The fact that we lost Paul Poberezny, founder of the EAA, in August is, by now, old news. Nonetheless, it's still important news to those of us who call sport aviation home. Paul didn't invent sport aviation, but he certainly helped create the world in which those of us who fly for fun could live and flourish. Personally, I can't even begin to imagine what kind of life I would have had if it weren't for Paul and the Experimental Aircraft Association.
I haven't the foggiest idea why some people are attracted to certain parts of aviation to the total exclusion of all others, e.g., their world is built around nothing but the Mk.III Firebird, or they don't fly unless it includes drawing a straight line from A to B. To me, aviation is just one huge continuum, Cub to A-380, ultralights to warbirds and everything in between. And I like it all. However, like most, I lean toward certain factions more than others.
My taste runs to just about everything that's out at the edges of the bell-shaped curve, both in the types of hardware that tug at my heartstrings and the activities that call out to me. I'll easily walk past a mile of spamcans to get at a Gullwing Stinson, Pitts or P-40, but I'll casually eye every spamcan on the way past. And I dearly love snaking down through a winding canyon to land on a sandbar, but I'd rather drive to California to see my daughter than fly, so I can experience the desert at ground level.
Just about all of my prime aviation interests exclude the practical uses of an airplane for transportation. And it's always been that way. From when I was 15 years old and started taking flying lessons, flying for fun, i.e., sport aviation, has always been my prime focus. Unknown to me at the time, but it's obvious from this end of the historical telescope, I got into aviation at the perfect time to experience the growth of the sport aviation movement, and central to that movement was Paul Poberezny and the EAA.
I didn't discover the EAA until the early '60's, when I was about halfway through undergraduate school. At that point, the organization was just gaining steam. I didn't make it to my first EAA convention until '67, when I hitchhiked to Rockford, Ill. It was during that trip that I first met Paul Poberezny, and I can remember the occasion as if it happened this afternoon.
In those days, the warbird thing was just getting rolling, and I was severely bitten by the bug. A couple years earlier, I had made forays into the warbird world while trying to buy various Canadian or Nicaraguan Mustangs that were on the market (I was a college junior at the time, and the concept of financial responsibility meant nothing to me), but what I really wanted (and still want) was a P-40. Those were rarely seen for sale, but when they were, they ranged between $400 and $1,000, where Mustangs were three or four times that amount (makes you want to puke, doesn't it?).
Fly-ins, even those as big as Rockford that would fit in one of today's AirVenture/Oshkosh parking lots, had few World War II fighters in attendance. But as I walked the line at my first convention, my young heart skipped a couple of beats when I spotted a P-40N wearing camo. The pilot, who I recognized from my sport-aviation magazines as El Presidente, Paul Poberezny, was just leaving as I walked up. I stood behind the trailing edge, leaving saliva stains on the wing walk, as I strained to see in the cockpit. I must have looked really pathetic because Paul hesitated, as he walked around the wingtip, and said, "Go ahead. Hop in! Just don't touch anything."
I absolutely couldn't believe it, and in a nanosecond or two, I was aboard my very first warbird. He stood just in front of the left main gear and answered questions as I sat in the cockpit and tried to control the sudden surge of adrenaline. Here I was, a kid who had hitchhiked from Oklahoma, who the president of the organization didn't know from a hole in the ground, yet he had opened the door for me and was spending his valuable time answering my questions. I don't have the words to properly convey how that made me feel. The very moment Paul Poberezny walked onto my stage, what had been a strong interest in aerial things that don't make a lot of sense gained focus and quickly became my life.
From that point on, Paul, the EAA and I continually crossed paths or worked together on projects. I fondly remember spending time with him and Audrey as I'd visit them in Hales Corners, Wis., and then Oshkosh, while doing various forms of consulting or special jobs with the EAA. Today, nearly half a century after I discovered the organization, sport aviation isn't just something I do: It's what I am.
To any reading this who aren't part of the EAA aviation commune, it's important you realize that the organization Paul created and led for so many years is more than just an organization. It's bred of passion, of a love for flight and for things that fly. It far transcends simply being an interest. This comes down from Paul's leadership and vision. His entire focus was spreading aviation into every corner of society and making it available for the average man. Although the EAA grew far beyond Paul's initial goals or aspirations, he was, and the organization is, basically grassroots-oriented. It's easy to claim that it has become too big and slick, but at its heart, it's about the little-guy pilot. It periodically loses its way and would definitely benefit from reviewing Paul's basic thoughts about aviation and the organization's goals, but given the world in which it exists, it's still the best game in town.
Incidentally, in Paul's passing, it would be only right if we remember the role his son, Tom, played in bringing the organization into modern times and continuing the legacy. There's a petition circulating to encourage the EAA to heal recent wounds and once again have Tom cruising the convention grounds in Red Three, his old VW bug. I think it's right that he's invited back. In his own way, during his tenure as president of EAA, he was as important as Paul.
So, Paul, here's a big thumbs-up back at you for giving guys like me a place where we could live the life we want to live. Also, it's good to know that you're now zooming around on the upper surface of that great ocean of air that you were always preaching about. Just know that we truly appreciate what you did for us.