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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I lived in Ohio for awhile and when the project was starting, I joined an EAA chapter. And the chapter rallied around and helped me understand the skills and find the resources I needed to help me complete the restoration. The skills in the membership were outstanding: whether it was welding, painting, machine-tool work, or stitching fabric. So the network of aviators who helped pull that together in the EAA community educated me. I’d never restored an airplane before, and their expertise was invaluable.

The type-club involvement, the Stearman Restorer’s Association, with specialized knowledge about Stearmans, helped me find resources among the network of Stearman owners. So the combination of EAA and the Stearman Restorer’s Association was just that magical combination of a large organization with a 930-chapter network across the United States with passionate members who could help you with the skills you need, then a special type club who could help you with the unique needs of a specific airplane, a Stearman in my case. 

There’s something new at AirVenture that you’re calling “eVenture.” What’s that all about?

The first year we had electric aircraft was 2010. And I think electric aircraft are going to be important. Electric aircraft offer a very economical way to fly for relatively short distances, so it could be very well suited for the training environment. It’s very eco-friendly. Getting away from petroleum-based fuels is always a good thing.  It’s also very environmentally friendly in terms of noise impact. It’s very quiet. So there are a lot of very innovative things happening with e-flight, and I think you’re going to see more and more of it, and for certain applications, it makes a lot of sense.  Battery technology is going to be the limiting factor there.

Is it one of the most promising technologies in making the transition away from leaded avgas to a different kind of propulsion?

I think some of the technologies enabling electric flight are limited right now. But in time, you’ll see more capability, just as we’ve seen throughout the history of aviation. There was a day when airplanes didn’t fly very far and didn’t fly very high and didn’t stay in the air very long, but look what’s happened now. Over time, you’ll see the technology improve.  For short distance flying and applications like motor gliders, you see a wonderful application for electric propulsion.

What other advances might be leading the way from leaded fuel?

Currently there is no drop-in replacement for 100-octane low-lead avgas for the general aviation fleet. The technologies being studied by independent fuel producers are very promising, and I’m very optimistic that we will find the right solution moving forward, but it will not be an exact one-for-one replacement. Nothing manages detonation and pre-ignition better than lead. Some of the compounds that do help manage detonation better than lead produce more toxicity than lead itself does. So it’s going to be a very significant scientific challenge to get this right so that it will be useful for the entire fleet.

Some have suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency impose a timeline for the phasing out of leaded gas. What’s the danger for pilots flying now, if the suit is successful?

A timeline would be devastating to aviation. It would compromise safety because you might find people pushing technology before it’s adequately tested. Managing the technology and the science of creating a fuel for the entire fleet from high-compression, high-power to low-compression, moderated-power engines is going to demand careful study, careful formulation, and lots of testing in the real-world environment. And that needs to be heavily governed and heavily regulated to insure safety. Imposing a timeline, I think, could lead to dangerous practices.

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