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If anyone was feeling a little nervous, no one was owning up to it.

“Excited!” said Matthew Febus, 8, a student at Evergreen Elementary, as he rushed with his father and older brother, Anthony Febus, 11, out to his assigned airplane during the Young Eagles Rally on Saturday morning at St. Mary’s Regional Airport in California.

“It was awesome,” said Andrew Noel, 8, of California, another Evergreen student, after he finished his flight.

Altogether, 127 young people, ages 8 to 17, were given a free airplane ride at the annual rally, which was sponsored by Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 478 and members of other nearby chapters. Each flight took about 20 minutes and concentrated on the Leonardtown area.

Joe Spelz of St. Inigoes, a member of Chapter 478 and the rally coordinator, said it was the largest turnout for a rally in the four years he has been involved. “Time and weather forced us to close registration an hour early, turning about 10 kids away after the cutoff,” Spelz wrote in an email after the event.

Spelz said that the participants included young people who have received free rides in previous rallies as well as first-time fliers. And he noted that a first flight in a small plane can be a little nerve-wracking.

“I was 10 years old,” he said of his own first flight when he was growing up in Chicago. “I flew in a Piper Cub with the door off, and I was scared to death.

“I loved the airplanes,” he said, smiling at the memory. “It was just the thought of flying that scared me.”

In the small Pipers and Cessnas and a few homebuilt aircraft that were used in the rally, small disturbances in the air are accentuated and it can get hot in the small cabins, Spelz said. “It can be harrowing.”

Spelz overcame his initial fear and grew to love all parts of aviation, becoming a pilot and even making it the focus of his career as an aeronautical engineer for J.F. Taylor, working at the Naval Air Warfare Center at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

And that is the whole idea of the rally. “We’re trying to inspire our future aviation leaders,” Spelz said.

“Most kids come back with a big smile on their face,” Spelz said. “It’s an adventure.”

Many of the adults riding with their children also got off the plane with a smile. “Oh, it was a blast,” said Trent Noel of California, who snagged one of the first flights of the day with his nephew, Fred Champlain, 9, visiting from Arizona. Noel’s two sons, James Noel, 10, and Andrew took flights in other planes. “I love aviation. This is what I want to do,” Trent Noel said.

Fifteen pilots, all EAA members, though not necessarily of Chapter 478, donated their time and the cost of flying for several hours during the rally. With aviation fuel costing about $5.50 a gallon, according to Spelz, and 15 pilots flying for about four hours each, with six gallons being used each hour per airplane, that means that fuel costs alone approached $2,000 for the rally.

The national Experimental Aircraft Association began encouraging its local chapters to hold Young Eagle Rallies about 20 years ago, Spelz said. “They wanted a million kids flown by the 100th anniversary of flight in 2003,” he said. The association met that goal and is now up to about 1.7 million flown in rallies like the one held Saturday.

Spelz said to expect the rally to be held again next year.

To get involved

The Experimental Aircraft Association, Chapter 478, meets the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at Patuxent River Navy Museum. See