The Pilot's Lounge #16:
An Aviation Gift for Your Family

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Looking for an aviation-oriented way to spend some quality time with your kids? Want to have some fun and learn a few things in the bargain? EAA's Family Flight Camp might be just the thing. AVweb's Rick Durden just got back from a weekend there — here's his report.

The Pilots LoungeWe have a December tradition here in the Pilot's Lounge that some would regard as overly maudlin or sentimental, but it is our way, and we like it. A significant number of the folks who fly from our little, virtual airport celebrate the winter holidays. As a result, we always set aside one evening for folks to bring in food and drinks and we simply get together for a special time. Instructors often receive small gifts from their students, folks who have had disagreements try to patch things up and even the guy who runs the FBO has been observed to smile. Well, that's what I was told he did; I thought he was in pain.

As the evening spools down there are always a few folks who are reluctant to leave and break the spell. For those who stay late, Sandy started the tradition of reading Frederick Forsyth's The Shepherd aloud to us a few years ago. It is a short book, but quite moving. With the lights turned down, we sit in the big chairs with a glass of something appropriate and we listen to that wonderful story of a young pilot on a Christmas Eve. We know it by heart, but we still quiver at the wondrous ending.

Making A List, Checking It Twice

This time, as Sandy read, I found my mind wandering to a discussion we had had in the Lounge in the afternoon. A number of the pilots want to share their love of aviation with their families and were trying to figure out what to give family members for Hanukah or Christmas this year. Some had gone into the various aviation catalogues to find gifts. A few were planning to give gift certificates for introductory flying lessons to their spouse or teenaged children. Some had found toys they liked for younger children, but the unspoken dilemma was that they wanted to do something the entire family could enjoy together. In reality, afternoons out here at the airport hadn't always worked because one or more of the kids would start the "I'm bored" whine and things would slide downhill from there.

Old Hack growled something about the touchy-feely generations and announced that real pilots lived at the airport and to heck with the consequences. In response, someone asked if Hack had smartened up and was going out every five years, finding a woman he hated and buying her a house as it would be cheaper than the alimony he's paying. I had to smile at that, as Hack's inability to spend time away from the airport had cost him a couple of wives and lots of money.

EAA's Family Flight Camp

EAA logoSandy was helping get things ready for the evening's activities but was listening to the conversation. She looked at me and asked, "Didn't you take your family to the EAA's Family Flight Camp in October?"

I admitted I had done so. One of the others didn't know what it was, so I explained that the EAA had just started a program of weekend "flight camps" for entire families at its Air Academy on Pioneer Airport at Oshkosh, Wis., to complement its resident programs which are geared separately at teenagers and adults. Naturally, I was asked how the family had liked it and what I thought of it. The only way to respond was to simply point out that we had had a ball.

The Concept...

EAA's Air Academy Lodge — The kids of Family Flight Camp, October, 1999.
EAA's Air Academy Lodge — The kids of Family Flight Camp, October, 1999.

The EAA's Aviation Foundation is aware that only a tiny percentage of people ever learn to fly. It is determined to increase that percentage, partially by aiming programs at youngsters to show them the huge diversity of flight and how exciting it can be through short and longer-term camps. These have been very successful and have resulted in a large number of camps targeted at kids from about 12 on up.

This year the EAA's Aviation Foundation decided to try weekend functions targeted at families. I happened to see some information about it while we were at Oshkosh for AirVenture '99 and decided to follow up with a phone call. I made reservations for the second weekend of October. Almost immediately, I received confirmation material that included arrival directions for aircraft or car, and telephone numbers to make certain we could reach someone should there be a problem.

...The Arrival...

We flew in and parked at Basler after looking longingly at the acres of empty grass where the multitudes will be parking next summer. We wondered if anyone would complain if we just left the airplane there now to get a good spot. Everyone at Basler was wonderfully helpful, as usual. [Is there some drug in Wisconsin water? The people are so incredibly nice without being naοve. It is such a pleasure to visit the state, and it sets a good tone for a weekend.] The Basler folks took the phone number I had and called the Family Flight Camp office which resulted in us being picked up in ten or fifteen minutes.

Home plate for Family Flight Camp is the Air Academy Lodge, a large, Utah ski lodge-style building behind the EAA Museum, on Pioneer Airport. Drive time from Basler is short, so I didn't feel too disappointed about not being allowed to land on Pioneer Airport. When I saw the types of airplanes flying from Pioneer the next morning, a Ford 4-AT Trimotor, Stinson Reliant and Travel Air biplane, I realized that a modern spam can such as I fly would have been seriously out of place.

At the Lodge, Chuck Larsen, the executive director of the Foundation's Resident Education program, greeted us. I initially thought that someone at his level in the EAA would simply be there to say hello and turn things over to underlings. Not so. Chuck was with us the entire weekend, leaving the Lodge to go home only after each family had turned in for the night and was there the next morning before we got up. He proved to be a very interesting host, teacher and raconteur. He is a pilot and an A & P, plus he has extensive experience in education.

...The Details...

Pioneer Airport and the EAA Air Academy Lodge, as seen from the right seat of EAA's Ford 4AT Trimotor.
Pioneer Airport and the EAA Air Academy Lodge, as seen from the right seat of EAA's Ford 4AT Trimotor.

We soon discovered that the Lodge has several attractive, functional bunkrooms on the second floor. Each has four single beds (of varying heights) that appeared to be much larger than standard. Mine proved to be quite comfortable. The room reminded me of a well-planned, oversized dorm room. The bathrooms are "down the hall" and are well designed and very clean. I've been to too many "family camps" where the facilities are quite primitive. The EAA does things up very nicely. It supplies linens (although you make your own bed) and towels. The EAA also recognizes it has to charge appropriately to keep things up, so the weekend experience certainly isn't cheap, but it was not nearly as expensive as a family weekend, with meals, at a decent hotel. I was to discover that the pleasant accommodations were a reflection of the overall quality of the experience. I certainly felt my family got its money's worth and more. Cost is according to the number of family members attending. If one family member is an EAA member, the price is $300 for one or two people, $400 for three or four people and $50 for each additional person. Add $50 if no one in the family is an EAA member. That could change with time, so be sure and check.

Dinner was served in the great room of the Lodge soon after we arrived. Naturally, as the six families didn't know each other, seating Friday evening was by family. That changed by Saturday morning with the kids creating a kid's table where they ate amid great enthusiasm.

The food was outstanding. There were only about three rules that I noticed; the Lodge personnel serve the first helping, if you want more just walk up and serve yourself; clear your table yourself; and there is no soda pop in the Lodge. I liked the third rule. As Chuck pointed out, the kids don't need the caffeine and sugar and there were plenty of fruit juices and milk available at all hours.

...The Plan

Assembling balsa wood, rubber band-powered models.
Assembling balsa wood, rubber band-powered models.

After dinner, Chuck spent quite some time talking with the group. I was a little surprised that there were just six families involved; however, it turned out to be the right size for what we were to do. Naturally, there was the talking-about-yourself portion of the post-dinner discussion. It evolved into one child from each family standing up and introducing his or her family. It just happened and proved to be a great icebreaker. I was also very surprised to learn that we were the only family with at least one active pilot. The other families had heard of the weekend through sources other than the EAA, had kids that had an interest in aviation and decided this would be fun. One family had three generations attending. Grandfather had flown B-17s in combat in World War II but had stopped flying after the war. His grandkids were excited about flying, but really didn't have much of a clue about what grandpa had done. The parents of the various families ran the entire gamut of professions, blue collar to medical doctor. The youngest kid was four. He did just fine. The oldest was about 13 or 14. He slipped into a leadership role and seemed to enjoy himself. Interestingly, among the kids, girls outnumbered boys.

Chuck had a number of activities planned for every waking hour and — my only criticism — talked a little too much about what we could do rather than just leaping in and doing things. On Friday evening, we used up a bit too much daylight talking so we didn't get to do as many of the outside activities as we had hoped.

Bonding, EAA Style

Chuck took us to the obstacle course area and did some exercises calculated to get us talking to each other. In one example, he used the kids' natural enthusiasm to get the parents to talk to each other: He put the kids on a very large log, then told the parents to stand by their children to catch them if they fell, otherwise the parents could not do anything at all to help the kids with the project. Once on the log, the kids were to align themselves by the first letter of their first names. The kids had to sort out the appropriate order and then figure out how to pass each other on the log. That communal exercise had all of us laughing. The kids then had to rearrange by height. I was interested to see how the kids made a special effort to help the smallest ones. That also set the tone for the weekend.


Launching a rubber band-powered balsa wood airplane.
Launching a rubber band-powered balsa wood airplane.

Eventually, the parents had to stand on the log and arrange themselves by birth month, so they had to figure out how to pass each other on a log. It is difficult to not talk to someone as you hang on to him or her and do a mutual 180 to swap positions.

After it got dark, we explored the inside of the Lodge. Just off the great room is a well-stocked aviation library with both books and videos. I could have spent the weekend, and the next few weeks right there. All of us were encouraged to use the library anytime we had free and I noticed it proved to be a popular spot. I was able to read some books I'd not seen before and I watched some non-flying folks plug right into the learn-to-fly videos.

The basement is unfinished, an excellent idea. Half is simply open, with room for kids to run. There was plenty of space for a pool table, ping-pong table and some exercise equipment. There is a separate room with four computer-based flight simulators. One was considered off limits as it was set up for some serious instrument training, but almost all members of all the families used the rest almost all the time we were in the building.

More rubber band-powered planes.
More rubber band-powered planes.

On rising Saturday morning, we awoke to the sight of tendrils of fog over the runway at Pioneer airport. The effect was magical. Walking outside and looking to the northwest through the mist at pilots preparing the antiques for flight in front of the reproduction hangars caused some of us to wonder what year we had wandered into. We found ourselves conversing in whispers and a few looked around, as if expecting "Slim" Lindbergh to wander over to us.

After breakfast, we rode vans to the museum where we used one of the classrooms to receive a basic discussion on flight. Chuck Larsen had plenty of toys and a style that kept everyone interested, regardless of one's level of experience with flying devices. We broke up into groups where we tried to make hot air balloons out of garbage bags, simple tools and a popcorn popper. Over the course of the day we made airplane and rocket models. Bob Johnson, a national champion at radio-controlled model gliders, came in and taught us how to make a rubber band-powered balsa airplane from scratch. My attempts with balsa as a kid had not turned out well so I was less than optimistic. But, the instruction was so good, the individual attention so effective and the available tools so appropriate that within a couple of hours the kids (actually, all of us) were outside the museum flying the little airplanes with great success. None wound up on top of the museum, but the distance and height reached by most certainly impressed this cynic. (Even the one I was involved with worked well and it is now at home where we still fly it. It's much more resistant to damage than I anticipated.)

Bob Johnson with a radio-controlled model glider.
Bob Johnson with a radio-controlled model glider.

...Childhood, Revisited...

Over the course of Saturday and Sunday we became kids again. We opened ourselves up to awe and wonderment. We learned that the diamond-shaped kite of grocery story fame is the least aerodynamic kind in the world. As a result, we learned what flew well and why kites fly (no, it's not a crude form of levitation.) We were given a number of kite kits to either assemble on site or take home. We discussed model rockets. Due to time constraints we didn't get to build many of the models, but each family left with kits and several motors to create family projects back home. We received a detailed, personal museum tour when it was closed to the public. While we couldn't touch the aircraft, we could "cross the ropes" and get as close as we wanted. We communed with a homebuilt biplane that had been cut away to show its components. When it came time to get our wing rib kits, the purpose and function of the rib was very clear. The kids got to fly a control-line, gas model airplane thoughtfully provided by volunteer Sean Elliott. That was a big hit and we kept Sean going until it was well and truly dark.

...Learning Something New About Dad...

Over the course of the weekend, the respect shown to our B-17 pilot by EAA personnel impressed me. I was very pleased to learn that Chuck Larsen arranged for the entire, extended family to crawl through a real B-17. That event seemed to cause a new level of understanding for what the senior male of the family had done. The thin skin of the fuselage and the fact it would not stop a bullet astonished his daughter. Until then, she had assumed the fuselage was bulletproof. Her respect for her father and those who flew and fought in such vulnerable craft knew no bounds. It seemed to even make an impression on the teenaged grandson.

...And Converting Fuel Into Noise

Pioneer Airport and the EAA Museum from the right front seat of a Ford 4AT Trimotor.
Pioneer Airport and the EAA Museum from the right front seat of a Ford 4AT Trimotor.

One of the highlights of the weekend was a ride in the EAA's Ford 4AT Trimotor. Steve Lykins, one of the numerous volunteers, herds that ancient pelican through the sky on weekends. We clanged along at over a hundred decibels and about 70 knots (he had it pulled back to save fuel) while we discovered what generations before us learned — that the Trimotor is designed for passengers to enjoy the process of looking out the window. The visibility is fabulous. Seeing the Wisconsin countryside crawl along from 500 feet while listening to three R-985s from Pratt and Whitney was to realize that there are times when life is very, very good. Through sheer luck I got to fly the airplane for a brief time. The respect that I developed for early pilots and explorers as a result of cajoling that recalcitrant aeronautical fish to go where I desired was intense.

But, All Good Things Must End

Departing on Sunday afternoon was difficult. We had made new friends, plus we had bags of stuff to take home to build and read and play with.

As I write this, it's only few hours after my daughter and I assembled some of the kite kits on a blustery day, went out and had a great time together. (When I followed up with Chuck Larsen he just chuckled and congratulated me on doing my take-home assignment.)

If you want to immerse your family in aviation for a weekend, meet some interesting people in a pleasant locale, supported by first-rate people, include a visit to EAA's Family Flight Camp on your holiday wish list. Call them up at 920-426-4800 or visit EAA's web site to reserve a spot.

May your holidays be warm and filled with the people most important to you.

See you next month.