By Samantha Olson, EAA 797800, Young Eagles Program Assistant
As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the EAA Young Eagles program, there are countless pilots and families to thank for our success. Our dedicated ground volunteers and volunteer pilots are the sole reason for the program’s success.
Jesse Bell, EAA 91428, of Roopville, Georgia, is a perfect example of what our program is about. Jesse and his late wife, Doris, started volunteering with their home EAA Chapter 976 in 1992. Jesse was a volunteer pilot who flew his first Young Eagle on August 8, 1992, and would continue on to fly over 300 Young Eagles over the next 14 years. Jesse and Doris were a dynamic duo running the Young Eagles rallies for EAA Chapter 976 for several years, with Doris collecting the paperwork and Jesse flying the youths.
Like most pilots, Jesse was bitten by the aviation bug at a young age. He was given the chance to go up in the air back when he was only 10 years old. When in the air, the pilot turned over the stick to Jesse, and in that moment, there was no going back. His love of aviation would lead him to Brookley Field in Mobile, Alabama, where he got his first job as a mechanic. A year later, U.S. involvement in World War II led Jesse to join the Navy in February 1944 with hopes to be a naval fighter pilot. Unfortunately, the aviation training schools closed before he got the chance to learn to fly, so Jesse found himself stationed on the USS Case (DD-370) destroyer.
Once WWII was over, Jesse returned to his home in Roopville and began working for Lockheed as a flight line mechanic in 1952. Jesse ran all of the ground checks on the airplanes that came of Lockheed, from C-130s to the smaller JetStar. He eventually moved to Executive Flight and traveled with delivery airplanes.
In the same year, shortly after he started working at Lockheed, Jesse pursued his childhood dream by getting his pilot certificate. He found a flying club in Carrollton that consisted of four guys who owned a J-3 Cub, which is how he would come to buy one quarter of his first airplane. In this club, he found a flight instructor to teach him how to fly on the weekends on a little grass strip outside of Carrollton. He was taught how to fly in exchange for only a steak dinner. Throughout his career as a pilot, Jesse went on to own nine different airplanes, including an Aeronca Champ and three Cessna 172s.
Aviation is a large part of Jesse’s life, and he knows what the influence of showing kids the possibilities of being in the air can do, so he and Doris wanted to do all they could to support Young Eagles from the program’s very beginning. Being avid EAA fly-in attendees, Jesse and Doris attended EAA Oshkosh 1992, and went back home to Chapter 976 and hit the ground running with the newly announced Young Eagles program. The pair became a crucial key to the chapter’s Young Eagles success for many years, with Jesse himself flying 343 Young Eagles. Jesse officially retired from flying at the young age of 84 years old, after 59 years as a pilot. He still gets up in the air every now and then when his son Don flies down from South Carolina to visit.
On April 15, 2017, Jesse Bell was awarded both the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which is awarded for more than 50 years of safe flight operations exceeding 3,200 hours, as well as the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award for more than 50 years of safe maintenance operations. These two awards are considered to be the highest honors awarded by the FAA to pilots and maintenance technicians certified under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Jesse was the first person to be awarded both awards in west Georgia and the third in the state of Georgia.
Jesse’s love for aviation lit a spark in his son Don, as well as his grandkids Curtis and Tonya. Tonya Breedlove (Bell) went on to earn her private pilot certificate with her taildragger endorsement to continue her love for aviation. Cutis Bell became a successful commercial pilot who loved flying T-6s. Aviation became the passion that would bring the Bell family together, all because of a discovery flight for a 10-year-old Jesse Bell over 80 years ago.
In November 2021, Jesse’s daughter, Kay Bell Arnold, reached out to the Young Eagles department here at EAA asking for a replacement Young Eagles pilot jacket. For his 96th birthday on February 15, he received a new jacket and Flight Leader hat to show our appreciation for Jesse and his late wife Doris, as well as the rest of their family.
Pilots like Jesse are the reason the Young Eagles program is such a success. With over 2.2 million Young Eagles to date, inspiring youths early on and fueling their dreams of aviation is what we aim to do here at EAA. The Young Eagles program makes it easier and more accessible for kids 8 through 17 years of age to learn to fly and experience the beautiful world from the sky.
If you’d like to get involved with the program, you can visit EAA.org/YoungEagles, or send us an email at YEagles@eaa.org.