Rod Hightower: Build, Volunteer, Fly

An interview with the President and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Rod Hightower in the Boeing PT-17 Stearman he restored. (Jim Koepnick)
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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.

George Lucas [who recently produced the feature film Red Tails about the Tuskegee Airmen] attended AirVenture for the first time last year, and I asked him over lunch for his impression. He said, ‘Rod I had no idea of the scope and scale of this place.’ He said he was blown away. So for the rest of my life, I’m going to be telling people that George Lucas was blown away by his experience at AirVenture. Those were his words.

How long did it take to restore your Stearman?

It sat unattended for a little while—a couple of years. And the restoration got underway in earnest in 1990. So seven and a half years. It made its first flight in July of 1996. And it’s been a fabulous journey for our entire family. Some of our children have grown up around that airplane as it was being restored.

[A restoration project] teaches you a lot about the value of money and about the network of aviators who come to help you in such a complex project and restoring something from literally a pile of parts.

How did EAA help in the restoration?

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