Eric Horton stood on the runway Friday at Casa Grande Municipal Airport, flanked by rows of aircraft — some of them sleek and sporty and others somewhat odd.
Horton, 15, wielded bright, fluorescent-orange batons in each hand Friday morning as buzzing aircraft landed and began to taxi off the runway.
He faced the planes and directed them with broad swoops of a baton to parking spaces at the Copperstate Regional Fly-in, an annual aviation exposition that draws experimental aircraft owners from all over the United States.
“I’m looking to be a pilot,” Horton said. “I was really into flying pretty much my whole life.”
Horton, a home-schooled Scottsdale teenager, was among seven members of the Aviation Explorers who volunteered as marshals and traffic directors at Copperstate.
The Explorers, who have a post at Mesa’s Falcon Field, are youth between 14 and 20 who work with aviation professionals toward earning their pilot’s licenses.
Copperstate runs through Sunday and includes a judged aircraft show and an expo where visitors can get the information and supplies they need to buy, build and then fly their own airplanes.
The event is sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, a national advocacy group for recreational aviation.
Bob Hasson, Copperstate president, said experimental aircraft have become more popular in recent years because the planes are affordable by comparison and lessregulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Hasson, a 63-year-old retired aircraft technician and pilot, said experimental aviators often build their own planes, which can be simple and inexpensive or luxurious and costly.
Even though the practice has gained popularity in recent years, it’s not exactly mainstream.
“If you have a neighbor building an airplane in his garage, you might think his elevator isn’t going to the top floor,” Hasson said.
“But as the price of airplanes went up, the sophistication of experimental airplanes increased rapidly.”
Vendors at Copperstate were selling aircraft that resembled hang gliders with motors attached at costs starting at $17,000.
Others carried price tags of $400,000 or more and were equipped with complicated instruments, satellite navigation systems, leather seats and air conditioning.
The FAA requires new pilots to complete 20 flighthours to obtain a basic pilot’s license.
Hasson said he hoped young people would start flying simpler aircraft as a first step and later work to increase their skills and knowledge on their way to becoming fully experienced pilots.
“We’ve lost a generation already that thinks the airport is only for high-rollers,” he said.
Rich Cutshall, an advisor for the Aviation Explorers and owner of Anzio Landing Italian Restaurant at Falcon Field, said flying offers young people a substitute for activities that might land them in trouble, such as using drugs or alcohol.
“Give kids a focus, give kids a reason not to go down the wrong path,” he said.
Horton said his status as an fledgling aviator often draws the admiration of his friends.
“I get to talk about it a lot,” he said. “It’s something not everybody does.
“So, yeah, it’s pretty cool.”
Copperstate Regional EAA Fly-in
Where: Casa Grande Municipal Airport, 3225 N Pinal Ave, Casa Grande
When:8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.