They say that a hero is a man every woman wants-and every man wants to be.
If that’s true, then Harrison Ford’s career has followed a hero’s path for the past three decades-from the young stud in American Graffiti (1973) to Han Solo and Indiana Jones in the ’70s and ’80s, to doctors, lawyers, and the President of the United States in 1997′s Air Force One. In 1998, at age 56, he was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive”-a boost for middle-aged folks everywhere. Ford’s two oldest sons, Benjamin and Willard, are in their 30s, and Willard has a son, Eliel, making Ford one of the sexiest granddads alive, too.
Perhaps the nicest thing about Harrison Ford, though, is that he’s a real-life role model for Boomers. Unassuming and private, Ford spends as much time as he can on his ranch in Jackson, Wyo.-he built the house himself-and actively supports environmental causes. He’s also a passionate pilot who works with local air rescue teams, and he shares his love for flying with young people through his membership in-and now chairmanship of- the Young Eagles program sponsored by the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA).
Ford took some flying lessons as a young man, but he didn’t earn his private pilot’s license until 1996. In the 1997 film Six Days, Seven Nights he even did much of his own flying-undoubtedly panicking the film’s insurers-and subsequently acquired the classic airplane, a DeHavilland Beaver, featured in the film. He’s also owned a Beech A-36 Bonanza, a Cessna Grand Caravan, an Aviate Husky, a Gulfstream IV, and a Bell 407 helicopter.
As a helicopter pilot, he’s aided the local Jackson police in search-and-rescue missions, leading to a notable quote by one starstruck but airsick stranded hiker: “I can’t believe I barfed in Harrison Ford’s helicopter.” He also rescued a lost Boy Scout, Cody Clawson, who’d spent a shivering night in the woods. Ford avoids interviews about his rescue work, but, according to the boy’s mother, “Cody got a hug and a handshake, and that’s better than an autograph.”
“I didn’t come to flying until late in life,” Ford says, “but nothing has given me as much satisfaction and renewed my intellectual interests as much as learning to fly and continuing to build on the skills that flying requires.” It also suits his desire to be taken on his own terms. As Ford once said, “The fraternity of aviators cares little for other trappings. They welcome you because of a shared interest and judge you on your flying skills.”
Children, and the future of the next generations, are another passion of Ford’s, who in addition to his two older sons has two teenagers, Malcolm and Georgia. He reportedly turned down the lead role in the film The Patriot, ultimately played by Mel Gibson, because he deemed it “too violent,” with many children shown killed and injured.
Several years ago, when heading to his home airfield in Jackson for a joyride, Ford happened upon an EAA Young Eagles rally-an event where local EAA Chapter members invite youngsters to the airport for free flights. He brought out his own airplane and joined in, and has continued to quietly fly young people who express interest in learning more about aviation. To date, Ford has flown about 200 of these Young Eagle “missions.”
The Young Eagles program got its start as part of a 10-year buildup to the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Its goal, to introduce a million young people to flying by the December 2003 anniversary, was reached a month early. The first chairman of the program, actor and pilot Cliff Robertson, served a two-year term and was succeeded by famous aviator Gen. Chuck Yeager, who still participates as Chairman Emeritus.
According to Young Eagles director Steve Buss, Harrison Ford was “the absolute top of the list to be the next chair, and he said, yes, right away.” At the time, Ford said, “I’m honored, and a little bit daunted, by stepping into General Yeager’s shoes, but I’m sure that with the leadership of EAA I’ll be able to step up to the plate.” The program’s ongoing target is to fly 100,000 young people a year.
“What’s especially satisfying to me about aviation- about flying-is the blend of freedom and responsibility,” says Ford. “The responsibility for your safety and for the people you fly goes hand in hand with the great freedom of flying. I think that’s a wonderful lesson for kids these days to learn, that freedom has at its basis the notion of responsibility-for yourself and for others. I hope that’s one of the things kids will gain exposure to through Young Eagles. It’s exciting to think about having great freedom when you’re young, but then you need to take disciplined steps to assume responsibility for that freedom.”
SPREADING YOUR WINGS
An introduction to the Young Eagles program could create lifelong memories for grandchildren. The program is designed to expose children to the exhilarating experience of flying and expand their horizons. Since the program’s inception in 1992, more than 35,000 Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) members, and another 50,000 “ground supporters,” have volunteered their time and aircraft to fly more than 1.1 million children, on six continents. The average flight is 20 minutes.
To become a Young Eagle, children must be between 8 and 17 years old. The most common source of Young Eagle flight opportunities is a Young Eagles rally sponsored by your local EAA chapter. Since members fly everything from standard single-engine piston aircraft to home-builts, restored antiques, and “warbirds” (retired military aircraft), any EAA rally is a splendid sight for the whole family. Most chapters run at least one rally a year. Children can also sign up for Young Eagles via the organization’s Web site, www.youngeagles.org (e-mail: email@example.com), to be matched with a participating local pilot. To locate an EAA chapter near you, call 800-236-4800, ext. 4876, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in GRAND Magazine FEBRUARY/MARCH 2005