In 2010, 12-year-old Illinois resident Elizabeth Birch visited the Fox Cities with her mother and brother for a baseball tournament. When her brother’s team was eliminated early, the family was left with plenty of extra time.
Birch’s mother suggested visiting the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh. Birch and her brother found the flight simulator and spent some time trying out spins and flying upside down. Then, an EAA staffer asked if the kids wanted a free ride in a real airplane — a flight that changed everything.
“My mom didn’t realize that probably would be the most expensive free thing she’s ever gotten,” Birch says.
It took just that one flight to sell Birch on a lifetime of aviation. Birch, now a flight instructor with the University of North Dakota, is one of more than 2 million young people to have received a free first flight through EAA’s Young Eagles program.
It’s just one of the ways the 66-year-old EAA is keeping its focus on the horizon.
Founded by Paul Poberezny in 1953 and led today by CEO and Chairman Jack Pelton, the 221,000-member organization continues to launch new ways to attract the next generation of pilots, mechanics and aircraft enthusiasts. Its annual AirVenture fly-in, which celebrates its 50th year in Oshkosh this month and is expected to draw more than 600,000 visitors from about 87 countries, funnels more than $170 million annually into the local economy.
But for EAA and Pelton, who joined the organization after retiring as CEO of Cessna Aircraft, there’s still work to be done.
A love of flying
Pelton began flying at age 17, having grown up in an aviation family. His father was a World War II veteran who earned his license in the Army Air Corps and brought young Jack to air shows and EAA chapter meetings.
Pelton’s mother pursued her own pilot’s license in 1943. In that post-war boom and into the 1960s, the GI Bill helped grow the number of pilots to around 750,000 nationwide. But since then, the numbers have declined.
“A lot of them did it because, like for my mom, it was paid for,” Pelton says. “They weren’t going to continue to pursue it or follow it, so they’ve dropped out or aged out.”
The decline in the number of pilots is a gap airlines are scrambling to close. Boeing issued a report in 2018 stating that another 206,000 pilots will be needed during the next 20 years in North America alone.
“With every one of those (pilots), you need three mechanics, 10 accountants, five marketing people,” Pelton says. “The multiplier is enormous. It always used to be a hard sell — your kid might not get a job with airlines, or it paid so badly. Now the starting pay is $65,000.”
A United executive recently told Pelton he loses $150,000 a day each time a plane isn’t operating, and a lack of pilots is the main reason a plane isn’t in the air.
“This is boom time,” Pelton says. “Our mission is getting these young kids up for a familiarization flight, exposing them to AirVenture and looking at all things aviation.”
EAA wants to serve as an educational conduit, helping filter young people into career opportunities through programs like the ones offered through Fox Valley Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. In addition, it aims to supply the much-needed pilots, mechanics and aircraft electricians to regional companies such as Gulfstream and Air Wisconsin. For those involved with local EAA chapters outside the region, that love of flying can translate into more pilots, mechanics and technicians in those communities.
One need look no further than EAA’s AirVenture, planned for July 22-28 this year, to recognize the love of flight.
It is the region’s granddaddy of tourism events and the world’s largest airshow. In recent years, EAA leadership has placed a renewed focus on growing and retaining attendance, understanding that AirVenture’s popularity might be attributed, in part, to the decline of regional airshows elsewhere.
“General aviation across the country has declined, as far as number of pilots,” Pelton says. “We did see, historically over time, a lot of regional air shows just weren’t economically viable. This one becomes the place.”
In 2017, a UW-Oshkosh study found that AirVenture brings $121 million of direct economic benefit to the Fox Valley each year and an additional $50 million in regional spending, supporting more than 2,000 jobs.
With 1,000 hotel rooms available for 600,000 guests, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there’s not enough room,” says Amy Albright, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There’s this whole cottage industry of people that rent their homes and have rented to the same people for the last 10 or 20 years. They welcome people from all over the world into their homes.”
AirVenture’s economic reach is massive, from everything that goes into creating a city on the EAA grounds to the dollars visitors spend to what’s left behind. For example, campers flying in their small planes can only bring so much, so they might purchase a tent, bike or other items while they’re here, Albright says, and “when they leave, they also don’t have room, so that all gets donated back to Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul, the warming shelters.”
UW-Oshkosh benefits from housing about 5,000 visitors from more than 20 countries annually, which it has done for all 50 years AirVenture has been in Oshkosh, says Marc Nylen, director of the college’s Gruenhagen Conference Center.
In May, the campus was already close to capacity for this year’s AirVenture. It has seen regular groups of international and domestic visitors return annually, accumulating enough time on campus that one year some guests were presented with alumni status.
“We’ll have a group from New Zealand interacting with a group from Brazil interacting with an EAA chapter from Branson, Mo. They may not speak the same language, but they all understand. They all get along. They all are part of this same aviation world,” Nylen says.
Keeping the spirit alive
It’s that enthusiasm for aviation that EAA wants to hold onto and perpetuate. Pelton and other EAA leaders know they can’t take for granted their members will always show up for the annual event. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when EAA membership numbers began to stall and attendance at AirVenture suffered, partially because it lost sight of a customer-based focus.
“I keep reminding people, it can cost millions for the big companies to come here,” Pelton says. “You aren’t the only show in town. You better have it be an experience that you can go back home and say, ‘I can’t wait to go back, because that was the best opportunity for us as a company to get our brand out and sell product.’”
The organization also went through some growing pains, needing to find a way to respect EAA’s legacy while adapting to the future.
“It’s similar to what the Packers have gone through. How do you modernize? How do you update? How do you keep current?” says Dick Knapinski, EAA’s senior communications adviser. “But you’ve got all of this history behind you that people love and appreciate and revere. How do you balance that?”
While Pelton is reluctant to take credit for turning things around, the EAA board understood that his skill set leading a large corporation — and having attended EAA as an exhibitor — would lend a new perspective.
“Most of them knew me from the industry. ‘He’s the guy that ran Cessna’ gives you a little street credit with them,” he says.
Pelton also recognizes it’s an effort for individual members to attend, including people with limited vacation time and other commitments.
“You don’t know how hard it is for somebody to come from Wichita, Kansas, for a week. You’ve got to make your arrangements a year ahead of time if you want a hotel room in the general area,” Pelton says. “You’ve got to set up transportation. It’s a big deal.”
The organization also continues to expand its mission around children, including offering a KidVenture experience, where kids participate in hands-on workshops.
“We have changed AirVenture to be more kid-friendly. It starts with being spouse-friendly,” Pelton says. “We have better bathroom facilities. We have better food choices. We have ways to make a family be able to get around easier. I was adamant that a bottle of water can’t cost more than $2.”
Camping areas have been upgraded to accommodate the shift to more people wanting to arrive in million-dollar motor homes or stay connected while roughing it.
“You’ve got to be looking at the things that are going to get young people here,” Pelton says. “What are the things that will allow your older demographics to be able to get around?”
EAA also diversified the event’s content to appeal to a range of interests. Since Pelton’s arrival, the organization has kept in mind this planning mantra: There will be something for everyone.
Pelton says planning for next year’s AirVenture begins right after the current one closes.
“We meet every two weeks. We follow up, and it really works well. I think everybody’s just upping their game,” he says.
At AirVenture 2016, EAA recognized its 2 millionth Young Eagle, Jodie Gawthrop. EAA marked the occasion with a special flight with pilot and former Young Eagles Chairman Harrison Ford in his de Havilland Beaver, a single-engine back country prop plane.
“It was absolutely surreal,” says Gawthrop, who was 16 at the time and now an aviation maintenance student at Vincennes University in Indiana. “We just talked about how amazing flying is and how awesome aviation is in general. It was really incredible to experience aviation with someone who’s this movie star, but at the end of the day just loves flying around in his little airplane as much as I do.”
For Gawthrop, one of the biggest impacts of the Young Eagles program is the community it created for her. “You’re not only able to meet other young people like you who have an interest in flying, but you’re also introduced to this network of really seasoned aviators,” she says. “And people that are willing to help you out in your journey and share their wisdom.”
The Young Eagles program offers a first flight, EAA student membership, a free online Learn to Fly Course followed by a free first lesson, and flight training scholarships.
Since about 7 percent of pilots, commercial and private, are female, EAA hopes to impact more girls like Gawthrop through programs like its EAA GirlVenture Camp for high school girls.
Beyond Young Eagles and GirlVenture, EAA has multiple youth initiatives, including a STEM curriculum for educators, a Night Flight overnight experience in the museum, Scout programs to earn aviation badges and a youth Air Academy that was named by MSN Money as one of 10 summer camps worth the money.
Pelton still wants to do more. He wants to expand the Air Academy and develop a solo glider camp. He hopes to make the museum even more interactive for young people and add more rotating exhibits, so community members find something new during repeat visits.
EAA holds reunions of students from its Air Academy training and Young Eagles program, and Pelton says he’s always blown away by how many commercial pilots got their start in Oshkosh.
“Most of them come from non-aviation families,” Pelton says. “This was their introduction to aviation. This became their aviation family, so there are some that come back every year. You feel good that we had a hand in it.”
EAA Chairman and CEO Jack Pelton’s aviator helmet bears the name “Smilin’ Jack,” a nickname given to him by the movie star and aviation enthusiast Harrison Ford. While Pelton was CEO at Cessna Aircraft, Ford wrote a forward for a book on Cessna. In that write-up, Ford bestowed the moniker for the first time. It’s a name that fits well given how Pelton’s face lights up when discussing his love of being in the cockpit of one of his vintage planes.
Experimental Aircraft Association
CEO & Chairman: Jack Pelton
Year founded: 1953
Number of members: More than 200,000
Number of EAA chapters: 900 across the globe
AirVenture on the move
EAA’s first AirVenture (then called a fly-in) was held in 1953 at what is now known as Timmerman Field in Milwaukee. In 1959, it moved to Rockford, Ill., before moving to Oshkosh in 1969.
As for EAA, the organization moved in 1983 from the Milwaukee area (where Paul Poberezny had started it in his basement) to Oshkosh and its 100,000-square-foot facility that includes the international headquarters for EAA, the EAA Foundation and the EAA Aviation Museum.
EAA becomes Marvel-ous
You’ve heard of the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Panther and the other superheroes of the Marvel Universe — now, meet Aviore, the EAA’s very own Stan Lee superhero.
Here’s how it happened: EAA board member and retired NASA astronaut Charlie Precourt knew a board member of the Stan Lee Foundation, which focuses on literacy, arts and education. That opened the door to approaching Lee, who was impressed with EAA’s efforts to reach young people and interest them in STEM-related activities, says Jack Pelton, EAA CEO and chairman.
“He (Lee) says some kids are really good at wanting to pick up and read a novel,” Pelton recalls. “Other kids aren’t, so a comic book would be right for them from an attention standpoint.”
The Stan Lee Foundation gifted EAA with a superhero, which staff named Aviore.
“We thought with the pop culture phenomenon that is comic book heroes, this could fit really well into helping get our story across to the next generation of aviation enthusiasts and pilots and engineers and air traffic controllers and things like that,” says Mike DiFrisco, EAA’s senior director of marketing.
Lee died in 2018 but made the trip to AirVenture in 2017 with his team for Aviore’s launch, DiFrisco says.
Members of the EAA publications and marketing teams work with an external comic book writer and illustrator on each issue, with about 200,000 copies printed and distributed through EAA magazines.
“It’s getting some traction and people seem to be enjoying it,” DiFrisco says. “We hope by distributing the comic book within the pages of their magazine that (members) can take it out and give it to a local library, a school, a grandchild.”
The 900 EAA chapters around the world also can request the comic books for their Young Eagles rallies. Now, EAA is working on Aviore No. 4 as well as activity books and an Aviore aviator’s handbook, an evergreen resource book with aviation terminology and explanations.
“It’s pretty amazing to me that within about 80 days of when we first heard about this, we had Stan Lee here, we had a character in costume,” DiFrisco says. “We had the first comic book already in production, or at least the concept of it, going. It was a pretty cool thing to see come together and pretty exciting. It felt a little Hollywood-y in a way.”