he’s thinking about flying. “It’s a love,” he said. “I read about it, I watch videos and movies about it. It’s just all-encompassing. It’s been a lot of fun; it’s a lot of fun to do. It’s fun to sit in the back but when you’re sitting at the throttle, it’s like a flying carpet.”