AVweb Interviews Tom Poberezny

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AVweb continues its coverage of EAA AirVenture 1998 ... .

Osh '98

Tom PobereznyAVweb spoke with EAA president Tom Poberezny a week before AirVenture Oshkosh 1998:

AVweb: So, AirVenture Oshkosh is nigh upon us.

Poberezny: Yes, actually we feel that is has started already with the people already arriving

AVweb: How crowded is it this early out?

Poberezny: Usually the 4th of July is kind of the kick off. Early arrivals come primarily from those camping and many of the volunteers that help us. I would say that we probably have 800 to 900, maybe close to 1,000 already. It is mostly people who are semi-retired, or whatever that basically have the time. They spend their summers in this area and their winters in Florida, or Southwest. Aircraft are starting to arrive at a pretty good pace, picking up this weekend. And, of course, all of the exhibitors start to pour in here on the weekend also.

AVweb: What are your thoughts about the extraordinary AVweb coverage we have planned?

Poberezny: Number one is I think it's great to have that sort of coverage, because what I think what it does is offer great exposure for the organization and for aviation. Our goal at the event is to promote aviation. Obviously, not everyone can get here and for those who can't, hopefully someday they will.

This is a little different that the coverage we get from a typical magazine because the coverage will be in some cases more in-depth because you are covering it as it happens, as opposed to writers who have to go back and write the story and have a couple thousand words to tell the whole story. And, it is 30 or 60 days before it usually comes out.

I think that it's a great opportunity for us, as an organization, through the event, to expose the organization to people that have heard about us or maybe heard about the event but didn't realize or understand the relationship of EAA to the event. You know a lot of people hear the word AirVenture Oshkosh but don't realize that EAA is the organization that presents it.

AVweb: Really? Do you think that is a significant problem?

Poberezny: Well, I don't want to put it in the category of significant, but it is a communications issue, because what is happening is the event has grown so tremendously that a lot of people who are what I call the "enthusiast," or a new pilot, or someone just interested, they have heard about, quote, AirVenture Oshkosh. And, that is the word that is used a lot. There are people who don't realize that at AirVenture Oshkosh is the EAA convention, as opposed to that big air show at AirVenture Oshkosh. So I call it a communications problem. It's a blessing of the success of the event where sometimes the event can grow more in the mind than the organization, which doesn't have the dynamics of event.

AVweb: Was that part of the reason behind the adoption of the EAA AirVenture name?

Poberezny: That's correct. In other words, we wanted to develop a name we could brand. We can't brand the name Oshkosh because of OshKosh B'Gosh and everything else. And we wanted to brand a name that tied the two together. The event is obviously our convention of the members, but it's a celebration of flight that we open the door to say we welcome anyone who is an enthusiast to come. It's your chance in one week to touch all phases of aviation and if you can't be here, AVweb can bring it to your home so that next year you will be here. So, AVweb's coverage affords the opportunity to hopefully recruit new attendees sometime in the future, or bring back people who didn't come this year. And, secondly, the new name highlights EAA, and obviously AirVenture Oshkosh is our biggest recruiting tool. I hope these people who are involved in recreational aviation say, gee, I'm going to join EAA. If this event is an example of what they do, for fun flying, that is the place to be.

AVweb: What percentage of AirVenture attendees are repeat and what repeat attendees are newcomers?

Poberezny: I am giving you this as an estimate, I can't give you an accurate survey, but having been involved as long as I have, what you are looking at, and I will use the word "repeat" as the fact they it may not be consecutive years, but people who have at least come here sometime in their aviation career, you are probably looking at 60-65%. What you will find is that there is a core of people, a pretty good percentage, that come year in, year out. It's their family vacation. One of the reasons we get a high percentage of repeats is that we have oriented the event towards the family, because what you are doing is taking the discretionary time of the family to go somewhere for an extended period of time. If you can't involve the family, it becomes more difficult for the aviation enthusiast in the family to justify taking that amount of time off, either traveling across the country or half way around the world to get here. What you will find is that you will go in the camp site and there are people who have camped next to each other for 10 years, their kids have grown up together, their spouses have become close friends, they communicate during the year, and part of the essence of the event is not just the activities, but also the friendships, and the renewal of those friendships.

Tom Poberezny AVweb: What percentage of attendees are pilots and their families as opposed to simply aviation enthusiasts?

Poberezny: What we are finding is that the percentage of families that come with pilots that are members versus non-members is smaller, because there you are getting more a pilot and his or her aviation friends that come along versus the member who brings their family because it is their event. So you really find a lower percentage of families coming with a non-member pilot than with a member pilot. What I would say is that probably the non-member pilot who is bringing family members is less than 20-25%. For them it is probably a 1, 2, or 3 day trip and for many of them it may be the first time, or the first time in a long time. This in contrast to the member who has a higher level of repeat participation and as they repeat more, the tendency is they will bring their family more frequently.

AVweb: What is your favorite part of the AirVenture Oshkosh experience?

Poberezny: Actually, it's the anticipation. You work all year long for something and you see it all start to some together and the tents are going up, the people arriving, like a big party. You know how you get excited about this party you are going to have? And, you are almost as excited as the momentum builds as the actual event. So for me it is that excitement of watching something build every year, people coming back every year, renewing friendships. It is funny, it will be a year since I have seen a lot of people that come back and when you see them it's like it was just yesterday. It's the excitement, the wide variety of aircraft, the arrival — you know you see the warbirds, the ultra-lights, the rest — all in one place. To me it's the people aspect of the event. What happens is the hardware creates the excitement, but the people create the emotions.

AVweb: What do you find the most challenging aspect of putting on an event this size?

Poberezny: That is a really good question, and what I have to say is that in general it's the fact of taking care of people 24 hours a day, because what we have is that they're literally living with us in the campsites, in the vehicle campsite and the aircraft campsite. So, that creates challenges in that we become an instant city with all of the responsibilities that come with that, from our medical facilities to sanitation — we have to take care of all the things we do in our normal lives. At a single event you don't have to worry about so much, because you open the gates in the morning and close them at night and the people go someplace else. Here they stay with us.

The initial challenge is the way people arrive — everything from RV's to cars to motorcycles to airplanes, it's a multi-aspect logistical situation and on top of that we want to provide the highest quality of programs. It's 500 forums, the workshops and all of that, so the logistics is the challenge to be able to create the most efficient and highest service possible, make it entertaining but still provide the level service where people feel that they are treated on a one-on-one basis, not just kind of herded in and herded out. And, as you grow the challenge is how do you grow and still maintain the personal service? The reason we have been successful is that the dedication and participation of thousands of volunteers that take a big job and break it down to thousands of small jobs. And, obviously, with great pride. People are here working because of a passion for aviation and they want to be involved in something that's a success. If you spend all those hours and hard work your only pay is the success of the event and you will do everything possible to make it the best possible so that the member and visitor leaves here happy. We've also got customers who are exhibitors as well as the member who participates.

AVweb: How many people do you expect this year?

Last year our attendance was around 840,000 for the seven days. This year we are looking at that same general area — the mid 800s. Last year we had approximately 2,700 display aircraft, that is the warbirds, antiques, classics, etc., the flight line. We expect this year to be in that range or a little above, and that doesn't count the exhibitor aircraft that are in the outdoor exhibit areas. To give you an idea of the number of aircraft which includes the show planes, the exhibit aircraft and the transit area, and the general aircraft that fly in for the day or for the week, we park the aircraft essentially in 80 foot rows, center to center is 80 feet. On many of the rows the airplanes are tailed in, double parked — back to back. If you walk past every row, not down the row, just past every row, you walk 5.2 miles. So the logistics of landing and taking off aircraft and parking them over a 5.2 mile site is accomplishment in itself for all of those involved.

AVweb: How much flying are you doing yourself these days?

Poberzny and his Eagle Poberezny: Well, when I was flying air shows with the Eagles and stuff, I was running maybe 300 hours per year, but now it is all personal and cross country, in my Twin Commanche, which is the primary aircraft I fly. So, I fly right now about 140-145 hours per year, which still keeps my hand in there pretty much. I must say that I miss the air shows, but I don't miss all the cross country flying in that Eagle, you know trips to the West Coast and stuff. After awhile, when you have done it a number of times...but it was great while it lasted. It was 25 wonderful years and I met some great people.

AVweb: Do you miss the aerobatics part of it?

Poberezny: Yes, I miss three things about it. Number one is the aerobatics, because it's my favorite part of flying. Number two, I miss the camaraderie that existed between Charlie, Gene, and myself. When you fly with someone for 25 years and you are traveling that much you develop a very close friendship. And thirdly, I miss the opportunity to entertain people. We were entertainers. We'd go to an air show and it was fun to receive the response from people who would hopefully enjoy what you were doing, because air shows are a form of entertainment to the enthusiast and public alike. Now, would I go back and do it again? No, I am done. I left on my own terms, I feel comfortable with the decision. So, although I miss it, I don't miss it enough to go back and start it all up again.

AVweb: What sort of problems that have occurred in previous years have you addressed and hopefully solved this year?

Poberezny: Probably the biggest areas we have had to address, and this has been over the last four or five years, is outgrowing the physical site. We moved up here in 1970 and developed the site — over 20 years as the event grew you put buildings here, and roads over here, and you park here, and finally you find that 20 years later things are not in the right place. And, you wish you knew in 1970 what you know in 1990. Now, we have things physically built here and so we had to kind of rebuild the site to facilitate the growth of traffic, facilitate and enhance safety, expand exhibit areas where we have permanent building and outdoor exhibits. So, we had to do a master plan and retool the site so we could hang out for the next 20 years. This year has been the fourth year of a five year master plan, of which essentially this year, the fourth year, has accomplished about 90% of what we wanted to do.

The site is much more user friendly, it facilitates the movement of aircraft and people much better in the exhibit areas, and of course, when you make changes like this, when people are used to something, change can always catch them off guard. We have already gone through the worst of it, but that has been the biggest challenge, because when you do something like this it better be right the first time, because once you build a building for a half million or three quarters of a million dollars as a big exhibit building, you can't move it 30 feet because you put it in the wrong place.

AVweb: How much total investment has this been on EAA's part?

Over the last four to five years we've spent in land acquisition, outdoor exhibit areas, indoor exhibit areas, electrical, utilities, roads, etc. it will be an investment of between $4 million and $4.5 million. When we are all done it will be over $5 million. The indoor exhibit buildings alone were half that - $2.5 million, roughly.

AVweb: What does it cost to put on this event every year?

Poberezny: You are talking about an annual budget, not counting capital investment, up in the $3 million area, and that you couldn't even touch if it weren't for the thousands of hours that are contributed by volunteers, not only during the event, but on a year-round basis for their leadership and participation. And, when you think about it, our convention fee, for example, for a member that comes for the week — 7 days — the weekly registration tag is $75 or $13 a day. Other conventions can run anywhere from $25 to $100 per day. To have all you have here for $13 per day! Now, for the non-member the weekly fee is $150, or $22 a day. And, the reason we can do it at that price, which I think is an extremely reasonable and fair price, is because of the thousands of volunteer hours. What we are trying to do is make this an event where as many people as possible can participate and try to keep it as economically feasible as possible. And in all honesty, for people traveling a long distance, say from Arizona or whatever, the registration fee is by far the smallest part of their cost.

AVweb: One of the themes this year is the history of corporate aviation. Correct?

Poberezny: That's correct. It is one of our three themes.

AVweb: What are the other two and why don't you tell us about how you have approached the three.

Poberezny: A number of years ago, probably going back seven or eight years ago, we started with some focal point programs, because people wanted to have something they could focus on, special activities over and above the magnitude of the event. We try to pick some unique themes every year.

One of the three this year is the history of corporate aviation. The reason we picked that is that many of the antiques and classics and contemporary airplanes that have been on the flight line for years, the beautifully restored aircraft, in their other life served as a corporate airplane, back in the 20's or 30's or 40's, in many cases were the start of what we know as corporate or business aviation. We thought, why not recognize that phase, because we spent the last three years on military and WWII and now it is time to visit some of the other aspects that support aviation. What you will see during the week is the whole spectrum from the 20's to current, in terms of the evolution of the business airplane or corporate airplane. And, going from a situation where years ago the airplanes were designed for other purposes and today you've got a whole category of airplanes designed specifically for corporate purposes — you'll see that change over time. It will be interesting to see a Twin Beech sitting next to a Gulfstream.

The second is medal of honor recipients — it's our nation's highest honor — the Congressional Medal of Honor. We have recognized the different aspects of military aviation over the years and we felt it was important to recognize this cadre of people who have earned the nations highest honor in a battlefield. We have invited one individual from each of the branches of the service — the Air Force, the Marines, Navy, and Army. Each honoree received that honor in an aviation situation which ties in with our event.

The last theme is a tribute to aviation heroism and the difference between valor and the field of battle in the military, and heroism by private citizens who at one moment were living a normal life and the next moment thrust into unusual circumstances and had to react accordingly, unrehearsed and unpracticed. That is why we have invited the crew of FedEx 705 that was hijacked, or attempted hijacked, a couple of years ago flying out of Memphis to San Jose. The crew are all EAA members and all aviation enthusiasts, so it's a chance for members to meet members just like themselves and listen to them tell their story which is obviously very emotional, and at the same time extremely interesting. The heroism expressed by those three individuals is something that we all want to rise to if that same level of response is ever required of us.

In each case of corporate aviation, there will be displays and themes on the main display area. In the case of the individuals, the medal of honor recipients, and the aviation heroism, there will be daily forums each day where people can listen and ask questions. We try to create the feeling that wouldn't it be great to have these people in your home, to live with them and listen to them talk in a casual way and answer questions. We try to make it more of a conversational program, rather than a speech.

AVweb: Administrator Garvey. What are your feelings about the job she has done so far and where she is taking general aviation?

Poberezny: Well, she has now been on the post for about one year, in fact she came here last year not quite yet the official administrator. And, she faces some real challenges. It was interesting when David Hinson was there, he came in with a tremendous aviation background, but had to carry a lot of baggage as far as dealing with the political structure. Whereas Jane Garvey was brought in as a change agent and someone who could deal with the political aspects, and hopefully could find a number two person who could cover daily operations of the agency. I think the challenges she has run into is trying to find the right people inside or outside the agency. What the agency is finding is that they need to restructure themselves, if they are going to get qualified people either internally or externally to take on the challenges of these positions. And, I think it is taking her longer than she expected to fill some of the positions she expected to fill. There have been some recent announcements, so I think realistically we have to be somewhat patient. I think it is taking longer than expected and that's not because of any fault of her own. It's the personnel issues that have had to be filled. There's an awful lot of people in acting positions in Washington right now, waiting to have positions filled. I think she is a very astute person, understands the political system very well, is a very quick learner, is an excellent listener, and if she can surround herself with the right people who bring expertise, I think she will have an excellent tenure. If she doesn't, I think she could have some problems. And, I am sure she would recognize that also. Anyone would in that situation.

AVweb: How do you feel she views general aviation and sport aviation, in particular?

I think she values it. I don't think she has had enough exposure yet to it, totally. We have had a couple of meetings with her as part of the General Aviation Action Plan Coalition, which is the consortium of general aviation organizations, and I found that at those two sessions she has been very knowledgeable on the issues and shows a sincere interest in the activity. I think that with the recent "ticket program" issue, and others, she better understands the strength of the general aviation community when significant issues come up and I think she has responded to it. She made the wrong decision to pursue it, but I also think she has acknowledged that it needed to be put on a back burner. I think she has positive feelings towards general aviation, but right now other segments of aviation dominate her time more than general aviation. We are not as high up the priority order as some of it. I don't think that means she values it any less, it's just that there are priorities established.

AVweb: How do you find that people's perceptions of general aviation and sport aviation have changed over the years and is it for the better or worse, or how is it going in terms of the publics' perception?

Poberezny: I think that is a good question. I think probably in the publics' perception it hasn't changed much from a few years back. Are you familiar with GA Team 2000?

AVweb: Sure, AVweb is a member.

Poberezny: Its goal is to increase the number of student starts. Really, it's a marketing effort, the first real initiative that has been industry wide. There have been other efforts, game plans and others, that had a specific life span. But, aviation as a whole has been very poor at marketing aviation. Our strongest competition is with boating, motorcycling and other recreational activities. When you look at that, we don't compete very well with them. I mean, when you look at the perceived cost of aviation, the time it takes to learn how to fly, the myriad regulations — I mean you add all those things, they are all things that say, why do I want to bother, I will go drive my motorcycle or buy a boat. So, from a marketing standpoint — we have to do a better job. And, once we do a better job, then I think the perception will change. I think right now it's not a negative perception, I think a lot of people like airplanes — just go to the local airport. You'll see people just sitting there watching airplanes take off and land. The enthusiasm is there, but the perception is, "I can't do it because I don't have the skills, can't afford it," or they feel awkward going to the airport and don't even know where the airport is. There are too many perceived walls that have got to be broken down to invite people in. Once that happens, I think you see a positive interest and it changes into a positive perception. The interest is there, but there are too many perceptions — some real, but many unreal, that are keeping people out. It's the old story — you have to invite people and get them through the door.

Tom Poberzny with EAA's Spirit of St Louis AVweb: What do you think the biggest challenge facing EAA and sport aviation is today?

One, obviously, is maintaining the privileges we have. That could be a regulatory or government problem. You need to constantly maintain a working relationship with government to ensure that the guidelines that we follow meet or exceed, and in most cases exceed, government standard. Self-regulation is much better than government regulations. Second, the challenge is to reach out to the thousands of people who have an interest in flying, but didn't know that they are invited in - again, it's that marketing/promotion issue. And, that is where events such as AirVenture Oshkosh, Copperstate, Sun and Fun, and others, as well as our 950 local EAA chapters could do a great job. When you talk about EAA, we have almost a thousand chapters that meet monthly. That is 12,000 aviation activities ma year. Many of them have fly-ins, or breakfast flights, or flying activities. Then we have the Young Eagles rallies, and so on, and when you look at it conservatively the EAA is an organization that through its local chapters, Young Eagles, fly-ins, etc., creates about 15,000 aviation activities and events a year from local meeting to activities at the local airport. So it gives lots of opportunity for people locally to make aviation friends. And, that is important. We all like recreation in some form, and in many cases we like to recreate with others, whether it's golf or whatever. Well, aviation is the same way. You want to make aviation friends and that's what EAA does. It provides you the opportunity to do that.

AVweb: There are a number of program EAA has been in the forefront of pilot and aviation advocacy. You mentioned one of the, Young Eagles. Another one that was recently introduced was the EAA AME Pilot Advocate program. How do you view these programs in terms of how successful they have been and if they have lived up to your expectations? Where do you see them going?

Number one is Young Eagles. Young Eagles has probably been the most significant program ever. Now, the convention itself is the biggest, but evolved from back in 1953 because we have had a convention every year since the organization started. But, Young Eagles started out as a program with a very major goal — to give one million kids airplane rides. We just hit the 400,000 a week ago, so we are well on the way towards that goal and it has been extremely safe and well promoted. What it has done are a couple of things. Number one, it's gotten 400,000 kids in the air that otherwise wouldn't have. Number two, for a lot of them it has created the fact that, "gee there's more than I knew out there. What's next?" So, it's led to some new initiatives where we are expanding our programs to residence camps, aviation camps, curriculums, and I really feel that as a result of Young Eagles, the work that EAA will do in youth education and promoting aviation will grow exponentially over the next decade. That program, in all honestly, has exceeded my expectations because of the offshoot of other programs that are developing.

Another program that is turning out to be very successful is Flying Start. It's a program at the chapter level, and what it involves is we encourage chapters at the local level to advertise in the local weekly paper to invite people to the airport. They are non-pilot aviation enthusiasts who come out to the airport, our chapter will host you, we will have flight instructors there, we will have the local flight school, we will have an FBO, etc. It's a one hour program geared towards an audience of non-pilots. Number one it allows people to find the airport. Number two, they are all equal in the audience — they are walking into an aviation enthusiast audience. Number three, they have a chance to meet some aviation friends. Number four, they get to meet a flight instructor right there on the spot. The goal is to get people to answer their questions about what it takes to learn to fly. Hopefully they will be encourages and the session will be the conduit bringing the flight school or flight instructor together with the student. As a result of this program conducted at a number of local chapters, we are running about one out of five, about 20%, of those attending the Flying Start program — are taking their first flight. At least initial lesson. So, we see that - in its early stages, this is the first complete year — we have had about 1300 to 1400 people participate this year. So that means about 300 people taking that next step into an aircraft. I think that program is showing initial positive in terms of helping allow all the other great programs out there to promote aviation.

Programs like our advocate programs, medical advocates and legal advisory counsel, are our members helping members. As an organization, we just don't have the resource to have the expertise on staff that can answer every question. So, we have been able to go out to our members as volunteers and have them help the organization in many ways. In this case we have gone to EAA members who happen to be in the legal profession or medical profession. They are volunteering their time to help members with specific issues and they have been very successful in terms of the help, especially for people in the early stages of a medical issue or who are looking for advice beyond their experience of their local AME or doctor.

AVweb: Do you find them a recruiting tool in any regard?

Poberezny: The legal advisory and the AME program are really more of a member benefit service, because it is an assistance to members that are in the organization primarily. A lot of people thinking about joining aren't thinking too much about the medical issues and others, they are looking for what can I get in terms of my dollars or whatever. I think that when you look at programs such as Young Eagle and the others, they ultimately have the benefit of people being exposed to the organization because you are out there in more of a marketing mode in terms of promoting aviation and in the other cases you are more in a service mode.

Tom Poberezny AVweb: When people think of general aviation advocacy organizations the two names that come to mind are AOPA and EAA. How do you contrast or compare what you do at EAA with AOPA?

Poberezny: The way I always look at it, and obviously I can't speak for Phil (Boyer, AOPA President) in terms of trying to describe AOPA, what I see is that they are both important to aviation. Obviously AOPA is very strong in Washington and that is one of their major focuses, among other things. We are a field organization. That is an obvious contrast. I think they are also complimentary. We can't do everything AOPA does, and AOPA can't do everything we do, so I think they help to fulfill the total aviation pie. There's some areas of overlap, but when it comes down to it, the community is so small that if it grows, those areas of overlap just enhance the service to those who need those services. We see ourselves as somewhat activity oriented with obvious areas in Washington that we work. I would see AOPA with a lot of focus in Washington and they also provide a lot of pilot services on an individual basis to their members. So, I see them as complimentary organizations that have overlap, and at the same time a few areas of individual focus that do not specifically overlap.