So what to make of Rod Hightower's sudden departure as EAA's president? I found it both unsurprising and surprising. It's unsurprising because we've been hearing for months that EAA staff and companies and entities dealing with the association have been unhappy with Hightower's management style. Brusque, high-handed and unyielding come to mind. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've seen us urged to report on how many experienced hands have left EAA, either forced out or unhappy with the work environment there.
We're not likely to do much with such entreaties because they inevitably devolve into gossipy "he says, she says" stories that serve no one. Besides, when new managers come on board, there's a certain expectation that staff changes will come with the change. That's just a fact of life in business and it's naïve to assume otherwise.
The surprising part of Hightower's departure is how quickly and decisively the board seems to have acted, if indeed this was a board decision and not Hightower deciding he wants to spend more time with his family. I never believe that explanation. You'd think by now human resources could come up with a better euphemism for a ritual beheading. But I suppose the words don't come easy. Evidently, the board was alarmed enough to take immediate action against a manager who's been on the job for a little over two years.
What now for EAA? We shall see. I doubt if the association is going to alter its course much because what it must do is determined less by its own internal ideals and more by market reality. We're at the point now that we can drop the artifice of general aviation having a cold that's going to clear up when the economy improves. It's more like chronic, systemic pneumonia and if someone sees the market forces out there that are going to change this, would you mind pointing them out to me? So I think EAA's fate is sealed. To survive and thrive, it needs to broaden its appeal and find members whose interests aren't just in experimental airplanes and warbirds, but in aviation as an avocation, an aspiration and an abiding interest. That might include people who have neither the desire nor the wherewithal to actually fly airplanes. EAA has been doing this. I expect to see it continue.
We've heard plenty of complaints from long-time EAA members that the association has forgotten the grassroots, homebuilder segment of its membership which, mostly for the better, has made EAA what it is today. Whether this complaint is justified or just carping by established members opposed to all change, I can't say. But it's a relatively easy fence to mend and one worth mending because builders are a critical part of GA as a whole. They deserve all the support EAA can give them.
The brightest spot in this turn of events is Jack Pelton's involvement. Elevated to chairman of the board, it's unclear what role he's going to play exactly, but my guess is it will be substantial. Running the association's day-to-day operations might be a bit below his pay grade, but he's the ideal guy to exercise the invisible hand of guidance for whomever the board finds to replace Hightower. Pelton is one of those rare high-octane CEOs who's a genuine people person, which I suspect is just what the EAA staff needs right now. Pelton understands GA because he owns and flies airplanes. He knows the market and the people in it and is who I'd vote for as most qualified to chart an informed, rational course for the association that acknowledges market realities. He's utterly unlikely to charge off in some direction those of us in the chattering class would find perplexing. He gives the association a shot of dynamism it can certainly use.
So, overall, I think today's events are definitely a plus for EAA and for general aviation. I've always felt that EAA has a unique opportunity to grow itself and promote the industry. I expect to see good things from Pelton and EAA.