GARY | Strong winds swept across the tarmac at the Gary/Chicago International Airport on Saturday as 15 students from Chicago’s Air Force Academy High School boarded small airplanes.

Nearly half the teens, including freshmen Diego Perez, 14, experienced their first ride in an airplane.

Perez was also one of five teens who got an opportunity to fly the plane by himself for a few moments.

“I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was 9 years old,” he said.

The young aviators are part of After School Matters’ AeroStars Aviation Exploration program at Chicago’s Air Force Academy High School.

Teens in the program experience real-world practical applications of science and work on projects to discover the rich history of aviation. They also perform various hands-on experiments and activities, from building kites and model airplanes to flying flight simulators and designing their own airports.

The teens could choose careers as pilots, aerospace engineers, airport managers and aviation mechanics, said Tammera L. Holmes, president/CEO of AeroStar, who runs the aviation program at the high school.

Maggie Daley, the late wife of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, started the After School Matters program two decades ago. The program now includes science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Holmes is a graduate of the After School Matters program and the Young Eagles Flights program that took the teens on their airplane rides.

“We want to bring more girls into the field of aviation,” Holmes said.

Dressed in their blue Junior ROTC Air Force uniforms, the AeroStars students met at the Gary airport with the Chicago Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. Pilots from Northwest Indiana and Chicago volunteered to take the students up in their planes as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles Flights program that started in 1993.

“We’ve flown over 14,000 kids since we joined (the national program). Today I may reach 500 kids I’ve taken up,” said Marvin Robinson, a Gary resident who flies out of the Griffith Airport and is part of area’s EAA Young Eagles Flights program.

“We offer the EAA Young Eagles program here on the second Saturday of every month depending on the weather,” he said.

Robinson took the first group of three AeroStars up in his Piper Warrior airplane, which flies at 145 mph.

The 20-minute flight took the young aviators — Perez, Sophia Espinoza, 14, and Elijah McDaniel, 14 — south past Crown Point and back again.

Eyes wide and pumped up by their experience, the teens returned to the airport to receive goodie bags full of information about aviation, a set of wings to pin on their uniforms and a log book. Their first flight was recorded in the log book and enables them to take a free online ground private pilot course.

“Everything we’re doing today is for the kids,” Robinson said.

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.