Nov. 26—Several people gathered at River Valley Church recently to remember longtime pilot and local teacher Leslie "Les" A. Sanders, who died in September at the age of 79.
Sanders is credited with getting the C.O.R.E. Aerospace STEM Academy in Marysville, part of C.O.R.E. Charter Academy, up and running. The program offers courses in flight simulation, model aeronautic aviation and more to students in fifth through 12th grades at the Sutter County Airport. Sanders taught introduction to aerospace for many years, where he talked about the history of flight as well as flight simulation.
Chris Mahurin, executive director of C.O.R.E Charter School in Marysville, said after just one meeting with Sanders, he knew the vision about aviation education presented to him during that initial meeting was going somewhere.
"Les' vision created the potential for aviation education, the countless opportunities for students and the local resources available to support it," said Mahurin. "He offered to teach a class, intro to aerospace, and after Les assured me that the students would not be flying airplanes, that they would remain on the ground — I wasn't ready for that — we added it to our schedule. Sure, let's give it a try."
Mahurin said that even by teaching just a single class, it was clear the difference Sanders was making in the lives of his students.
"It was evident to students that Mr. Sanders had a passion for aviation and that he genuinely wanted to share that with them," said Mahurin.
Through the years, Mahurin said many students that participated in the academy shared fond memories or words of gratitude for Sanders, from helicopter rides to a field trip to air traffic control or the Aerospace Museum. According to Mahurin, Sanders went out of his way to help his students, by scheduling guest speakers, coordinating field trips, connecting them with the Young Eagles program and even helping them to get jobs.
"Students knew he was there for them," said Mahurin. "They could feel it in his kind manner and they could see it in his efforts."
Sanders' love of aviation stemmed back to his early years in the military when he entertained the idea of becoming a pilot.
Upon graduation from high school, Sanders joined the United States Army Special Forces branch but he did not become a pilot at that time due to family obligations. Instead, Sanders served in Vietnam as a paratrooper, spending his early years jumping out of planes — not flying them. It wasn't until 1965 that Sanders received his pilot's license. After that, Sanders logged more than 6,000 hours of flight.
After getting honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant (E-5) after his tour of duty in the 1960s, Sanders worked part-time as a flight instructor while also working as regional manager for Hertz Heavy Equipment Rental. When he retired at the age of 65, Sanders took up flying full-time.
"A friend, mentor and instructor to many aviators and teachers, Les was always ready to help in any way possible," read his obituary. "Les was not afraid of hard work and the effort it took to achieve the various ratings and pilot licenses and provide encouragement to others to realize their goals."
Mahurin said the Northern California Aerospace Initiative — a nonprofit organization with the mission of sustaining and promoting aeronautical pathways in the Northern California region — was formed in 2014 after Sanders coordinated several exploratory meetings at Yuba County Airport with pilots, local educators, college administrators, military personnel, airport managers to collaborate on a shared vision for opportunities in aviation. Since Sanders' death, the organization has organized a memorial scholarship in his name.
Donations can be made to the Les Sanders Memorial Scholarship by mail to: Northern California Aerospace Initiative (NCAI), P.O. BOX 2083, Marysville, CA 95901; or online on the Les Sanders Memorial Scholarship Fund Facebook page.
"For Les the sky was not the limit, and his tremendous impact on raising up the next generation of pilots and many other aerospace related industry experts, will never be forgotten," read a statement on the fundraiser page.
The Les Sanders Memorial Scholarship Fund will be available for students applying for the Northern California Aerospace Initiative in 2022.
For more information, visit www.norcalaerospace.org.