QUESTION: Give us a broad sense of what you see as the state of EAA heading into AirVenture 2014?
ANSWER: EAA, as an association, is in a really good place. We’re financially secure, our membership has stayed very strong so we’re not seeing deterioration like other associations have, so that’s very, very positive. I think people are pleased with the work we’re doing from an advocacy standpoint. That’s one of the most important elements of why someone is a member of EAA. … I feel very good saying that, as we sit here today, the organization is stable, we’re financially in good shape for an association, and our membership is strong.
Q: EAA has been without a president/CEO for almost two years. Have you accepted the job on a permanent basis? Is there actually a search going on?
A: We are not searching for a CEO. The board has come to a place where we said that we were going to go with the model that we implemented almost two years ago which is a hands-on, active chairman, which is me, for what was initially a three-year term. During this three-year term, we are not in any active search to find somebody. We’re going to have a chairman-run model. And then it’s renewable for another three (years), which we still have another year to go before we decide whether I will accept that or whether they’ll want me to do that. I serve at the will of the board.
Q: Have you enjoyed the role?
A: Oh, absolutely. When I first took this role, people understood my involvement with EAA from being a child of a member of Chapter 1, my father out in Southern California, so I’ve grown up in EAA forever and it’s what got me into aviation. A big part of this, for me, has been all about making sure EAA stays strong and viable and my ability, being retired, to give back to EAA.
Q: This will be the first AirVenture without founder Paul Poberezny. What did Paul mean to you, personally and as someone involved in the founding of AirVenture and EAA?
A: Paul, for me personally, it’s more than Paul being part of EAA and AirVenture. Paul was truly a legend in our industry when you go back and look at what he originally conceived and envisioned in establishing the Experimental Aircraft Association. Paul started with a group of folks and thought there was an opportunity to create a new area of aviation called “experimental,” which would give people the ability to build and fly their own airplane and enjoy the freedom under the existing aviation/airspace structure. You fast forward to 2013, through his life, and what those of us have been involved in aviation and general aviation have found is that he essentially created what has held up general aviation and been the growth driver probably for the last 10 years. … You look at general aviation and say “This guy was an incredible visionary in that general aviation and recreational aviation as we know it in the United States today is being dominated by experimental, kit-built, homebuilt airplanes by volume. They’re being made and flown more than your Cessnas and your Pipers and your Beechcrafts. I hold Paul in a completely different view than maybe others might who are just members of EAA. I view him as someone who has made an incredible difference in the landscape of general aviation in this country.
Q: How was EAA able to secure the Thunderbirds performances this year when, in the past, there was not enough airspace to perform?
A: We’ve always known it would require a larger, expanded aerobatic box. In the past, the issue was if it was worth the hassle to increase the box size to bring that team here or kind of the question of do we really want to bother? This year, we took an approach that we were willing to take the effort on to expand the aerobatic box because we do know our biggest challenge in bringing young people into aviation is what is that attraction that will bring them here? The data shows that wherever the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels perform, you do bring a lot of non-aviation families to those events. They gravitate to that event to see these world-class performances and that gets the kids out there. We’re taking a little bit of a flyer this year to … bring them here and see if we can attract and add to our demographics of our current, strong supporters, but to also bring in more young folks and more families and get them interested in aviation.
Q: How do you feel the new approach to food service on the grounds worked out last year?
A: Last year, it was probably one of the areas that had me the most concerned and nervous in that we made a significant changeover from how we’ve done it in the past. But we recognized people want more choices and diversity and better price points, so we went and did it. And you could not have asked for a better success story. The number of vendors we brought in, their ability to execute during the show and keep the crowds happy and the lines down as best as we could, I think it went very well. We know there were some things that didn’t go as well as we would have liked to, so we made some refinements. There are some new vendors coming and some others that aren’t coming back, but for the most part, it’s like 90 percent the same as last year.
Q: Some of the tension between the groups that celebrate aviation during AirVenture seemed to have died down last year. How has the organization been able to balance the competing demands of the convention’s attendees?
A: Last year, we did take a big step back and kind of reassess what got us to where we have been. A lot of that goes back to Paul’s basic philosophies of AirVenture, for it to be the unique experience that it is, you have communities within this giant convention, and you need to be able to have these communities have their space, their time and be their own communities and let them operate within the overall event. … Another guiding principle that we also really reassessed and worked hard on is the volunteers. This event cannot happen without the volunteers. … So last year we took a step back and said we need to really re-engage ourselves as to how we’re going to work with volunteers. I think you’re going to see it even better this year. We’ve spent another full year of monthly phone calls with volunteer chairs, getting the engagement of the volunteers back, listening to them and incorporating what they would like to see happen because this is their show.
Q: The city of Oshkosh continues to develop an aviation business park on the other side of Runway 18/36. Do you see a role for EAA in attracting businesses or building up the industry here in Oshkosh? How can the community be more effective in building that from the ground up?
A: There is an opportunity here and EAA’s going to be a part of it. We are part of the monthly committee that meets, the Oshkosh Airport Development group. We’re engaged. We’re involved. But we don’t know how we fit yet other than recognizing we need to be supporters because we’re all in this together. As it evolves, we’ll see where we fit. … At a minimum, we have a pretty good Rolodex of aviation companies that participate here. … Part of the challenge is going to be figuring out what our Fox Valley-Oshkosh-Winnebago County compelling story is to bring businesses and companies here to this facility. We have to get crystal-clear on what the competitive advantage is that we can go out and promote to someone. … You’ve got to have that ironclad story and know what the industry is looking for.
Q: Young Eagles is celebrating 22 years this year. How effective do you think the program has been in getting younger generations into aviation careers? Is the Pathways Pavilion an extension of that effort?
A: In 22 years, I cannot see anywhere else in this country that has done as much as the Young Eagles has done to expose young kids to the freedom of flight and the opportunity of what aviation might bring them. And yet, in that 22 years of us doing that, we know we have so much more that we need to do to evolve the program. We’re working on that today. We’ve got a great, engaged group of chapters across the United States that are flying millions of kids. We have the follow-ing of kids who are of the right age are able to take a free ground school course to get them at least through their private pilot exam. Now we’re looking at what more we need to do as far as taking this to what I’ll call a further level of granularity. … We’re trying to bridge the gap and collaborate with other groups that can keep people engaged through that process.
Q: There’s been growing attention on space exploration thanks to Curiosity, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” the discovery of exoplanets and so forth. Does EAA intend to build on its space-focused programming going forward?
A: This year, one of our theme days will be space. We’re having some speakers coming in. We’ve got ATK in our college park/youth area. … As the private space movement also continues to build some momentum, we hope in the coming years we’ll see more and more of that and have that be a “node” besides Warbirds and Vintage. We hope space can be a big piece of it. The last few years have been what I’ll call dark years for the government and NASA. They’re not exposing what they’re doing. There’s a lot of stuff going on that we don’t all know about. … The interesting thing to me is the whole science of how that’s happening is going to be something that will interest a lot of young people. Physically, can a human being survive in that atmosphere because it’s so different from going to the moon? How are they thinking about it? How are they planning it? I don’t know if we could ever repeat the Kennedy ‘Man on the Moon’ challenge, but Mars could get you pretty excited. I hope that, at some point, we’ll get to where that becomes one of the higher headline items: Aspirational, exciting visions for the world.
Q: There’s always a lot going on during the week of AirVenture. What are Jack Pelton’s personal, can’t-miss events, gatherings or presentations?
A: There’s a new one this year that I’m excited about that’s getting a little bit of groundswell which is our Wednesday, Redbird Flying Challenge. This is an event where Redbird Simulator Company has got this scenario they’ve pushed out and encouraged people to participate in a contest to see who can be the most proficient at flying that scenario. The top point-getters will be invited to Oshkosh to, on our center stage, have a fly-off competition on these simulators and a champion will be named. It’s can’t miss. It’ll be interesting to see who the overall point-getter is. Is it a 13-year-old woman from Slovenia and the loser’s a five-star general in the Air Force who flies for a living? The reason I’m excited is this is going to be another avenue to get people interested in aviation without the hard costs of going to an airport and renting an airplane. … This is the year we’re also going to pay tribute to Paul and his legacy. Everything we’re doing is kind of a reflection back on the history of the organization. We’re going to build a homebuilt airplane in one week. I think that’s a can’t miss. It’s iconic for showing the roots of EAA.
Jeff Bollier: (920) 426-6688 or email@example.com; on Twitter: @streetwiseosh.