Aviation and flying have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. In my family’s house, not a day went by without aviation enthusiasts, pilots and aircraft builders visiting my dad to work on airplanes, talk about flying or help organize the local club that would become the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). EAA was founded in the basement of our home in 1953. Ultimately, it would grow in both size and stature, such that its impact on the aviation community has been truly significant.
Throughout high school and college, my summer jobs and holidays were spent at EAA working in the aircraft restoration shop, buildings and grounds maintenance, plus numerous other roles. Upon graduating from Northwestern University in 1970, I returned to EAA, thinking it would last six months. Four decades later, I’m still here!
Through my involvement with EAA and my participation with the Red Devils and Eagles Aerobatic Team, my aviation career has spanned a wide variety of activities, ranging from aircraft building and air shows to serving as the chairman of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. This has allowed me to better understand why we fly and what fires our passion for aviation. The core reasons center around the mystique of airplanes and the people who give them life. Airplanes excite us, offering the opportunity to share stories and build relationships and friendships that last a lifetime. The passion is that inner feeling that creates the emotions we feel whenever we fly or watch airplanes pass overhead. It’s the excitement we experience when we’re flying at sunset or in the early morning as the sun comes up over the horizon.
I’ve been privileged to participate in more than 1,000 air show performances, spanning 25 years. As a result, I’ve felt the exhilaration of flight, and the deep satisfaction when the audience responded loudly as we climbed out of the cockpit after completing our routine. I’ve met people from all parts of the world who share a common bond through flying, whether they’re enthusiasts, aircraft owners, pilots or dreamers.
Aviation is shrinking in terms of pilot and airplane numbers. For a simple reason, this shouldn’t be unexpected: World War II and the GI Bill trained tens of thousands of pilots who haven’t been replaced. For aviation to remain vibrant, we need to grow the current level of participation. We’ve tried to do this in the past, but haven’t been successful. This must change!
As president of EAA, I’ve led the development of EAA’s mission to grow aviation, to engage participants and to provide pathways for participation. It’s not going to be done by one person, but through all of us together sharing our passion and inviting participation.
I compare this effort to a marathon, not a sprint. It’s long term in nature but with lasting, permanent and worthwhile results. If we’re going to reverse the decline, if we’re going to grow aviation, then we must engage more people. It’s going to take a number of initiatives, with all of us working together. Over time, we’ll build an infrastructure that hasn’t existed in the past, but is sorely needed.
What’s EAA doing to grow aviation? One important aspect is EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, a cornerstone event on the aviation calendar that creates the enthusiasm, motivation and opportunity to engage people and “charge” their aviation batteries. Local EAA chapters create the activities that bring people together. EAA’s Young Eagles has reached out to more than 1.5 million young people, providing access to a previously inaccessible world of flight.
EAA took the lead in developing the LSA regulations and sport pilot license. The goal was to reduce time and money barriers to flight. This effort is starting to produce results. But most important, the relationships that we build—and the opportunity to engage in activities that bring people into the world of aviation—will grow aviation participation.
I believe that the people in aviation are special. They’re focused, dedicated and passionate. They’re willing to share their knowledge. You can’t package this passion or hold it; it’s an inner feeling. It’s the most important aspect of flight!
Think for a moment about your aviation experiences—the joy and excitement it has brought to you and your family. We want to create opportunities to extend those same feelings to many more new enthusiasts. Many people dream of flight but don’t know how to enter our aviation world. That’s our goal and our responsibility: to invite these
dreamers to join us.
Tom Poberezny is the chairman of the board and president of EAA. He’s a former U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Champion, and he was a member of the first U.S. team to capture the World Aerobatic Championship Trophy.