Paul Poberezny

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Every pilot, performer, exhibitor, camper, overworked controller and brat vendor at AirVenture Oshkosh '99 has one person to thank ... Paul Poberezny. Without his dedication to bringing the aviation community together in one place, this might just be another dog day in the upper Midwest. Fresh from his enshrinement last Saturday in the National Aviation Hall Of Fame, "Red One" talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about friends, family, flying, airplanes, and the tradition he began 46 years ago.

Paul PobereznyPaul Howard Poberezny was born on September 14, 1921, in Leavenworth County, Kan. The family soon relocated to the south side of Milwaukee in a house under an airmail route. Paul grew up watching a stream of biplanes flying low and slow in all kinds of weather. As he got older, he could tell from the sounds overhead that more powerful engines were being introduced to the fleet. The bug had already bitten, but it drew blood in May 1927 when Lindbergh landed in Paris. Paul knew that he wanted to spend his life designing, building and flying airplanes. Paul, now 78, says since age 5 he has said the word "airplane" at least once every day.

For 30 years he said "airplane, sir" as he served his country as a pilot, flight instructor and mechanic. He holds all seven military pilot wings. The roots of EAA began with Paul's collection of airplane parts from crashes and junked aircraft, which he turned into a museum in the family basement. EAA's first fly-in was in Milwaukee in 1953. Paul served as president until 1989, when he was named chairman of the board. During that time, EAA had grown from a basement operation into a worldwide organization with more than 100,000 members. Paul has more than 30,000 flight hours in over 400 types of aircraft, including more than 170 homebuilts and 15 of his own design. In his case the apple fell directly under the tree, since his son Tom is now president of EAA and chairman of AirVenture. Last Saturday night, July 24, the whole family celebrrated as Paul was inducted into the National Aviation Hall Of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. We spoke Monday morning as AirVenture '99 kicked into high gear.


What goes through your mind as you walk around AirVenture Oshkosh and see thousands of people enjoying themselves?

It's a wonderful feeling knowing that so many people have been touched by aviation, and not only my own work but the work of everybody that supported it. So many people have contributed to the success. The people who led the FAA, and the CAA before that, loved aviation, and I guess I came upon the scene at the right time with the right people in government. If we tried to start what you see here — EAA and all its chapters around the world — in today's society, it would be impossible. The government people in place now are different, society has changed completely, and we just couldn't do it.

I've lived it every day for 46 years so it's been like watching your kids grow up. If I was gone for a while and came back, I'd probably be amazed at how it has grown, but being here every day it just seems like all the hard work we're doing is paying off.

After years in Hales Corners, how did you pick Oshkosh as EAA's permanent home?

One day I flew around looking for sites. First of all, it had to be close enough to Milwaukee for us to get here and build things and move the exhibits. We were looking at several places and I had talked to Steve Wittman about Oshkosh. When I got here I liked how things were laid out. It had a north/south runway and east/west runway, the surrounding grounds seemed like what we were looking for, and the community spirit was behind it. We presented to the local officials right after there had been a rock concert out here so we had to do a little more talking than we wanted to, but they liked the idea and they've been behind it ever since.

What was the first airplane you saw up close?

One evening, I guess I was about 12, I came home and my mom told me that an airplane had landed in the fog near our house. I was scared because I had never seen one up close. I looked all over the park and half expected it to jump out and bite me. Then I saw a big shadow and I walked up very carefully. I walked around and around the airplane until I wasn't scared anymore. Then I touched it. Pretty soon I ran home and got a blanket to spread out under the wing. As I lay there in the mist under the airplane, I dreamed about learning how to fly and design and build airplanes. When morning came, I climbed up on the wing and looked at the controls, which I had read about but never seen. Then I had to go to school. Probably the longest day of school in my life. When I got out of school the airplane was gone. The fog had lifted and the pilot had taken off. I've often wondered what kind of biplane that was. It wasn't a Jenny but it did have a water-cooled engine so I think it was an OX-5. Whatever it was, I knew I wanted to learn more about airplanes and flying.

I started sketching airplanes and building models, and one of my teachers, Homer Tangney, noticed my interest and made me a deal. One of the Milwaukee flying clubs had a slightly battered Waco glider and he offered to pay for materials if I'd agree to rebuild it. I did rebuild it and flew my first flight in it. I got up to what felt like a hundred feet but it was only about twenty or thirty. When I pulled the release I made a hard landing, so I learned right then to keep the nose down. That first flight was from the same field where I had spent that night under the wing in the fog.

Paul PobereznyWhat was the airplane you soloed in?

Ben White taught me to fly. I soloed in a Porterfield that belonged to the Milwaukee Flying Club. It wasn't an easy airplane to fly and it flew pretty blind with that big cowl out front. Then I learned to be a mechanic and a pilot in an OX-5, a World War I airplane. That airplane was my college education.

What was the first airplane you built?

A very much modified clipped-wing Taylorcraft. Then I built "Little Audrey" and the baby Aces. And I'm still building. I've got about nine projects going now, along with some restorations.

Tell us about your induction into the Aviation Hall Of Fame in Dayton last Saturday night.

It was a great honor to be with the people who had been enshrined before. We had a sellout crowd at the Air Force Museum and it was a crowd that loves aviation like I do, so I talked to them about aviation and the freedoms that it gives us. Most that were there have had the experience of enjoying the beauty of the earth from the sky. Because of the Kennedy news I spoke a little about how we should encourage those in government not to overreact to every incident that comes along. We want aviation to be safe but there's nothing on earth that guarantees safety in every situation.

I talked a little bit about the aviation industry. Air travel today is not flying, it's transportation. You don't see the beauty of the country flying on an airliner looking sideways out that little window.

There's a vast untapped ocean of air above us. I say it's untapped because we don't really have crowded skies, we have crowded airports. The people that design and build airplanes never really got together with the people that build runways and terminals, and consequently air transportation is a lot more inconvinient than it ought to be. I'd like to see the industry take the lead in informing passengers how they can fly more safely and conveniently. We used to wear fire-resistant flight suits to fly an airplane loaded with jet fuel, and these days people are getting on the airplanes half naked. I think most airline passengers are ill-equipped to protect themselves from flash fires and other emergencies. Industry really ought to do this because government is the last resort.

I've been lucky enough to have flown 400 types of airplanes over about 30,000 hours and I'm still flying a B-17, a P-51, a Corsair, a Tri-Motor and several others.

I've taught many people to fly, the oldest was almost 80. I taught primary to aviation cadets in World War II for about 1,800 hours. I was 19 and a half and all my students were older. I never washed any out and I took on some washouts from other classes and got them through. I couldn't believe I was being paid to fly after bagging groceries and pumping gas.

Why do you suppose you were able to get a washout through when someone else had given up on them?

I always let the students do everything right from the time they get into the cockpit. I always told them, "I already know how to do this — you're the one that needs to learn." People imagine that it's harder than it really is. One of my passions to urge people who yearn to fly to take a look over the horizon from an aiplane that they are piloting.

Maybe I had a little more patience. I was 19 and a half and the other intructors were older, so they may have wanted just a few students while I was looking to stay busier. I took one fellow, Donald Priest, and padded his logbook a little. I gave him about 18 hours of dual — you were supposed to only get 12 — and got him through. He ended up flying B-24s in the war. With some people it takes a little more time than others.

(pauses)

Paul PobereznyIn my case, in some ways I'm proud and others maybe not, I can't spell. I can't recite the alphabet all the way through. But I keep a daily diary and anybody with a good eighth-grade education could figure out what it says. So you don't have to be perfect in everything, just be good at what you like to do. I've said this many times to many audiences but it's true: No matter what your profession is, if you don't love people you'll never be a success because they won't follow you.

Did you teach Tom or Bonnie how to fly?

No. Tom didn't learn to fly until later and I was very busy making a living at that time so we found him an instructor. Same with my daughter. Tom was attracted to the competitive side of flying, the sport aviation, and of course flew with Gene Soucy and Charlie Hilliard for 25 years as the Red Devils and the Christen Eagle aerobatic team. Bonnie worked here at EAA for a long time, and now she's a flight attendant for Midwest Express.

You raced at Reno for a few years in the '60s, didn't you?

I did. I raced the P-51, but racing takes a lot of time. It's easy to go out in the garage and build, but racing and travel took a lot of time away from other things. My military duty took me about 70 hours a week. I did a lot of flying and everywhere I went I was the maintenance officer for aircraft maintenance and motor pool, parachutes, radio shops, the whole works. I did most of the functional test flying and also maintained my combat readiness, and I flew our C-47 for 6,700 hours over 11 years in support of our unit.

What emergencies stick out in your mind?

I've had several interesting rides. Usually you get more scared once you're on the ground and start thinking about it.

Runaway props, jet engines blowing up, hydraulic failures, electrical fires, flight controls not responding, just about everything. I took off in a KC-97 tanker, luckily I was very light, and lost both engines on one side. I was able to go around and land.

Before World War II I had a lot of forced landings. Airplanes weren't as reliable back then. The OX-5 is a good example. I met many a farmer that way. It was an event having an airplane drop into your field. They'd bring you tractor gas and whatever you needed, have you up to the house for dinner and tell all the neighbors. These days they'd be calling a lawyer about the crop damage before you got out of the airplane.

Society has changed. People complain about the seats in the airliners, about how they're too small. Or you can't use your cell phone in flight. They didn't have the privilege of riding in a covered wagon over the Oregon Trail where a good day was if you didn't get killed. No rest rooms. No privacy. If the Indians weren't chasing you, the outlaws were.

Then I take a load of people up in our Ford Tri-motor. They're thrilled to get in and when we get airborne I look back and see them crowded into those dinky cardboard seats with three big Pratt & Whitney engines making all that noise. And they're just as happy as can be crawling along at a hundred knots.

Paul PobereznyTell us about some of the folks you've met through aviation. Let's start with your friend Steve Wittman.

(pauses)

I admired Steve when I was a kid. I read about him racing, never expected to get to be close friends with him. He helped me relocate EAA from Hales Corners to Oshkosh. He gave me our first race plane, Bonzo, which is in the museum. When he crashed I went to the scene and identified the remains of him and his wife. Then I was involved in the investigation of the accident. It was a very sad time. He was a good friend.

I had the privilege of meeting Doug Corrigan, "Wrong Way" Corrigan. He was quite a character. I was in the military, a major by then, and I flew a T-33 out to Long Beach. I rented a car and drove to his house in Santa Ana. When I pulled up I saw a short little fellow raking leaves. I introduced myself and told him I had polished his Curtiss-Robbins and he wasn't that thrilled to see me, until I mentioned that I had instructed primary in the 3rd ferry command. Corrigan had been in the 6th ferry command out of Long Beach and that broke the ice. Now I couldn't get away. We talked for hours.

I met Mrs. Lindbergh. In 1977, when we built the replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, which is in the museum, I told her about our plans to recognize his flight. I never got a reply, which I could understand. We were trying to use her family for a PR thing. But when we got the airplane to LaGuardia we called her and asked to stop by the house. She agreed to give us a few minutes.

When we got to her house the grass really needed cutting and I wanted to get out the mower and cut it. She wanted no part of that but she served us tea and cookies and talked for three hours. Next day she drove up to Hartford and met us at the airport. I was going to take her for a ride but instead I let Vern Jobst do it. Once she flew in the airplane she said, "Now I have a better understanding of my husband." She has now ridden in it three times, and all the children except Jon, who lives in France, have flown in it.

Of course I've met most of the astronauts. For me it's a joy to meet airplane people. Whatever they fly, wherever they live.

Who's the best stick-and-rudder pilot you've ever seen?

Hoover. In fact, he said he thought I was the best he'd ever seen the other night in Dayton. He told about the time we were doing F-86 demonstrations in 1954. I had never heard of him. Well, Bob flew and he did everything great. Then I flew and I went out and did everything that he did, only I landed shorter than he did. That was because I had tread showing on my tires after the braking job I did.

I had a reputation as a wild pilot. But the reason I flew like I flew was I wanted to match my ability against the ability of the airplane in case I needed to use it in an emergency. One day I was out here approaching [OSH runway] 36 in a B-25 and I had gear problems. A hydraulic line broke and I had lost all hydraulic fluid. I had enough pressure to get the nose gear down. At first the mains wouldn't come out of the nacelles, then I was able to get the doors open and crank them down into the slipstream. I flew around for about 90 minutes burning off gas and by then the scanners had picked it up and a line started to form. My wife heard about it and came to the airport, too.

I was about ready to pick a place and plunk it into the grass, then I figured I'd try one more thing. I climbed up and brought it back to about 90 knots to reduce the slipstream. The right one moved, but didn't lock. On about the fourth try the right one locked. Now I had a nose and a main, but the left one wouldn't budge. About that time I ran out of fuel in the right engine, so I told the tower, "Change of plans, I've got about 12 seconds and I'm coming in."

I touched on the right main, feathered the left engine, cut the mixtures and held the left wing up, then let the left wing drop and drag into the mud on the side of the runway. Just a little light braking and we were stopped. The damage was a little bit of the left vertical fin and about 18 inches of left wingtip to repair. We changed the prop, didn't hurt the engine, and two weeks later I flew it to an airshow. That's the B-25 that's up in the museum, by the way.

Well, folks watching this were thinking, "Look at that guy up there doing aerobatics when his gear won't come down." But I was trying to match my skills to the situation and it saved the airplane.

There was another stick-and-rudder pilot too. Bob Love. He could do just about everything.

What can the average pilot do to become safer and more confident?

Fly as often as possible. Learn about the rudder. Airplanes today don't need a lot of rudder except when you get to a low airspeed and you need full deflection of everything to land. Learn to land in different wind conditions. Have the judgement to know when to fly and when not to fly. And know when to turn around.

If you're not up to the flight that day, polish the airplane.

What's the greatest innovation you've seen in aviation?

The Voyager going around the world in one flight. Having followed that project from the beginning, and having the Rutans as members of EAA, and visiting their garage in Lancaster, California, that was a great achievement to watch.

Have you taken any interesting trips lately on your Harley?

After the show I'm going out west. Wyoming, Montana. I read a lot of western history and I'll ride 12 or 14 hours a day then pull over and sleep. I like to pull over once in a while and lay on a picnic table and if you know the history of a place you can use your imagination and see all the people that were there.

How important was your wife Audrey to the early days of EAA?

Paul PobereznyThere would be no EAA without Audrey. She was the best-dressed girl in high school and I was about the worst. My dad made 19 dollars a week pulling a coaster for the WPA, we grew our own food, and we were poor. Audrey and I went together for about five and a half years and I met her dad once. I showed up at her house on an old motorcycle and it was the first time I had ever pushed a doorbell. Her dad told me to come back when I was dry behind the ears, and then he passed away from a heart attack two months later.

Audrey was an only child. She and her mother were very supportive of my work. Audrey worked in the basement for EAA for 11 years without a paycheck. We were saving the money so we could build our first facility. Audrey's mother never missed a day of work at the telephone company. After work she would help take care of the house so Audrey could help with the EAA mail.

The whole family was important to EAA. My daughter Bonnie was licking stamps from the very beginning, and when she grew up she had several jobs around here. Tom graduated as a National Honor student in industrial engineering, flew for a while, then about the mid-'70s he decided this is what he wanted to do.

Was there ever a time when you didn't think EAA would make it?

Once. In any organization there are some people who — let's call it jealousy — and the problems got to the point where I said "I don't need this grief" and I thought maybe we'd shut it down. That was back at Hales Corners. I think it was a misunderstanding that got out of control. I've said, EAA has taught me more about people than it has about airplanes.

Then around 1990 some accusations were made about money going into my personal accounts. That was a real sad time for me after putting in all that time and effort. I've found that 98 percent of the people are wonderful, it's the 2 percent that break up the monotony of life, but I suppose if it weren't for them it might get boring. We're past all that now and things are fine.

I ended up being a millionaire because I have a million friends.