Olivia Leclerc recently had “the best day” of her life at Grove Field Airport, north of Camas.
Leclerc, 9, of Portland, made that statement shortly after having the opportunity to fly Kent Mehrer’s airplane.
It was her first time riding in and flying a small plane.
“Amazing,” Leclerc exclaimed. “We were so high up. It feels weird to walk again.”
Her friend, Jakob Almgren, 9, of Portland, flew Mehrer’s plane, a four-seat Piper Comanche, from Grove Field to Kelso, Washington.
Then, Leclerc flew the aircraft back to Grove.
“I took off and landed the plane,” Mehrer explained later. “When we’re flying between locations, each (child) had their hands on the controls, maneuvering the plane en route.”
Their flights occurred on July 15, during the last day of the annual Camas-Washougal Aviation Association’s aviation camp. The five-day science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) camp is conducted in partnership with the Pearson Field Education Center, of Vancouver.
Leclerc wants to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force and someday fly F-15s.
She said she knew she wanted to be a pilot when she was “really little,” at the age of 2, riding a commercial airplane to Chile. One of her favorite characters, Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, is a pilot. And many of her family members have aviation backgrounds: Her grandfather, Rodger Hauge, of Washougal, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, and later became a helicopter pilot, and her great-grandfather, Oscar Hauge, flew C-47 transport planes in World War II and F-9 fighter jets in the Korean War.
Rodger Hauge sat in the back seat of Mehrer’s plane, while his granddaughter enjoyed the view from the front seat.
“This is a super program,” Hauge said. “It gets parents motivated to support their children.”
Leclerc’s parents, Mauricio and Anna Leclerc, also attended the final day of the aviation camp, which included a celebratory lunch of hot dogs, beans, potato chips and cake, provided by CWAA members.
“Can we do this camp next year?” Leclerc asked her mother at the CWAA luncheon.
“Absolutely,” Anna replied.
Port of Camas-Washougal Commissioner Larry Keister presented each aviation camper with a certificate of graduation.
CWAA Scholarship Chairman Bob Martilla said the aviation summer camp for ages 9 to 14 “dovetails” with the Cascadia Tech Academy’s two-year aviation program for high school students.
“If you imagine a pyramid, we are at the beginning, where kids are exposed to aerospace engineering, piloting and the burgeoning drone industry,” he said. “They feed up through the high school programs, into college and later into industry. Everyone has to start someplace, and that is what we do.”
The nonprofit CWAA includes community members and aviation enthusiasts, as well as active and retired pilots and their families. The group promotes and preserves Grove Field and provides mentoring and scholarships for local students entering aviation-related programs. Many of the students will pursue careers as pilots, aviation maintenance technicians or air traffic controllers.
The cost to attend the aviation camp is $500 per student, and scholarships are available.
“We work with some of the families who can’t make the price or need payments,” Martilla said. “We realize it is sometimes a challenge.”
Last year, a local business owner anonymously sponsored two aviation camp participants whose families could not afford the camp.
“He asked us if we had someone we knew who needed help, and we dipped into our list,” Martilla said. “When we called up those two families, it was gratifying to help them like that. We have the most fabulous people in this community, and they show us how lucky we are to live here.”
On the final day of this year’s aviation camp, Jack Benninger, 11, of Portland, rode in and flew a Cessna Skyline 182, owned by Charlie Dally, of Washougal.
“It was a super cool experience,” Benninger said. “It was one of my favorite activities, and I would definitely do it again.”
Rex Williamson, of Vancouver, was impressed with the various activities his son, Ryan, 10, was able to participate in as an aviation camper, including visiting the control tower at Portland International Airport and observing behind-the-scenes action inside Horizon Air’s maintenance and baggage-handling area. The aviation camp participants also touched F-15 fighter jet on the Air National Guard Base at PDX, and visited the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum at the Hood River Airport, in Hood River, Oregon.
The students added engines to their remotely piloted model airplanes on the morning of aviation camp graduation.
“It’s fun and enjoyable for the kids, but airports are living STEM labs,” Martilla said, adding that it’s never too soon to teach these types of skills to children, even those younger than the 9-year-old campers. “Nothing that happens out here — outside of the barbecue — is not connected to science, engineering, math and technology.”
For more information about the aviation camp, visit www.cwaagrovefield.org.