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When Petaluma flight instructor Mark Ashton was a kid, he remembers, tinkering with model airplanes and car engines sparked his fascination with flying.

"It led me to wonder about the way mechanisms worked," Ashton, in his early fifties, said. "Flying is such a hands-on activity, it became a natural jump for me."

Ashton isn't alone in his early love of flying. Carl von Doymi, a middle-age Corte Madera resident who houses his plane at the Petaluma Municipal Airport, can also remember the romantic feeling he got as a child when he fantasized about the freedom of flying.

"But nowadays, it isn't considered the amazing adventure that it once was," said von Doymi. "Kids fly everywhere and never think twice about the prestige of flying."

In order to spark the passion for flying in a new generation, the Petaluma Area Pilots Association teamed up two weeks ago with the newly formed Petaluma Experimental Aircraft Association — a group of pilots in Petaluma focusing on building their own homemade aircraft — to give kids free airplane rides. Planes ranged from homebuilt Kitfoxes up to helicopters and large crafts, all available for kids to climb aboard, investigate and even fly with a licensed pilot.

"It's really a great opportunity for kids to come out and see these planes and maybe take an interest in flying themselves," said Tom O'Neil, a PAPA member and Petaluma resident.

Petaluma pilots are part of a nationwide movement to recruit young fliers in a time when fewer and fewer youth are turning to the once-coveted job of airplane pilot. In fact, the aviation industry is anticipating a major personnel shortage over the next two decades. The 2012 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook report projects a need for approximately one million new commercial airline pilots and maintenance technicians by 2031.

Ashton, who has been a flight instructor in Petaluma for 25 years, says this shortage stems from three factors — the downsizing of the military and their reduced number of trained fighter pilots, the fact that many of today's commercial pilots began their careers right after the Vietnam War and will soon stop flying when they hit the mandatory retirement age of 65, and the economic downturn that has made earning a pilot's license very expensive during the recession.

"It usually costs about $10,000 to obtain your general pilot's license," said Ashton. "Then you have to pass several more ratings and tests and get a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying time before you can even apply for a commercial pilot's position. That's a lot of flying and if you don't have a flying job to get you there, the 1,500 hours is usually too expensive to pay for on your own."

In addition to these issues, Ashton says the growth of worldwide travel is on the upswing, exacerbating the need for qualified pilots.

In Petaluma, the airport flight school is continually working to get people licensed, teaching students, from teenagers to senior citizens, the intricacies of flying.

Peggy Bakker, a certified instrument instructor and PAPA secretary, says that she learned to fly 35 years ago to prove to her husband that she could.

"He said I wouldn't be able to and now we fly everywhere together," said the energetic senior who has flown both her standard airplane and her experimental, homebuilt Kitfox plane all over the country.

Bakker also worries about the pilot shortage and said she hopes that display days like the one hosted by local pilots on July 21 will generate interest in a younger group.

But in today's world of video games, computers, television, movies and smartphones, interesting kids in aviation is a challenge. This reporter took her 7-year-old son, Dylan, to the display day event, sure that he would be thrilled with the high-flying fun. We climbed up on the wing of pilot Don Drummond's four-seater and prepared for takeoff. As the engine roared, Dylan grinned, giving a thumbs-up signal.

As we sailed through the air, Dylan giggled and appeared to enjoy steering the controls and listening to the tower in his headset. But when our feet hit the ground again, he said, "That was fun. Can I have my Nintendo DS now Mom?"

Other children seemed more inspired and begged their parents for flying lessons to obtain a license. Faced with the $10,000 cost, several parents sighed and said they would see what they could do.

For information on lessons, call the Petaluma Pilot Training Center at 765-1889.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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