A few months ago, Dan Yates wrapped up another year of blowing off his studies at Anne Arundel County's Broadneck High School, where he was as likely to slip off to a movie theater as he was to attend class.
"Distractions," the 16-year-old said, explaining the failing grades on his report card. "Females. Alcohol, a little bit. Maybe."
Yesterday, however, Yates was at the yoke of a single-engine Cessna, flying 1,500 feet over the Key Bridge and banking toward Baltimore's Inner Harbor. A youngster who'd never been in a plane before -- and who'd said, "The farthest I've ever been off the ground is on a roller coaster," -- was finding direction.
Yates, who now aims for a career in the Navy, was one of about 30 teen-agers who took to the morning sky (misty, with a ceiling of 4,000 feet) yesterday under the guidance of the Maryland Chapter of the Silver Wings, made up of pilots who have at least 25 years of flight experience.
Since 1996, the Silver Wings pilots have teamed up with the Maryland National Guard's Freestate Challenge Academy, sharing their love and knowledge of aviation with high school drop-outs who are determined to do better.
"I read somewhere where it costs $50,000 to incarcerate someone. We can save hundreds of thousands of dollars giving [youngsters] something more exciting than drugs or alcohol," said Bill Almquist, the 79-year-old president of the Silver Wings Maryland chapter.
"The main reason [for the program] is to get these kids to see there's more than working at McDonald's or some menial job that doesn't earn them much of a living," Almquist said.
Almquist, who has been flying for half a century, said he urged older pilots to reach out to young people because it was a better use of time than sitting around telling "lies" and "bad jokes." Six years ago, the pilots began teaching a short course on aviation to their friends' children and grandchildren. Three years ago, they joined forces with the Freestate Challenge Academy.
The academy, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, is a 22-week voluntary program designed to straighten out the lives of troubled youngsters from throughout Maryland and Washington. High school equivalency classes, citizenship and physical fitness are taught in an atmosphere of military discipline.
"It's up at 5: 30, in bed at 9: 30. They're moving 16 hours a day," said Vernon A. Sevier, a retired Air Force colonel who directs the academy.
Sevier said the Silver Wings program is one of the most popular electives at his academy. He describes its value: "Just exposing young people to all that's out there in the world -- there's something better in life than hanging on the street corner."
The Silver Wings program runs for four Saturdays. The first week, the students are led to the tarmac at Martin State Airport, where a pilot explains the parts of the aircraft, inside and out. The second session is spent in a classroom, learning about maps and navigation.
The students fly on a simulator in Week 3. During the fourth and final session, the students go up in planes.
Yesterday, the students, dressed in blue fatigues, marched from their bus to the base of the Martin Airport control tower. There was Robert Stewart, a wiry 18-year-old whose lackluster stint at Loch Raven High ended after he got into a fight. He's now set to join the Marines after he graduates from the Freestate program.
There was Karl Shehan, 17, who remembers his days at Anne Arundel County's Northeast High School this way: "I'd walk into school, walk right out of school and go to my friend's house and sleep." He now plans to join the Navy.
There was Morris Monger, 19, who dropped out of his junior year at Annapolis High School in February, but who flew yesterday with Sevier. Afterward, he said, "I felt my stomach go up in my chest" during the landing.
'Kind of scary'
When it was Yates' turn to fly, he climbed into the co-pilot's seat of the Cessna 172. Jim Cooke, 62, a retired investment counselor from Towson who years ago flew in the West Virginia and Maryland Air National Guards, taxied to the runway, then took off over Middle River.
At 1,500 feet, heading south above the Chesapeake Bay, Cooke handed the controls to his young co-pilot, who summed up the feeling: "Kind of scary. Nervous."
He flew down the bay and up the mouth of the Patapsco. Cooke took over above downtown Baltimore. Yates flew past TV Hill and over Towson.
After about half an hour, Cooke landed the plane at Martin.
Freestate student LaToya Smith, 16, of Greenbelt, was already on the ground. She'd been moved to tears by the sky-high view of city buildings, suburban golf courses and Saturday yard sales.
"It's beautiful up there, but it's a bit scary, like 'Oh, Lord, I'm going to die,' " she said. "But after a while, you get the hang of things. You just float."
Yates' comment upon reaching the ground: "I'm speechless."
Still, he rushed to a pay phone to call the grandmother who had raised him.
His grandmother, Gail Yates, can't say enough about the way the Freestate program has changed Yates. Of yesterday's flight, she said, "Flying a plane is just another steppingstone in bettering his life.
"Here he doesn't even have a driver's license yet," she said, "and he's co-piloted an airplane."