by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – Dec 2016/Jan 2017
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chairman and CEO Jack Pelton at EAA headquarters at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and get a briefing on where the organization is leadership-wise, program-wise and financially. EAA Director of Communications Dick Knapinski joined us.
I have known Jack since he was at the helm of Cessna Aircraft, and know him as a straight-up/no non-sense/intelligent/fun-loving general aviation pilot and aircraft owner. I have also known and worked with Jack’s predecessors at EAA, beginning with Paul Poberezny when he invited Peggy and I to the old Hales Corners, Wisconsin museum and offices when we first started publishing the magazine in 1978; his son, Tom Poberezny; and Rod Hightower.
Each time the leadership torch has been passed since EAA was founded in the basement of Paul’s home in 1953, the organization went through some adjustments, but continued to serve its members with representation, a world-class museum, and the largest general aviation fly-in and air show in the world – EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
I began our conversation on October 6, 2016, by saying to Jack that a lot of people know him as the current EAA Chairman & CEO, and the former President, Chairman & CEO of Cessna Aircraft, but few people know his background prior to joining Cessna. He proceeded to share with me how he got to where he is today:
JACK: At a very young age, I started working for Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, California, where I was from. I worked there for over 20 years, went to Munich, Germany with Dornier aircraft, then got recruited by Cessna. I’ve been flying since I was a little kid. My dad had a Cessna 140A, so I was in the right seat of that since I could barely walk. I have been one-dimensional. People often ask me, “Have you ever thought about taking a different career,” and I tell them, nope…I wouldn’t know what to do.
DAVE: How many and what types of aircraft do you personally own, and which airplane is your favorite and why?
JACK: I have owned various types over the years, but currently, I have a Stearman that was my retirement present from my wife. That was because the airport where I keep my aircraft is Stearman Field in Wichita, Kansas, and all my buddies have Stearmans. My goal when I retired was to hang out with them because they barnstormed around during the day, and thought this was going to be my life. That lasted about a year.
I have a Ryan PT 22, which is historically significant in that it is the plane my father got his wings in the Army Air Corps at Sequoia Field in Visalia, California. So, my son is named “Ryan.” That plane has significant history in our family.
I have a Cessna 195, which was owned by Dwane Wallace, who was Clyde Cessna’s nephew, who ran Cessna from the ‘30s up to 1975. The aircraft had been parked, and his widow and the family didn’t want to keep it, so we finagled a deal to get it back to Oshkosh where he had won the Bronze Lindy in 1987. I won the same award in 2007. I also own a Cessna 414 – I’ll call it my SUV or station wagon for transportation – and my wife has the first 162 Skycatcher that was ever produced.
DAVE: How many Skycatchers were produced?
JACK: I want to say the number was around 300. They still have 80 of them in various versions that are incomplete, but they don’t want to continue delivering any of them.
DAVE: I really commend you for getting GA airplanes back in production. That was a good effort. I remember here at Oshkosh that there was quite a backlog of orders.
JACK: We had a thousand orders.
DAVE: My gosh!
JACK: In a way as things down turned, the corporation did not like the low margin business. They wanted everything to have Citation-like margins.
I viewed it differently. I viewed it as an ecosystem, where you get people into your brand when they start taking flying lessons. Then someday when they become successful, and are working for a company or own a business themselves, you are going to be the brand of choice. And there were many stories like that. The guy comes back and says that his boss wants to buy a jet and I’m taking him to Cessna, because I learned to fly in a Cessna 172 or 152. It is just a tough market and business to be in nowadays.
DAVE: What do you like best about being EAA Chairman and CEO?
JACK: I think it is an opportunity to do something to give back. While I am a compensated employee and prior to that, a volunteer for many years, I needed to figure out the right thing where I could get involved where I had a passion. It was always with EAA, whether it was on the grounds, or wherever. They had some issues I thought I had some skills I could help them get through. I just wanted to make sure the legacy of EAA continued, and I could be a small piece of that history.
DAVE: Do you think the majority of EAA members realize the role you played, and how you stepped in and really helped out at a time in need, or do you think that members are just glad the organization is still around, and really don’t care about the specifics?
JACK: I don’t think they understand or know. Some might, but I think it is more like being the guy after Bear Bryant (longtime head coach of the University of Alabama football team). There is a history here that clearly Paul and Tom have created and established, and I recognize that my duty is to preserve and keep that going. It is not about me, or whether the members care. It is more about making sure EAA is delivering on what they were used to and expect. I could be like the New Orleans Saints guy and have a paper bag over my head, and so long as I get the job done and preserve that, that’s the important piece of the whole puzzle. That’s the fun part of it, and seeing things going along well is very, very gratifying.
DAVE: What do you like least about being EAA Chairman and CEO?
JACK: I don’t have any downsides, or otherwise I just wouldn’t do it. Oh, there are the little things that certainly anyone reading this could really care less about, like going to too many meetings…those sort of things. But all the rest of it, we’re doing great things. So long as I continue to make a difference, I should wake up every day excited and energized to go to work or go find something else to do. At least I’ve always lived by that rule and will continue to do so.
DAVE: As a fellow EAA member, it appeared that EAA was doing well for years under the leadership of Paul and Tom Poberezny, and then following Tom’s abrupt departure on July 26, 2011, everything seemed to be in disarray – morale was at an all-time low among staff, longtime staff members were resigning or getting fired, volunteers no longer felt appreciated and were not returning to AirVenture, and EAA was hurting financially. Then you volunteered to become chairman, identified problem areas, and seemingly got the house back in order. Does that sum things up accurately, Jack, and if so, what are you doing differently than your predecessors to build EAA?
JACK: I think the way you are characterizing this is probably a good outside perspective. I think from an inside perspective, I think there was this ugly thing called leadership transition that would have to occur in some way or somehow, and that means you had to bring in somebody at some point to allow Tom to retire. You said his abrupt departure…well he was in a transition and outwardly it did look like he just upped and quit. What basically happened was that they just had a terrible transition, the wrong chemistry, the wrong mix, they picked the wrong guy to replace him, and it just didn’t go well, and I think for both parties. Tom said, I’m out of here…I can’t put up with any of this, and the board finally said, now what are we going to do?
DAVE: Call Jack!
JACK: Well, I had actually only been on the board for about six months. I had just joined prior to AirVenture and I did not know what was going on because my history and time goes back to Tom. We’re friends. I knew the stress he was under. He was struggling with the transition. He and I talked about it because I was transitioning out of Cessna, too. So what do you do next? How do you do it? But I had no idea internally what decisions were being made.
When you kind of turn the curtain back, you say holy cow! I didn’t know they had laid off all those people. So as a board member, I got up to speed as to what was going on.
The board basically said, well, you are the retired guy with time on your hands…why don’t we make you chairman and you go figure out what to do. So I thought, okay! For three or four months, I will get things kind of organized and go back to flying my Stearman, and life will be good. But I just can’t do things half way. I’m either all in or not.
When you get all in and find out there is a lot that needs to be done, and there’s a lot of great stuff that can be repaired quickly, you kind of get sucked into it. Before you know it, you’re in year number three, and I said to the board, I didn’t really sign up to do this for more than a couple of years. What’s our plan? What’s the next transition plan?
Probably the most difficult period I went through was trying to figure out how we could do this and not have it fall apart again. So we talked about it, thought about the candidates, the people, and they said, well, would you consider staying on and doing it, and I talked to my wife and I think she had the best quote when she said, “You can’t screw this up. You better think long and hard about it because you aren’t going to unplug yourself, and I know that you will not be able to live with letting that happen. You’re just not the kind of guy to say goodbye and let it go back down, so you probably better stay involved.”
DAVE: Do you have a horizon when you plan on departing? You probably don’t have a date figured out.
JACK: I don’t. So we get to the interim period, we get things going good, we get the team built, and they asked me to stay – not on a commitment for any given time. I’m committed, so long as I can stay healthy and maintain a good balance and enjoy coming to work every day. I am not putting any horizon on it.
DAVE: That will put all of us at ease.
JACK: Well, I hope! And we’ve tried finding ways to communicate that.
I’m committed for life. I don’t have an age that at 65, I’m going to quit and do something else. I don’t know, so we’ll see. I’m two weeks from year one, and that’s gone by incredibly fast, and there’s still so much more to learn and do. That’s kind of endless around here, because every July, you start all over again.
So I think the concern about EAA and where it is now, we got the house back in order. I think the morale is better, membership is strong – the numbers are showing that – and financially, we are on good footing. So, it is how you keep the engine going.
DAVE: What has EAA done to convince the general public to invest in GA airports?
JACK: That’s not our strong suit, so we try to partner and collaborate with AOPA and NBAA on those kinds of initiatives. We are so good at getting advocacy things done, but I don’t feel people realize how few resources we have to do that. What we have is literally three people that are full time, doing advocacy work here in Oshkosh, plus one person in Washington. Then we try to reach out and leverage our membership and our chapters for these issues dealing with airports or any other kinds of regulatory reform to get their voices to make our voice sound even larger. It’s worked well. It’s a multiplying effect.
We sit with the other associations and look at what the agenda looks like. Take for example Santa Monica Airport and what’s going on out there. The biggest and loudest and the organization with the most shareholders is NBAA (National Business Aviation Association) because it’s such a heavy business jet organization, with AOPA next that has a very on-purpose airport protection program called the “Airport Support Network.” So when I sit and talk with Mark Baker (AOPA) and Ed Bolen (NBAA), they keep us informed and tell us how we can use our membership to help on these issues. But as far as boots on the ground and financial support, that’s just not specifically in our wheelhouse.
DAVE: Do you have a chapter in Santa Monica?
JACK: We do, and we have several other chapters right in the area.
I came from and learned to fly and did most of my flying in the southern California area, so I know the issues well. Personally, I think Santa Monica is going to be a tough one to win. I think at some point they are going to slowly bleed everyone out of the airport.
I have a friend now who has a hangar there, who has elected to go build a hangar somewhere else because they are not billing him…they’re basically saying, we don’t want you here, and we are going to make it as untenable as possible. So at some point they’re going to say, “Hmmm, nobody wants to be here any more. We are going to turn it into something else.”
DAVE: How long are the grant assurances for Santa Monica?
JACK: I think 2020 is all it is, so it’s not that far away. They’re just going to wear everyone out. That’s basically how I see it happening.
DAVE: And the city has built right up to it?
JACK: Yes. It’s a plateau in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in southern California.
DICK: We were talking the other day about this. Those people who are against the airport should be careful what they wish for, because once it has developed, now you have that much more traffic…that many more people. If their thinking is going to be that they will have an ideal setting…
JACK: No. Capitalism will trump the ideal city because there are too many people who can put large buildings that produce lots of tax revenue for the City of Santa Monica. It has a lot of these things going against it.
But generally, we try to communicate the story of what GA is all about. EAA does a great job through its chapters to beat the drum about how important rural general aviation is and what it is all about. When we got into the privacy of ATC issue recently, that was one of the things we wanted people to understand. That the funding for those airports can go away, and the negative economic impact on a city or community would occur because they would not have the funding to keep the airport going. We work hard on that, but again, that’s a point we need to make people understand. Our associations do work very, very close on all of the issues, and try to bolt together and be a big voice.
DAVE: You knew Mark Baker before he became president of AOPA, right?
JACK: I did. In fact, Mark and I just had a conversation on Saturday, face to face at his fly-in, about Santa Monica and these other issues.
I was in a volunteer role when he got approached about the AOPA position, and he immediately called me and said, “Okay, Jack, you’ve been there about six months. Tell me what’s it like running a membership organization.” We both came out of shareholder/high-margin expectations, with large numbers of employees.
I walked him through it, and said “Mark, you are going to have to get your head on right. You now work for members! Every member has an opinion and every member has a voice, and it is a lot different than employees where you are the voice, and they follow your directions.”
I had done a lot of non-profit work throughout my career, so I was at least familiar with the different types of leadership styles you have to have to work in a non-profit versus a profit corporation. I think that has really helped me because it wasn’t a foreign concept to me. The problem can come when you have someone come in that is going to drive high-profit business principles and high productivity. That’s just not what we are all about.
DAVE: I was concerned about that, too, initially, but Mark has done a marvelous job, and has kept his members first and foremost.
JACK: I felt okay with Mark in that position because he has that one piece of his DNA that is so aviation centric. He is a grassroots kind of guy on his personal/private side. His whole private life was aviation. He gets it, and he hangs out at the airports, and does all that. If he was only the Mark Baker I knew at Gander Mountain and Scotts and all that, I would have thought, hmmm…this is just going to be a business type affair.
DAVE: As a long-time EAA and AOPA member, I am encouraged when I see the two organizations working together for a common cause, and I commend you for working with AOPA to expand their presence at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Other than the “Pilot’s Bill of Rights II” that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, what is EAA and AOPA currently working on to protect and promote GA?
JACK: Mark and I try to get together about once a month and look at what are the important things both organizations are doing, so we don’t step on each other’s toes, but join together when we can get more oomph on items.
We are working on the commercial part list approach to get features in airplanes, which we did with the Dynon. He’s working on the PMA approach to it. He did the Garmin product. Two different paths, same result, but not competitive because it’s a different product. We are both working on the flying club concept.
We’re both going to have an interesting time next year when FAA reauthorization is up again in September to see what that mess looks like, and which side of the mess we are going to be on. That’s important!
And I think we recognize the importance of working together. I go to all of his fly-ins, and Mark comes to Oshkosh and holds his town hall meetings here. He gives me time to talk to his members, and when their fly-ins are over, we have chapter meetings at the airports. That’s how we play tag team, which works pretty well.
DAVE: There has been a lot of reluctance on the part of aircraft owners, flying clubs, and flight schools to make their aircraft “ADS-B Out” compliant for a number of reasons – cost being the primary reason, but also because they are not confident that the system is ready yet…that there will be further price reductions and incentives…that ADS-B may be another FAA blunder, like the Microwave Landing System, Transponder Landing System, Loran C, and Traffic Information Service…that ADS-B will forever eliminate privacy and make it potentially easier for the FAA to fine those pilots who violate airspace restrictions and Federal Aviation Regulations. Many see ADS-B also as a way to squeeze GA out of the skies – at least, out of controlled airspace. How do you feel the GA community should proceed with ADS-B – equip or not equip – and why or why not?
JACK: I am an advocate for equipping aircraft with ADS-B Out if you are going to be flying in the environment that you need it. It’s a mandatory thing, so do it! The advantages from a safety standpoint are also really good. The Stratus ADS-B system and some of those pieces of equipment give you the weather, they give you traffic, and I think that’s nice to have. I am sensitive if you are flying a $15,000 airplane and putting a $5,000 piece of equipment in it. In my household and my budget and finances, it doesn’t play. The rebates have been a nice shot in the arm. I think we have done a fantastic job sharing with the experimental homebuilt guy and helped the Part 123 guys by giving them a very economical way to get in there. But it is still a tough hurdle. I like the technology, but the price point is still a big concern. That’s a big chunk of change, whether it is $3,000 or $5,000.
DAVE: What has EAA done to convince young people to pursue a career in aviation, other than introducing them to aviation through EAA Young Eagles and the EAA Air Academy?
JACK: That’s where I say there is so much work to be done, and we’re working hard on figuring that out.
The introductory flight is great and it’s probably as good for the volunteer pilot as it is for the young person, because it helps to keep a pilot flying and interested in aviation. We have lots of scholarships and other programs we try to promote for young people. We changed our mission statement specifically to say to create aviation enthusiasts to drive away the concept that we are only interested in pilots. So we are hoping the programs we put in place will grow pilots, but also encourage people to become aviation mechanics, accountants in aviation businesses…just involved in aviation in some way. Or maybe just to enjoy the recreational aviation community…the fellowship and fun piece of that.
Our biggest challenge is learning what’s it going to take to connect young people to that. We have things we’ve done, but now the challenge is getting in the psyche of kids of the generation after the millennials. I can try through my grand kids to figure that out. They are my lab rats in figuring out how they think, and how best to approach them.
It is a whole different animal than when we were kids. You got on your bike and went to the ballpark or the airport, or wherever your interest was, and you could bum a ride…you could hang out. That’s not there anymore, and you are competing against the new marketing approach.
It’s not that people have shorter attention spans. That sounds like people are flawed. Rather, it is the new marketing approach being used today and how people are throwing stuff at people like bursts of 3-minute YouTube videos, and video games and experiences. Aviation is a big capital-intensive program and to get involved, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s kind of slow. The payoff is fantastic from what you get out of it, but it takes a long time. It’s not instant gratification.
DAVE: Do you think drones are going to be our answer to try and get more people involved in taking flying lessons?
JACK: I thought that at one time when they required commercial drone operators to have a pilot’s license, and when they changed that rule, I was sick, because I thought there’s a built-in new market we are creating. We thought we would get them a Light Sport license and get people interested in aviation. Now they changed that and you don’t have to.
Will some percentage of them spark an interest in aviation? They might. They have to go through the educational process, learning airspace and all that. I’m not as bullish as that being a feeder, however.
I loved building models as a kid, whether it was freeflight or radio control. Drones are a new version of that, with less mechanical, hands-on skills, which I think is unfortunate. I think it is a new technology feeder that exists in space that’s already there.
When you say what’s out there that is going to get people flying? To go out there and take a GPS-driven drone and fly it around, it’s just not the same. I’m not real optimistic about that. We will see where it evolves. Is it going to be one of those things that peak, because the rules are going to get more and more stringent where you just can’t throw one of these things up in the air. And they have sold so darn many of them already! So is it pent up demand done, and now where do we go?
DAVE: What else can EAA and the other aviation organizations do to encourage more young people to pursue a career in aviation to replace those pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers now retiring?
JACK: Absolutely the worst aviation marketing department in the world is often the pilot community. I say that because we have to be careful in how we introduce the topic of flying because we usually talk about how expensive it is; how hard it is. Gee, the regulatory environment is getting worse; you can’t go visit an airport. We don’t talk about what is it for us personally that is really the satisfying piece of why we are involved in it. If it was that bad, we would have all left.
So what I continue to encourage is that you have to be a salesman. You have to get people out there and introduce them to aviation the way you were introduced to aviation…you have to keep them engaged in aviation as a mentor to them. Take them to events, but don’t sit around and talk about all the downsides. You can do the same thing about any hobby. Oh, golf takes too long, the clubs are too expensive. Is that going to get anyone interested in golf, as opposed to saying, “Man, you should have seen when I hit that ball with the seven iron right on the screws,” (which isn’t true for me any more), “and it landed right up there and I made the putt.” But in aviation, it’s usually about some neat experiences we’ve had, like “I had the chance to fly up to Door County, and boy, what a beautiful day that was. I could not have done that any other way and see the turning of the leaves.” Those kinds of things we have to get people promoting.
From a career standpoint, I think it is important we look beyond pilots and communicate to kids that aviation in general is an exciting career. If you look at it as just becoming a pilot, that may not resonate well. Maybe that’s a lifestyle someone does not want, to be seven days on, three days off. But the travel industry is pretty darn exciting! You can be involved in the airline industry with all the perks and a lot of other things. Those interested in technology will find some fascinating and extremely challenging fields to work in as mechanics and engineers. Air traffic controllers…that’s a heck of a career! I have a lot of friends who are retired air traffic controllers, and most of them came from the Midwest, so they had pretty good duties. They weren’t pulling their hair out at O’Hare, but had great pay, great benefits, and a good work life. There are those kinds of things we just have to get people exposed to.
DAVE: There are very few people, Jack, that I come across who are not excited about aviation. Just the general public, when they find out I publish Midwest Flyer Magazine, they want to know more. I try telling them to go out to Morey’s, or Wisconsin Aviation in Madison, and they can set them up with an introductory flight lesson. That’s kind of where it stops for most of them.
JACK: It does, and it’s funny you should bring that up. We are taking the strategic initiative for this next year to really work on that. We’ve looked at all the programs. There are some things we need to reinvent, but for the most part, the wheel has been invented, and we need to figure out where were the flat spots on the wheel and get rid of them. So to your point, the “Be A Pilot” program that was out there for years…we send somebody out, we give them a voucher, they go take a flight, but it’s not a complete enough system to keep them engaged and involved. So we are working on some ideas through our chapters because we have this group that is already committed.
There are over 880 of them, now, to where a person’s flight experience can be through a chapter where we have a support network of like-minded thinking people who are passionate about aviation. I’m not talking about for kids…I’m talking about adults. Find ways for chapters to create flying clubs, so we can get the cost piece of it down below from what it is at a conventional flight school.
Data has shown that the dropout rate is so high when someone just goes and takes that flight and the flight instructor says to the student, go book a flight with me next week. You don’t have any connectivity. I was fortunate; I came from a family where my father was a pilot, and so was my mother, so aviation was in the household.
My neighbor’s kid, whose dad is an accountant, has a real bug to go flying. I don’t know how his family gets him through that process and keeps him engaged. If the kid comes home the next day and says that he is really more interested in lacrosse, mom and dad say, “Okay, then go play lacrosse.” So we have to find that community to keep them in aviation.
DAVE: It’s mentorship.
JACK: It is. It’s stories like that of “Aaron” from Alabama who tells this fantastic story. A former Young Eagle. His family is not an aviation family. He takes a Young Eagles flight and thinks, “Wow… This is really neat!” He goes to the Air Academy, graduates, gets his pilot’s license, goes on and gets an engineering degree, spends his summers coming back to AirVenture every year teaching at the Air Academy. From 16 on up, he gets his first career in an aerospace company…I think it was Rocket Boosters in Alabama. He starts an EAA chapter, which he is president, and he tells the story that the chapter is his aviation family. With that and what all we have brought to his life, he’s hooked. He’s out doing fantastic things.
DAVE: Has Aaron spoken at AirVenture at all?
JACK: He has. The first time he spoke I heard his story and then we asked him to come to the Gathering one night to tell his story about his Young Eagles, because I was so inspired by hearing his story. And now he is off trying to invent something called the “Skyboard” or something like that. He’s got the innovation and EAA kind of bug in him to do something that may or may not pan out. But we have lots of those success stories.
We’ve been talking about some of the programs, and why they have come and gone. I think the problem is that we have too many people who are fixated on wanting to solve world hunger, and want to see big results and big numbers. You just have to chip away at this. You cannot go and fly a million Young Eagles each year, but you can fly 70,000, which is really, really a lot. You can bring just so many kids through the Air Academy. Don’t try to do more than what is really feasible and accept that. If you do that, you can really celebrate the results more, something we do not do enough.
DAVE: I wrote an editorial about a year ago on “mentorship.” That’s how I got involved in flying. I was sitting in a college library looking at a flying magazine, when the student across from me said he had his pilot’s license and belonged to a flying club, and wondered if I wanted to go flying and split the cost. I said, yes! So we went flying and I joined the club as soon as we got back. I was ready…I was ready a long time before that, but I didn’t know how to take that first step.
JACK: Right, and that’s where we are at with a big document we started working on this past weekend. Identifying that as a path, we have to help people find their way. What’s the way? We are not going to go out and open a bunch of flying clubs, but we will try to use our chapter network that already has people there who have done that, and help them find a way to bring people in and take them all the way through the process. So that’s going to be very important for us.
DAVE: Have you seen the motion picture “Sully,” and if so, what did you think of it?
JACK: I saw it… I really enjoyed it. It’s been two weeks ago that I saw it here in Oshkosh with my wife, and knowing Jeff (Skiles) and Sully (Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, i.e. US Airways Flight 1549, “Miracle On The Hudson”), I was not aware of them getting pulled through the knot hole…second guessing, did they make the right decision? I was not that familiar with that piece of the story. I think Jeff told me when the movie was getting ready to come out that Sully actually handled it emotionally all much better. The movie dramatized a lot of that, which makes for a good movie, but I thought that was fascinating. I can’t imagine the hearings that were basically saying, “Well, you could have made it to an airport.”
I have flown the simulation. My last recurrent ride in a Citation 10 was after the event, so at Flight Safety they said, “Okay, you’re done with your training, now try this. You’re going to fly the exact same profile, we’ll give you vectors and turn you, and you are going to hit the geese and lose the engines, and what are you going to do?”
Seeing the movie really helped me understand more. Yeah, knowing where I was, knowing what my options were, I landed at Teterboro. There is no way I could have landed at Teterboro if I didn’t know. I was just flying along fat, dumb and happy thinking I had thrust. I would have gotten out the checklist, I would have started the engines, and I would have been somewhere in the drink or somewhere in the middle of the city.
DAVE: I think Sully made the right decision, without a doubt.
JACK: I do, too. It was an incredibly gutsy call. The decision he made was the decision, I can make with the highest probability, and that probability is kind of low. We are going to survive and everyone is going to be okay, and the airplane is not going to break up, but you look at the river versus all that congestion in the city.
DAVE: Jeff did a special showing of the movie two weeks ago in Beloit, Wisconsin, and he did a great job. He’s a great public speaker as you know, and someone asked him if he was concerned about dying that day, and he said he was never concerned about not surviving. I don’t know about Sully.
JACK: Sully is a pretty technical guy because of the way he was trained. It was part of that decision, “I will minimize the loss of life.” Any other place he could have parked, he could have lost between 150 and 1,000 or more lives, immediately. So, I thought the movie was well done, and to see Tom Hanks want to be a part of that, and Clint Eastwood to produce it, I think that says a lot about that event and those people. Because they can pick and choose what movies they want to do.
DAVE: But Clint is a pilot, you know.
JACK: Yeah. Now we have to get Tom Hanks to AirVenture. This year when we show “Sully” at the Ford Fly-In Outdoor Theater, we have to get somebody to introduce the movie. We will try to get him here.
DAVE: We all know what actors Harrison Ford, and the late Cliff Robertson, did to help promote GA as the chairmen of EAA Young Eagles. What has EAA done lately to get other pilot actors involved in EAA, and in promoting and protecting GA?
JACK: There’s been a few when you look at musicians. Dierks Bentley is a pilot and is willing to work for GA. It’s kind of hard to find them and pick and choose who to sign up and get involved. I don’t think there is anyone on the current radar that has done as much as Harrison Ford, and what Harrison has continued to do. We know Tom Cruise is a pilot. Some of these guys don’t take on causes in their private and personal lives.
DICK: We lost a great one a week ago in Arnold Palmer.
JACK: Talk about a guy who was front and center. He really was.
DAVE: What about Kurt Russell?
JACK: Kurt enjoys flying, and enjoys aviation. What’s the best way to characterize him? I don’t think he is as organized to be a guy to take on a cause or to get out there in front. It’s just not his thing.
I’ve had conversations with him at the Hilton. He wanted me to design a single-engine turboprop for his next airplane. These types of individuals have a personal brand, and they have brand equity, so they need to decide where they are going to spend that brand equity. You get a guy like Harrison. For him his flying is as equal of a support as is his acting…probably more so. That’s what he would rather be doing everyday, and he’ll tell you that. He likes to train, he likes to fly, and the other thing pays for it. That’s how he characterizes it. You have to find somebody like that so it’s real to them. They’re not phony about it.
DAVE: Cliff Robertson was the same way. When I wrote something about him, it was always pilot/actor.
JACK: Morgan Freeman has done a little bit. He is an aviation enthusiast. In fact I was in Flight Safety with him once for a Citation 500. But for him, flying is a means of transportation. Not like Harrison who wants to jump in a Beaver and enjoy flying and seeing the coastline. It’s hard to find.
DAVE: EAA has just reached the 200,000 mark in membership. How many of these members are certified pilots, aircraft owners, or just aviation enthusiasts?
JACK: If we breakdown the 200,000, about 30,000 are students. Our Young Eagles are counted as students if they want the membership. Of the other 170,000 members, it is about 80 percent. Then we think there are a large number of non-members who come here with friends who are aviation enthusiasts. So we are really trying to reach out as an association.
My two brothers and sister are not pilots, but they spent summer vacations at air shows, because that’s where our dad was taking us. As my sister would say, “I get to stand under a wing on a 100-degree day and drink Orange Crush. I can’t wait to go back and tell the kids at school.”
But she tried to learn to fly and had a bad experience. Bad experience models are one thing we are trying to fix in teaching people to fly. She went down to sign up, and was in her 20s at the time, and she had a bad chemistry match with an instructor.
My sister is an incredibly bright person. She became a lawyer, and she was with a kind of a crusty military guy who was not, I would say, supportive of women’s rights. They went out for a few lessons, and she said to me, “Jack, I love flying with dad, and I love being around it and the history, but…” My brother was the same way. So how do we get that whole collection of folks to be a part of EAA?
DAVE: What is the single most important thing EAA members can do to promote GA?
JACK: Getting their friends out to the airport and engaged in the activity. They might not like it at first, but you have to be there. Get them to experience it. Get them out to a pancake breakfast. It’s kind of like fishing; you have to have a lot of lures in the water to be able to catch one fish. We could all do that. I think it is important opening those doors.
As for promoting aviation, when we put out the call to members that we need their help on issues, we get tremendous response from that. I applaud them for doing that, and I think that’s probably the best help we can get. There’s nothing better than to walk into Washington and say, “We represent 200,000 members and 20,000 or 30,000 of them have written you (congressmen) letters.” They then say, “Mr. Pelton, when can I meet with you?”
Even at the local level, most communities have an airport commission and there’s some local involvement. The first thing you want to know from the people is where they stand on general aviation? “Are you here to keep this airport open and make it live and be good, or aren’t you? If not, I’m not going to vote for you. You are the wrong person to be involved in it.” It is amazing what an impact this can have, even at the local city council level. You can change people’s perspective on aviation.
DAVE: What is the single most important thing EAA members can do to protect GA?
JACK: As far as protecting GA, it is hard to pick one thing. When there are issues we think are threatened, we really have to be together as a big, loud voice. That’s probably the most important thing. Protecting sounds defensive, so I also look at promoting as being equally important. So if we can do a better job of promoting GA, it will be protected.
DAVE: What role do you feel manufacturers can play in promoting GA?
JACK: Manufacturers as a group do a really good job, and I think the most important role they can play is just focusing on the economic impact aviation is all about. When you get those facts and the number of jobs that are added to our economy, that’s a selling point. Because even if you don’t understand aviation, the facts speak for themselves, and it helps people to make informed decisions.
DAVE: EAA chapters and flying clubs do a good job of raising money to help support their organizations. Do you feel that these groups should be making a financial contribution to their airports, and the community they live in? Why or why not?
JACK: I struggle with making financial contributions to public airports. Private airports might be different. I would not feel compelled to write a check to Winnebago County Airport or the City of Oshkosh, for instance.
DAVE: The purpose of this question is to try to encourage pilots to make a contribution to their community outside of aviation, such as to the local chamber of commerce, to demonstrate that aviation supports its community in appreciation for its support.
JACK: That I really do endorse, and we are even happy to do that locally. If you get non-aviation people out to the airport, whether they are city council members or others, you need to have a stump speech to describe what a chapter does, and why it’s vital and how it helps the airport. That messaging has to be there, or otherwise they are going to say, “What does this airport really do for me? Why do we have this airport?” So I am a big believer in that. I personally used to talk to Rotary Club and the reaction often was, “I did not know what aviation was all about.” They may not become pilots, but at least they become advocates.
DAVE: I have a photo of Paul Poberezny affectionately holding our daughter when she was 9 months old, and another of him holding our grandson 25 years later when he was a toddler. Paul liked people, and always believed in the importance of involving family in aviation and especially in AirVenture, and treated all EAA members as an extension of his own family. What has EAA done – if anything – since Paul died to ensure that families remain a focal point of the organization?
JACK: Our core and everything you will hear in these halls and in our chapters is all about that Paul Poberezny principle on family and community. I think that’s why we are involved, is that they come back to see the airplanes and the people. That’s what I love about this place. That’s why I like coming back every year. So we really try to instill that in everything we do, and be as inviting and open as we can. It’s little things like wearing your chapter badge so people know your name and can say hi. That’s just what it is all about.
We have all seen a “Pober Pixie” and a P-51, so why then do you want to come back here, year after year? To see your friends you haven’t seen for a year. And we are sticking to that as our core culture. That’s why we are so focused on the chapters. That’s what EAA is all about. That’s why I wear my name badge during AirVenture, so members feel that I am approachable.
DAVE: Speaking of children, how many children do you have, and are any of them pilots or in aviation careers?
JACK: I have two children: a daughter who’s not married and lives in New York City. She has a career there. And a son who is married and has three children, and I have three grandsons as a result. Our children are not involved in aviation careers. One is a minister and one is in fashion design, so their careers are as far away as they can be. Our grandsons, though, we are not letting them not be involved in aviation.
My son is actually a “Gen Xer”… he is 37. He still lives under the baby boomer rules of independence. You get a job, get your education and pay for whatever you are going to do. There are no free handouts, and dad is not going to buy you an airplane so you can do something you really can’t afford. So he’s a really solid guy. He is at a point in life that he says, “Okay dad, I think I am financially in a position where I want to learn to fly,” so he is on that path now. But he had to get that core stuff done first. And that’s where my dad was… “Learn to fly, but you are paying for it, so you better have a job.” But we are helping like you always do for your kids, like using an airplane and some other things to help him out.
My son and I have had some long discussions about it. You hate to start it and then not be able to continue. You have to make sure you are in a position where you can. You need the support infrastructure, the capabilities, whether in a flying club or with a friend. But to go to all that effort and then not be able to fly, wouldn’t be good. We don’t live near each other, so that’s his concern. “I don’t want to waste the time and effort and not continue.”
DAVE: EAA AirVenture Oshkosh never fails to amaze us with unique aircraft, such as the “Martin Mars” that appeared this year, military demos, and outdoor concerts performed by some of the best in the music entertainment industry. What are some of the big attractions lined up for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017?
JACK: We plan to have the 80th anniversary of the Piper Cub, the largest gathering of B-25s since World War II, the 25th anniversary of our Young Eagles program, the 90th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s flight, a viewing of the motion picture “Sully” in the Ford Fly-In Outdoor Theater, and the musical group “Barenaked Ladies” for the opening night concert on Monday, July 24, 2017, featuring pilot/lead singer Ed Robertson. And much more coming that we will be announcing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: That concluded my interview with EAA Chairman & CEO Jack Pelton. He had another meeting scheduled to discuss updates to the EAA Seaplane Base, but I left Jack’s office that day thinking that he is without a doubt the best person for the job at this time in the history of EAA.