Rod Hightower: Build, Volunteer, Fly
An interview with the President and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2012
The president and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association talked to A&S Editor Linda Shiner recently about the challenges to private pilots in the United States, his Stearman restoration, and what George Lucas thinks of Oshkosh.
Air & Space: EAA is an organization with a famous heritage. Most aviation enthusiasts know that Paul Poberezny founded it and that his son Tom ran it for years. What does it mean to have somebody new at the helm?
Hightower: It’s a huge privilege to lead the world’s most dynamic aviation organization. I still can’t believe that they picked me. It’s my job as the steward of the organization to not only carry on the culture, tradition, and values of the EAA but also to make it relevant to today’s aviation constituents and today’s aviation marketplace—and to continue the mission that Paul Poberezny started in 1953. That mission will never change: to grow participation in aviation by inspiring people to fly, to build, to restore, to volunteer, to reach out to their community in support of aviation.
What does it mean to the U.S. general aviation economy that the Federal Aviation Administration certificated 941 amateur-built aircraft last year?
I think what that represents is amateur building is an unbeatable combination of value in terms of price and performance. That number speaks to the desire that people have to innovate and to have things just they way they want them for the purposes they want to use airplanes for. An entire industry supports amateur-built aircraft, and it’s doing quite well during a very difficult recession.
Have you had any thoughts about what private aviation means to the country aside from the economic contribution it makes to small businesses?
You have to think about the contribution of aviation in human terms. Aviation is used in so many ways that the general public is unaware of—or at least under-aware of. General aviation is used to transport a tremendous number of patients with special medical needs, whether it’s helicopters for emergency medical services or fixed-wing aircraft on missions to bring cancer patients to their treatment in a way that’s more timely and comfortable than they could achieve on an airline. The other uses that have a significant impact in human terms are the transport of blood samples from testing labs for rapid evaluation.
Part of the EAA’s vision is to increase “the pathways to participation” for aviation enthusiasts. How is EAA doing that?
If you’re a young person, we have a wonderful program, the world’s largest aviation outreach program called Young Eagles. The Young Eagles program turns 20 this July 2012. We’ve flown 1.6 million young people between the ages of 8 and 17. About 30 percent of those are female. The oldest Young Eagle is now 36 years old. Of all the U.S. pilots below the age of 36, 7.3 percent of that entire pilot population are former EAA Young Eagles.
The female pilot population has been impacted by Young Eagles in a very effective and positive way. Across the pilot population of the United States, about 600,000 pilots, six percent are female. Of the 18,800 certificated pilots that are former Young Eagles, over nine percent are female.
So that’s a pathway for the young crowd. What about the 35-and-over demographic?
We have something called Eagle Flight. We had a lot of fun naming this one. We had a lot of suggestions from the membership. What are we going to call this flight for adults? Old Eagles? Bald Eagles? But it’s called Eagle Flight and it’s for folks above the age of 18. It’s an early flight experience with a pathway to certification, and the first flight will take place at this year’s 2012 AirVenture out at show center.
We’re finding out some things about that demographic. In that group, those who hold the dream of flight have two characteristics: the desire to fly is long held, and now they have the capability to fly, whether that’s time, or money, or both. Always wanted to, now can. Those people certificated with 18 months often are buying airplanes within 24 months—an amazing dynamic in that demographic. If you take a look at the 15,000 private pilots certificated every year, there’s a surprising and growing number of those above the age of 35.
What was your very first experience at AirVenture?
My first year was 1988. It was a terrific year for me. It was my first AirVenture and it was the year I got married. And it was the year that I bought my Stearman project. It was a basket case. That one has to fit in the category of things I’ll never do again.