Interview by Dave Weiman
I had the opportunity to sit down with Wisconsin Attorney General John Byron “J.B.” Van Hollen last fall for a bit of “hangar talk,” although the surroundings at his office in the state capitol was not what either of us are accustomed to when talking with fellow pilots. Yes, Attorney General Van Hollen is very much a general aviation pilot, appreciates the camaraderie, and welcomed the opportunity to get up to speed on major concerns facing the industry.
Van Hollen, 45, is a relatively new pilot, having obtained his certificate on September 10, 2001, and has been inactive in recent years due to an accident which left him plane-less for the time being. He had every intention on joining the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) when he was actively flying, but those memberships have now taken a backseat to his career as Attorney General. But as soon as he gets active again later this year, he looks forward to joining both organizations and enjoying the benefits of his membership.
Van Hollen shared with me some of his experiences as a pilot, from taking lessons in a small northern Wisconsin community, to flying with one of the premier air show performers in the United States, and what it was like to be permitted to fly his Piper Warrior within restricted airspace to meet up with former President George Bush and Air Force One. He also shared with me some of the obstacles he has experienced in general aviation, which have created issues for him, including the cost to purchase a hangar, availability of rental hangars at smaller airports, and a lack of qualified mechanics.
And while he might not have been aware of some of the current issues affecting general aviation, such as new U.S. Customs & Border Protection regulations and procedures, airport security at GA airports, and how temporary flight restrictions have impacted general aviation, he commented on them, as not only a pilot, but as the top law enforcement officer for the State of Wisconsin.
Our meeting began with a warm welcome from his staff, and then the Attorney General himself. He welcomed me to his chambers, and I welcomed him to Midwest Flyer Magazine. Months later, following the fall elections in which he won reelection, we got together again for a photo shoot at a local airport at which time he was even more relaxed, and enjoyed meeting other pilots, and climbing into the cockpits of several aircraft.
JB: Dave; I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you a bit.
DW: Mr. Attorney General, what inspired you to learn to fly?
JB: I wanted to fly for years… I’d say since early adulthood, or my late teens. In fact when I was getting out of high school, one of the things I contemplated doing was to go into the Air Force, because I was so interested in learning the craft and trade of flying. But I decided to go to college. That’s obviously the path that my family expected me to pursue, and I thought I would always have the opportunity to fly later. I always had a desire to fly, and fortunately, as I grew older, I started hanging around with more and more people that did fly, and it gave me – not only more impetus – but I think more opportunity.
DW: What year was that?
JB: Very interestingly, I got my pilot license the day before the World Trade Center was hit with the planes; a very interesting time in aviation to get my license in aviation. It’s kinda funny… You know what it’s like hanging around airports with fly-boy buddies. People who knew I was preparing to get my license and the joke of course was as soon as I got my pilot’s license, they decided to ban everybody from the airways.
DW: Yes, that was a sad day in aviation history. Where did you learn to fly?
JB: I am originally from up in Bayfield County. At the time I got my license I was the district attorney in Ashland County, and of course Ashland (Wisconsin) has a very nice airport, John F. Kennedy Field. And I had a number of friends that flew there and had planes based there. DW: How long of a period of time did it take you to get your pilot certificate, from the day you started until you got your certificate? I see that smile on your face.
JB: It took a good, long time. It took me about a year and a half from the time I first started flying, to the time I actually got my license, and a big part of that was just finding the time to do it. During a considerable part of that time, I owned my own airplane and I enjoyed the training. I did not have a great need to have a license urgently, so it wasn’t a problem for me to take so long to get my license.
DW: You know, the dropout rate for student pilots was a big issue up at Oshkosh this (past) year. EAA, AOPA, Jeppessen….they are all focusing on the student pilot dropout rate. It is 70%. So they did a survey to try and answer the question, why do people drop out of flying?
JB: I am sure that the economy would have some impact. I would hope people are not losing their interest in aviation.
DW: I don’t think they are. Personally, J.B. – may I call you J.B?
JB: Please do. Absolutely!
DW: I think it is a matter of having the “commitment” to learn to fly and get that license and then to stay proficient. I don’t think there’s a large percentage of our population that has that commitment. They are inclined to jump on a snowmobile or a speedboat or a motorcycle, but to fly, that takes education; that takes commitment!
JB: It does take commitment. I understand that that is a problem. As I said, it takes a financial commitment. But it also takes a time commitment, because of course as we all know, you have to get your medicals, biennials…if you have a plane, you have to get your annuals….all of those things take time. And of course, you want to fly regularly, so you can stay proficient. And that may have something to do with it. I would not doubt that. I would like to think from my personal perspective that once someone starts flying, they would not want to quit, because it gets into their blood. Maybe we have too many people getting into aviation, or who start pilot lessons, who maybe did not have that strong of an interest going into it in the first place. I don’t know.
DW: Could be. Hey, you mentioned that you owned an airplane. What type and model (of aircraft) did you have?
JB: Well, before I got my license, I purchased a 1974 Piper Warrior 161. It was a great plane! I really loved it. I unfortunately had a mishap that caused me to sell it to the insurance company a number of years back. So I have not been an active flier for a number of years for that reason and a couple of others.
DW: Where did you base your airplane?
JB: Originally, I based it in Ashland (Wisconsin). When I moved down to the Madison (Wisconsin) area, I rented a hangar and based it out of Waunakee.
DW: If you could own any airplane on the market today, what kind of an airplane would that be?
JB: I would love to own an Aztec right now. I am very interested in continuing to fly. With a wife and two rapidly growing kids, and with the places I am interested in flying to involving Waunakee and my place in Bayfield County, I am very interested in useful load…I am very interested in power and being able to get in and out of smaller airports. And my experience in the Aztec, and the advice I get from my very experienced pilot friends, makes me believe that it would be a very useful and practical plane for the applications I would hope to use it for.
DW: You mentioned that you go to EAA AirVenture (Oshkosh, Wisconsin), and you try to get up there as often as you can. Are you an EAA member?
JB: I’m not. I have been a big fan of EAA, however. Not because I am personally involved with experimental aircraft, but I love aviation. And for me, more than anything, going up there is an opportunity to see planes – not from a historical perspective, looking at vintage aircraft, military aircraft – (rather), it is really fun for me to watch the “air show.” As someone who has taken to the cockpit a number of times, to see what some of these pilots can do in the air show is just amazing to me.
I remember the first time my flight instructor had me intentionally go into a stall; it just about scared the living bejesus out of me. And to watch these people up there doing amazing things to make something as simple as a stall seem so routine, it is unbelievable; just astounding to me!
DW: When I first walked in, I said that I saw (air show performer) John Mohr in Oshkosh, and you said that he was a dear friend. What do you think of his act?
JB: I think he has the best act in the business. I’ve met and gotten to know some of the other pilots in the industry. Obviously, there is tremendous talent out there, and maybe I have a little bit of bias, but I think the world of John and Lyn Mohr. John obviously has a tremendous background in aviation.
I have had an opportunity to be up with John in his own aircraft…I have had an opportunity to be up in his helicopter….I’ve experienced just how talented of a pilot he is, from the ground and in the air. It is really neat to see someone’s love for aviation, to be able to continue on as he has.
DW: John is a fabulous performer, that’s for sure! Are you an AOPA member?
JB: I am not. I apologize…the lack of memberships have everything to do with the fact that I have not been actively flying. The “job” makes it very, very difficult. I anticipate that as time progresses, I will get more actively involved in aviation again, which would include memberships and all of the wonderful things that come with them.
DW: Very good, J.B. We would welcome you in EAA and AOPA and in all of the (other) organizations. With that in mind, are you familiar with some of the top issues facing general aviation today?
JB: I don’t necessarily know what the top issues general aviation is facing currently. Because I have not been active, I have not kept apprised of what’s going on in the aviation industry.
DW: You mentioned a little earlier the “cost of flying…” That cost might be a big reason why people drop out. And right now gas in the Madison (Wisconsin) area is running $4.50 a gallon. So even though you are not totally in tune on the issues of aviation, that is a big issue. Another big issue is the potential shortage of 100LL octane fuel, and we are looking at alternative fuels, so hopefully we can attack both of those issues…the cost of fuel, and our fuel supply in the coming months and years.
JB: I can tell you I was not aware of the 100LL issue. The cost of aviation fuel is something I did not considered because small general aviation aircraft have pretty good burn rates. For me, the cost of actually flying somewhere versus driving somewhere, the cost of fuel was pretty equivalent because even though it might cost more, you use less of it and fly a more direct route than if you drive. So I never considered fuel costs to be a big issue because automobile fuel costs went up as well commensurately. For me, the big issue when it came to costs – and maybe I am the only one who is experiencing this – I want to fly to an airport, which is closer to home and become part of the local pilot community. The cost of being able to buy a local hangar, or the availability of rental hangars at some of the smaller airports, I was finding to be a little bit difficult. I was also finding – and once again maybe it was where I was located – but to actually find qualified airplane mechanics to do my annuals and things along those lines, and do repair work, were a little harder. I wasn’t finding them (mechanics) as regularly at smaller airports as it seemed when I was starting my flying career, and that lack of convenience created an issue for me as well.
DW: That’s a good point. When you buy an airplane, give me a call. I will give you some options as to where to have it maintained.
Just to go over a few issues…one big one is trying to protect our existing airports, whether a privately-owned airport or a public-use airport, trying to protect the airspace, the approaches, the departure ends of runways, and so forth – encroachment! Another one is airport security. And you being the top law enforcement officer in the State of Wisconsin, I bet that is a big concern for you.
JB: Absolutely! Airport security is a big concern. And I think smaller airport security, compared with the larger airports where the airlines regularly fly in and out, is something generally speaking has gone unaddressed. If there is a simple way for people to access larger airports with an aircraft that can fly out of a smaller airport, planes that can fly out of uncontrolled airports have the ability to cause damage elsewhere as well. But in regards to encroachment, I think that is a very big issue because an awful lot of people want to casually fly out of their own small airport, go up, do some touch-and-goes, fly in the pattern…just go up and do a little sightseeing in their general community. I think people who want to fly at their own recreational level are hesitant to do so. So smaller airports are very, very important! I am personally at risk of sounding wrong, having my own little landing strip up on my land from where I am from in Bayfield County.
DW: As you get more active in aviation again, and become a member of EAA and AOPA, would you use your influence in your office in the State of Wisconsin to try to support general aviation.
JB: As Attorney General, one of the things I have tried very, very hard to do is to make sure I use my office only for things that are appropriate for effectuating the duties as Attorney General. There are a lot of legislative changes, of course, that I would have liked to politically seen done in Wisconsin that are not really related to being Attorney General, so I try to keep my distance. Obviously, if the exposure I provide as an individual, because of my capacity as Attorney General, can give positive exposure to aviation, absolutely, I would do that. I am very interested in advancing the cause of aviation and of private pilots, and if being a pilot myself and my interest in it can help the cause, then it is something I would love to do. I would be hesitant, of course, to use any influence that would come from my position legally though.
DW: Very good! I guess my last question is about the Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) that are set up when the President comes to town, whether it is Obama or (when it was) former President George Bush. They come into an area and shut down a pretty large area of airspace, and that shuts down all of the fixed base operations, except for commercial airlines. Any comment about TFRs?
JB: With regards to that, I am one of few pilots that have had direct experience in being involved with presidential motorcades and things along those lines, and it’s not just flights that are interrupted. Whenever the motorcade is traveling, it interferes with all sorts of transportation and the ability of people to move around. I can certainly understand why that’s done. The President of the United States is a very consequential position and job in this world, and unfortunately, there are some crazy people out there who would take whatever risks necessary to take their lives, and I think we need to do whatever we can to protect them, all be it inconvenient and expensive. Some of the greatest risks to these people come from the air versus on the ground, so I don’t know that closing those airports temporarily – the inconvenience – is something we necessarily want to eliminate.
I can tell you from a pilot’s perspective – this may even be a better story than I told you earlier – when I was the United States Attorney for the Western District (of Wisconsin), President Bush was coming in – I think it was Eau Claire (Wisconsin) – and I was going to be going up there to be part of the motorcade for legal reasons. I would be legal counsel for the United States of America for this jurisdiction at the time. And instead of driving to the airport to meet Air Force One, I thought it would be much more convenient to fly my own plane there. Of course we cleared that with everyone, so the airspace was closed to everyone but Air Force One and me! So suffice to say, I did not have to watch out the cockpit window for other aircraft while flying into that airspace because no one else was there but me. Of course, they wanted me to land in sufficient time so I was there and on the ground and out of the way. I think a lot of eyes opened when a little Piper Warrior landed at the closed airport and taxied up to the FBO and I popped out. So I guess I am one of the few people who have gotten to violate that no fly zone.
DW: That sounds like a lot of fun to be in the position that you are in and to do that is fantastic!
Wrapping up our interview, J.B., do you have some other aspirations down the road beyond being Attorney General?
JB: Flying some more! I really don’t in regards to politics. I didn’t really have an aspiration to become Attorney General. It just seems as if the time was right and some of the things I believe I had to offer the people of the State of Wisconsin – law enforcement in particular – warranted me to run for Attorney General, and I was very glad that I had done so, and it’s part of the reason I am running (ran) for reelection. I will never rule out any possibility of what I may do in the future, because I really play it by ear and I determine what I think my calling in life is. My aspirations always will be to be able to be a good family man and to be around and available for my wife and kids, and that always takes a high priority and can impact anything else I do. But beyond that, the future is very uncertain for me, and I’m just fine with that. I look forward to having the opportunity at some juncture in life to have a job that’s a little less busy so I can do the other things I enjoy again, including flying.
DW: Midwest Flyer Magazine covers an 11-state area, Minnesota and Wisconsin being two of those states, and I understand that you went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin here in Madison (Wisconsin).
JB: Correct! My undergraduate degree is from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and I got my law degree from the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
DW: Thank you for your time, J.B
JB: Thank you, Dave!