Tom Egbert sat in the cockpit of an Aeronca Champ airplane, ready to take flight, when he was only 16 years old. A World War II B-17 co-pilot taught him what he needed to know to be a successful pilot.
“I can really never thank him enough,” said Egbert. “In 1962, he taught a lot of young kids to fly, and you know I just thought I can pay it forward.”
Now Egbert regularly takes youth at Thunderbird Youth Academy or members of the Young Eagles Program — in the Experimental Aircraft Association — up into the air for their first flight in a small aircraft.
“I love it because I can take them up and they can see a different world. Yeah, they could have been on commercial flights, but it is completely different,” Egbert said. “I tell them they will see things right here out of this airplane that they will never see from the ground.”
He said the young future pilots are most amazed by the sheer number of ponds and cows they never knew existed in the area. It is not uncommon for Egbert to take 30 to 60 kids on their first flight in a morning.
Egbert is the contact in this part of the state for setting up flights for the Young Eagles program.
The Young Eagles program launched in 1992 to give youth between ages eight and 17 the opportunity to take flight in a general aviation airplane. Students who participate in the program receive free access to hundreds of science and technology museums across the nation, a free course in flying, and the first flight is free.
Taking students in Northeast Oklahoma on their first flight is one way Egbert pays it forward for the efforts of his first flight teacher, who instilled in him a joy of flying and provided him with a life-long hobby.
While flying planes can be an expensive hobby, Egbert argues it is not any more or less expensive than any other hobby.
“I think any hobby you get into is expensive, without a doubt. Whether its bowling, tennis or golf, it is all expensive,” he said.
Egbert’s interest in planes really began when he would visit his father at American Airlines, where he worked. He also participated in Boy Scouts and decided to participate in Air Explorers.
“At that time I could all but walk into American Airlines. Now they don’t allow that. When I went to Explorers, American Airlines sponsored an Explorer post that had to deal with aviation,” he said.
Egbert took flight before he received his Oklahoma driver’s license. He said, “My dad always said he worried more about me driving to Tulsa for a flying lesson than taking a flying lesson.”
However, his wife’s father was not too excited about his daughter going on dates that involved flying.
“Me and my wife dated in a 1959 Cessna 172. Her dad was not the happiest camper, being an 18-year-old kid with a pilot’s license flying his daughter around. It was not real high on his priority list that we did that, but I took him out flying and he realized that it was safe and it was fun,” Egbert said.
The only emergency the couple has encountered over the decades was one incident of engine failure. They do not consider it a real emergency, because they landed safely in cow pasture.
“The off airport landing was the only thing I ever had. I was not scared at all. We didn’t even hit a cow patty in the pasture,” he said. “We had a minor oil leak ... when I looked up the windshield was already covered with oil. We flew about six or seven minutes and we were losing altitude rapidly. The engine didn’t quit completely, it was slowing down because it was hot.”
They built a small fence around the plane to keep the cows away and hitched a ride back to the Pryor Airport. Egbert said when he approached the owner of the property to ask permission to keep the plane on the property for a couple of days, she was more than happy to help.
To get the plane back to the airport, Egbert had to borrow an engine.
"That was the scary part,” he said.
Over the years, he has done an engine overhaul and recovered the fabric on his 1989 Aeronca L-3.
“Other than that it is just normal maintenance like you would have on a car” he said.
The year before retiring as the store manager of Homeland Grocery Store in 2011, Egbert spent time building his first experimental plane.
“It is one thing to go buy an airplane that is flying — it is another thing to build an airplane from a sack of aluminum. Even though you have people help you inspect the airplane all through the process, even though you know what the plane is supposed to do, you think, ‘boy did I miss something?” said Egbert.
Six months after retiring, he took his plane on its first flight. Egbert said he loves flying because it is relaxing.
“My mind is totally on flying and the airplane. I do not worry when I fly,” he said.
Egbert said his favorite plane to fly is his 1942 Aeronca L-3, but he also has a 1956 Cessna 172.
When Egbert isn’t flying through the sky, he spends his time volunteering at the Will Rogers Museum and reading books about Will Rogers.