Lisa Fusano never thought she’d be where she is today — a pilot with her own plane, giving more than 200 kids the opportunity to soar through the skies.
She’s able to do this as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program, which allows children between the ages of 8 and 17 to experience their first free ride in an airplane.
Fusano said after she’d been a single mom for about 10 years, struggling to provide for her children, she found an inspiration that changed everything for her.
“The Lord found me, and turned my life around,” she said. “To go from that to being able to own a plane and fly kids is amazing.”
She had always been fascinated with planes, since her father, a WWII veteran who also later worked on planes for Lockheed Martin, helped foster her fascination with the aviation world.
“My dad never was a pilot, but always wanted to be,” she said. “He inspired me, and said, ‘I never got my pilot license, so I want you to.’”
Fusano began her aviation journey back in 2005, when she got the chance to sit in the cockpit of a six-seat floatplane on a vacation in Alaska with her husband.
“That was it, I was bitten — I had the bug,” she said, and she then began the long road to becoming a pilot.
Now, she flies children every month through the Young Eagles program, which was created in July 1992 in an effort to introduce a new generation to the world of flight, according to Dick Knapinski, director of communications.
Their goal was to fly 1 million kids and introduce them to aviation by the centennial of the Wright brother’s flight in 2003, he added.
“Everybody thought we were completely nuts, because no way are you going to find people to volunteer their time, their airplanes, the fuel to fly a million kids,” Knapinski said.
Yet, since then, the program has been able to fly nearly 2.2 million young people worldwide with the help of more than 50,000 pilots, in anything from a hot air balloon to a corporate jet, he added.
In fact, there are more than 20,000 licensed pilots in the U.S. today, under age 40, who got their start with that Young Eagles flight, according to Knapinski.
Fusano first began taking flight classes and then joined the San Fernando Valley Ninety-Nines, a women pilots organization created by Amelia Earhart, which helped her to begin applying for scholarships. Through this she was able to get more than half of her flight training paid for.
In 2014, she was finally able to get her private pilot’s license, and she couldn’t wait to fly her father, who was 91 at the time.
“He was my first passenger, and he just had a blast flying with me,” Fusano said.
While in flight training, she joined the EAA and already knew she wanted to become a part of the Young Eagles program. Fusano said she was excited to fly with children shortly after getting her license.
“I just love flying the kids,” she said, smiling broadly, her enthusiasm clearly written on her face. “I love seeing the excitement on their faces — they’re just ecstatic. We get to let them feel what it feels like to move the controls, so we get to let them turn right, turn left, and they just light up.”
If Fusano doesn’t have any other commitments, she’ll get there early and fly late. Some days, she’ll even fly 20 kids in a day.
“When I applied for my scholarships, I knew in my essays I was going to be talking about what I was going to do when I got my pilot’s license, and I knew right away I was going to help kids be exposed to aviation — it’s just a way to give back,” she added.
Though Fusano loves flying every kid she can, she said she really thrives on flying kids with special needs, like her daughter, Charity.
“One of my most memorable flights is flying my girl, I’ve flown her all the way to Red Bluff, California — she loved it,” she said.
Every June, Fusano also flies kids who are in Camp Chesed, a Los Angeles-based camp for Jewish children with special needs.
“When kids come to the airport, if there’s anyone with a disability, I fly them,” she said.
Fusano also is a part of Aviation Explorer Post 747, which is a nonprofit open to young men and women, ages 14 to 21, who have an interest in aviation.
The program not only helps to give those looking to pursue their license extra instruction and exposes them to various guest speakers in the aviation field, but also helps to give them scholarships to help pay for flight training.
“We like to support them,” she said. “We show up when they solo if we can, we show up when they get their private pilot’s license.”
Fusano is now working towards getting her ground instructor certificate, so she can help out with teaching, but she continues to fly kids from near and far, including quite a few from right here in the Santa Clarita Valley.
“We fly right over Santa Clarita,” she added. “I like to ask the kids, ‘What’s better than going to Magic Mountain? — flying over Magic Mountain!’”
The Young Eagles program gives participants a chance to experience a free airplane ride and an introduction into the safety operations of airplanes, as well as the basic principles of aviation. After the flight, participants receive a certificate, along with a way to continue their aviation experience if they so choose.
“There are pathways for them after that first flight,” Knapinski said. “The young person becomes an EAA member, and they also receive the possibility to go onto an online pilot course. We want to give them that opportunity, the information and the resources where they can start to step forward and do that if they wanted.”
The course, which is offered through Sporty’s Pilot Shops, gives them the learning tools they need to take the FAA written test for pilots, Knapinski added.
Fusano bought her plane, 5424J, which she calls Julie after her first granddaughter, in July 2014.
Since then, she has went on to get her instrument rating in 2017, and should be getting her commercial rating by the end of the year with the goal of becoming a certificated flight instructor.
“I want to teach kids how to fly,” she said. “When people get out of my plane, they’ve pretty much had a lesson.”
She has nearly 800 hours of flight time, and has flown more than 200 kids through the Young Eagles program with even more otherwise.
“When you start flying 100, 200, 300 kids, that puts you in the top 10% of the pilots in the program right there,” Knapinski said.
Any child is eligible to participate in the Young Eagles program, and anyone 18 and over can also participate in the EAA’s Eagle Flights program, according to the EAA.
The Young Eagles program meets at 10 a.m. every fourth Saturday of the month at Whiteman Airport, located at 12653 Osborne St. in Pacoima. For more information, visit youngeagles.org.