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Pilots Take Kids Up In The Skies Above Wisconsin To Inspire Them

There are lots of programs that have inspirational messages for kids, telling them to reach for the skies. A group in Madison, Wis., is taking that literally, giving children from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to fly a plane.

Above the Clouds began in Boston seven years ago and is now in Madison too. Kids are referred to the program through social service agencies or by church groups and a few are chosen to go up in a plane.

On a recent sunny fall day, seven of them came to the Middleton Municipal Airport just west of Madison. Volunteers greeted them enthusiastically.

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Credit LaToya Dennis
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Nia Burris is given a lesson on how planes work before taking the yoke herself.

Nia Burris, 16 and in the 10th grade, is excited about getting her first flight lesson. Before boarding, she’s ushered into a small room and given a lesson on how planes operate by pilot Susan Schwaab.  

Schwaab: "So when this Aileron goes down it’s making more of a curve to the wing, isn’t it?"
Burris: "Yeah and then it lifts."
Schwaab: "And then it lifts!"
Burris: "Does it turn it?"
Schwaab: "Exactly, that’s exactly how we turn."

After the crash course, Burris is hesitant, but she feels like she's ready to take the reins herself.

"Not the whole way, but you know, for a little bit," Burris says.

About 20 minutes later, Burris heads to the tarmac to conduct a safety check before takeoff. It’s a Cessna 172 — a small plane that seats four people.

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Credit LaToya Dennis
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Burris and Schwaab conduct a safety check on the Cessna 172 plane before take-off.

“Make sure gas is good, oil is good, make sure there’s no dents or anything,” she explains.

And then it’s time.

We climb into the plane, Burris sitting on a pillow on the passenger side to give her a bit of a boost. After the plane takes off, Schwaab gives Burris an aerial tour of Madison. Then Schwaab gives Burris the yoke so she can fly the plane by herself.

Once back on the ground, Burris is greeted by her mom Armani.

"It was super fun," Burris tells her mom.

Ten-year-old Byron Binion went up on a different plane today, but things didn’t go quite as planned. 

"It went OK. I started to feel a little sick so I had to go back," Byron says.

Pilot Schwaab says the goal of this group isn’t to get kids to become pilots, though that has happened.

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Credit LaToya Dennis
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Nia Burris got her first flight lesson at the age of 16. Next up, she says, is getting her driver's license.

"Maybe they need a little inspiration and that's really kind of the point of the program. It's not specifically to make kids into pilots, but just to inspire kids and show them all the opportunities," Schwaab explains.

Corwin Huang got inspired when he flew with the group about six years ago. It was his first time ever on a plane. Huang is in his final year at the University of St. Louis studying aviation and is now a pilot. In a few weeks he’ll return to Boston to take kids out on their first flight.

"That would be really big for me because it's something that helped me get started with aviation, helped me get started with feeling confident in my ability to learn and to do something that was essentially bigger than myself," Huang says.

Back in Madison, Nia Burris says that while she's now flown a plane, there's still one important thing she hasn't done: get her driver's license.

"That I got to focus on first," Burris says.

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