A pilot with a commercial rating and more than 3,000 hours of flight time, Sam Graves co-chairs the General Aviation Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. He helped found the annual Wing Nuts Flying Circus, an annual airshow in his hometown of Tarkio, Missouri, and is restoring a 1943 Beech AT-10. He talked to Air & Space Editor Linda Shiner in October.
Air & Space: Why did you see a need for a congressional General Aviation Caucus?
Graves: When I got to Washington [in 2000], I noticed that there are so many people who are regulating aviation who don’t understand it. And in Congress, there were very few people advocating for aviation. And you have people out there who have medical issues related to pilots’ licenses and are trying to sift their way through. Or they have certification issues, or problems with their local [Flight Standards District Office]. When they would go to their member of Congress, there was very little understanding of what the problems was, or what the regulations are. That's how I got started doing this stuff, and trying to help people nationwide.
Are the caucus members educating other members and acting as advocates for general aviation?
Yes, and we’re at 236 members now, so we’re over the halfway point [of the total House membership]—one of the largest, most bi-partisan caucuses in the House of Representatives. So we're pretty excited about that. This is the first time it’s ever gone over. The magic number is 218, which is half of the House.
Can you represent all aviation interests? There are sometimes competing interests within the community. Airlines, for example, are sometimes at odds with individual airplane owners.
We do jump into some of the issues that affect everybody. Pilot shortage is a big problem for everybody. A shortage of mechanics—that’s another big problem. And, you know, this movement toward outsourcing—moving jobs outside of the country. That’s a little bit of a problem for everybody. So we do have some common issues, but we have a lot of issues that don’t match. And it is the General Aviation Caucus.
What are the more contentious issues that the caucus addresses?
Groups are divided when it comes to how we pay for items. The Aviation Trust Fund is where all of our gas taxes go, and the airlines are paying a lot of dollars into that, because they use a lot of fuel. Big chunks of money will get spent on the big airports, but a lot of money gets spent on the little airports. We forget why the Trust Fund was created in the first place. We created it to build reliever and regional airports because the airlines wanted the little airplanes off the big airports.
I can’t remember exactly what the headline was; it was something like “400 Passengers Wait On a Piper Cub.” The airplane was actually a twin-engine Apache, and it was sitting in front of a 747, and the 747 had to wait for the Apache to take off.
[The upshot was] the Aviation Trust Fund, which takes away general aviation traffic from the big airports. But now that that system is in place, you see competition for where that money should go.
What other concerns are being addressed by the caucus?
We’ve got searches by [U.S. customs and] Border Protection. We’ve cataloged 40 now, and they’re illegal. If they don’t have a warrant, they cannot search your aircraft. Why they’re searching flights within the borders is beyond me. We’re pushing back on that.
Other issues include FAA exemptions for the Living History Flight Experience, in terms of certification of antiques and warbirds, allowing them to continue to fly.
In 1996, the FAA began granting aviation museums and foundations an exemption from certain requirements that allowed them to charge fees for carrying passengers in multi-engine World War II bombers for the purpose of preserving U.S. military aviation history. In 2007, the agency expanded the program to other types of warbirds and antiques. Two years ago, there were public hearings on what types of aircraft could be included. Where does that stand?
The FAA still has not given us a ruling. And, you know, some of these organizations, particularly these museums, that’s the only way they can fund keeping that airplane in the air.
What do you think are the most effective ways to grow the pilot base in the country?
That one’s really tough. It’s fairly easy to get kids excited about aviation, just the same way all the rest of us got excited about aviation. Just taking that first ride, or going to an airshow, or seeing an airplane up close. The hard part, though, is when the reality of how much it costs sets in. That’s the biggest problem we’re facing.
I do know that the more airshows we have, and the more air meets we have, the more flying breakfasts we have, the more interest we’re going to see. As an aviation community, I think we can do a better job of fostering that.
What are some of the successes you’ve seen?
The Antique Airplane Association Fly-In and Convention in Blakesburg, Iowa, is a great example of people who just want to encourage folks to see their airplanes, look at their airplanes, and take a ride. It’s too bad we can’t package that up and take it to some of our very large air shows, where we have so many kids. It’s really about children. We’ve got to get them excited. If we could package Blakesburg and take it around, we might have a better chance with young people.
I’ve always said that in our airshow community, we have two kinds of pilots. We have aerobatic pilots—the performers—and we’ve got warbird folks. The aerobatic pilots are showmen. They’re all about the presentation. People don’t necessarily want to see their airplanes, because they’re not that glamorous, but the audience likes to watch them perform. And the showmen are bigger than life. They know how to work that. The flip side to that is the warbird community. We have the airplanes that everybody wants to see, but our personalities are lousy when it comes to talking about the airplanes to young people “Climb up into this airplane!” “What can I tell you about it?” “Here’s why it’s important.” If we could combine the two—if the warbird community could be a whole lot more about being showmen and showing off their planes—we could have a greater impact on kids.
Maybe some of those people who are good at talking to folks about their airplanes could lead a forum at the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in to train others to do it.
Yes, that’s a possibility. What I like to tell folks is that every one of us had that, “Wow, I just got to do that” time. It might have been that time in a Cub. It may have been the first time they rode in a Mustang. The cool thing about us now is, particularly if you’re flying some of the really neat stuff, we get to do it every day.
What was your I-just-got-to-do-that time? I know that you grew up near a small airport.
I grew up right at a small airport. The municipal airport in our town sits right in the middle of our farm. And that is because my great-great-grandfather donated the land to the city, after his son was killed in the war. He was a B-24 pilot. So my brother and I worked on the farm and did what we had to do, and the first chance we got, we went to the airport, and pumped gas, or washed airplanes. We did anything we could to mooch a ride. We mooched a lot of rides.
After the war, my great grandfather bought an airplane from the military to store oil for his contracting business. He stored oil in the fuselage, but the cockpit was sitting there. My dad played in it as a kid, and my uncle. Then it sat around the farm, and we played in it as kids. And my kids played in it; everybody's kids played in it. It helped hook us when we were really, really young.
What type is it?
It’s a Beech AT-10. During World War II, U.S. bomber pilots did all of their instrument training in AT-10s. There aren’t any left. When we finish restoring it, it will be the only one left flying. I’ve been collecting parts for that thing for ten years now.
Do you have them all?
I’ve pretty much got everything I need. Because this is going to be a flying airplane, all of our wood components are going to be new. The glue technology today is 1,000 times better than it was in the ’40s. We got the plans from the Smithsonian. We’re getting ready to go to construction.
You started an airshow in your hometown of Tarkio, Missouri.
Yes, it’s a big warbird show, and we also have aerobatic performers. It’s a very hands-on, grassroots, up-close-and-personal show. We don’t allow ropes around airplanes. We want people out there touching these planes and asking questions. And sometimes that brings a problem or two, but regardless, we want to encourage them.
How did the show start?
It was a Flying Breakfast years ago, the Rotary Flying Breakfast, and it just died. Then I got involved in Rotary and started doing the Flying Breakfasts,. Then we decided, "Well, we ought to do an air show." At first we called it the Congressional Air Show, then we changed all the rules around here, so I couldn’t do that anymore. So we formed an EAA Chapter, and now the EAA Chapter puts it on, and they call themselves the Wing Nuts Flying Circus.