The Resistance

A hub of creativity for early airplane builders: North Carolina? Ohio? Nope—Oregon. And these Oregonians had an independent streak.

In the 1930s, a group of air-minded Oregonians started one of the first homebuilding clubs. Here, the pilots and builders banded together against a new threat: federal regulation. (Oregon Aviation Historical Society)
Air & Space Magazine

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After the United States entered World War II, the federal government decided that small aircraft flying in U.S. airspace without radios posed a threat, since they could not always be readily identified as friend or foe. Civilian aircraft were tucked away in hangars, barns, and garages. The test case trickled through the court system until 1942, when it was quietly dismissed.

After the war, the Outlaws made one last attempt to regain their early freedoms. In 1946, George Bogardus, who had flown from Bernard’s before the war, resurrected a small single-seat airplane that Lee Eyerly had commissioned as a prototype. Bogardus brought it back to flying condition and dubbed it Little GeeBee, perhaps after his initials (see “Barnstorming the Beltway,” Restoration, Apr./May 2006). In 1947, supported by coins, crumpled dollars, and lodging donated by fellow Oregonian pilots, Bogardus flew Little GeeBee across the country to take the case for amateur-built aircraft to Washington, D.C. There he lobbied the CAA on the importance of protecting the category of homebuilt aircraft from being regulated out of existence. Four years later, he made another such trip, and finally, the CAA wrote a regulation that permitted Americans to build their own airplanes and, after an inspection, license them in an “experimental” category—a plan very much like Oregon’s system. (For his efforts, Bogardus later became one of the first three people inducted into the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Homebuilders Hall of Fame. His Little GeeBee is now owned by the National Air and Space Museum, and it will be displayed later this year at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in north-ern Virginia.)

Les Long’s airfield eventually reverted to farmland, although the current owner still works in the Outlaw-era buildings there and flies his Piper PA-11 from a short grass strip on the edge of the property. Ed Ball and Swede Ralston developed Hillsboro into a major regional airport, where Ralston, now 90, still comes to work every weekday—his office overlooks a large ramp filled with his charter company’s multi-million-dollar jets.

Charlie Bernard’s airport succumbed to economic necessity in 1969. Surrounded by residential and commercial development, the property became so valuable that hangar rents could no longer pay the taxes and expenses. Bernard sold the land to shopping mall developers, and drove his own bulldozer to knock down the hangars he’d built board by board almost 40 years earlier. Walt Rupert, who had flown and had operated a flying service at Bernard’s from the first day to the last, couldn’t bear to watch.

In 1978, John Patton asked Bernard how it had felt to put the blade against the hangars. Bernard paused for a long time, then said, “Did you ever want to cry, but the tears just wouldn’t come?” He died the following year.

Today, the Experimental category is one of the most vibrant of American aviation. Several hundred new amateur-built airplanes are registered—federally, of course—in the United States every year. An entire industry has evolved to supply homebuilders with kits, materials, and parts. The Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association—Homebuilder Central—has 921 chapters across the United States, and dozens more in other nations. The Outlaws, says Carol Skinner, archivist of the Oregon Aviation Historical Society, “paved the way for pilots who could not afford production aircraft but wanted to have their own.”

Fittingly enough, today, some of the largest companies in the homebuilding field, such as Van’s Aircraft and Lancair, are based in Oregon—almost in the shadow of Bernard’s airport.

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