Arlington 2002 — Grassroots Aviation in the Northwest

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Special Report: While growing steadily from a stopover enroute to the Abottsford International Airshow into one of the largest general-aviation events on the west coast, the Northwest EAA's Fly-In at Arlington, Wash., still maintains its small-town atmosphere and grassroots connection. AVweb's Russ Niles brings us a report from this year's edition of the annual event.

It may be because it is such a young industry and avocation that aviation is driven, almost obsessed, by firsts. In ways that captivate, and sometimes annoy, the quest for such distinctions fills volumes and occasionally makes headlines. Airshows, the big ones, anyway, try to ensure some sort of "first" is on their agenda. And while there were no new product rollouts, announcements, or unveilings at Northwest EAA Fly-In at Arlington, Wash., last week, there were a couple of firsts that could nonetheless play an important role in shaping aviation's future. Then again, they may not, but we're betting there will be more than a few people who will, in the future, understand the significance of a meeting between a 50-year-old doctor from Springfield, Ore., and a 13-year-old girl from Lake Stevens, Wash. For Dr. Kathy Hirtz, it was affirmation of a calling quite different from her busy medical practice, and for Kayla Bollen, it was connection with a role model who had shown her that all dreams are not only possible, but their realization can get you a standing ovation.

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Kathy Hirtz and Kayla Bollen

Arlington marked Dr. Hirtz's first appearance as an airshow performer. The hugely popular fly-in gave Kayla her first chance at a ride in an airplane, thanks to EAA's Young Eagles program. By the end of the day, the two were chatting at Hirtz's Pitts Special show plane, with Kayla forming the sort of determination that will most likely put her in a pilot's seat of some sort in the future. "I've wanted to be a pilot since I can remember," said Kayla. "I'm going to be one." It was something a similarly determined Hirtz remembers from her younger years, a Blue Angels demonstration providing the inspiration. But years of medical school and a busy and successful practice intervened. It wasn't until she was 48 that she climbed into the left seat as a student pilot. Quickly do the math here. If she's 50 now that means ... In fact, it's only been 16 months since she took that first lesson. In the intervening time, she's graduated from the Cessna 152 to a Zlin and finally to the Pitts, amassed more than 600 flight hours (an average of 1.4 hours a day), trained with aerobatic greats Steve Wolf, Sean D. Tucker, and Wayne Handley, and opened an aerobatic training school with Wolf. Phew! And it's perhaps a little ironic that this breakneck pace, which might wear out some people, was supported by a medical practice that specializes, in part, on anti-aging techniques.

"You have to follow your dreams, absolutely," said Hirtz, who is nonchalant about accomplishments that stupefied the Arlington audience and several of her fellow performers, some of whom aren't as old as Hirtz and have been flying 30 years longer. "She did real good," said veteran Eric Beard, who's been on the circuit 10 years and now flies a Yak 54 called Russian Thunder. Hirtz said that once she did a spin at an unusual attitudes course after getting her private license, she knew that was where she belonged. "Anything but straight and level. I hate straight and level," she said. She discovered Wolf, a longtime performer, teaching at a school near her (he emceed her Arlington debut), and went to Tucker to learn the tumbles that have been his signature. Handley checked her out for an IAC (International Aerobatic Club) ticket. Next goal is to gain enough experience to move her hard deck from 500 feet to 250 and eventually ground level, but she said she's in no hurry. She better be watching her six for Kayla, however.

Tom Sullivan and Barbara Tolbert in the Cirrus Mockup

Arlington executive director Barbara Tolbert said it's this kind of grassroots experience that has kept the crowds coming back to the 33-year-old show and pushing it above the 50,000 attendance level for the second year in a row. And while other airshows have struggled, even closed, in recent years, Tolbert estimates the Northwest Fly-In's annual growth rate at 15 to 20 percent a year. She said that in the past couple of years, it's reached a kind of Nirvana of balance between big-show sophistication and small-show appeal. "We're big enough to get some of the bigger exhibitors, but we're small enough to retain the grassroots social feel," she said. One of the 2002 show's big catches was the multimedia and mockup show-on-the-road that Cirrus introduced at Sun 'n Fun this year. Demo pilot Tom Sullivan said Arlington was an ideal showcase for the 1,000-square-foot display, which folds into a semi-trailer rig. "Arlington is such a wonderful size. We get time to spend with potential clients, and talk with those who might interested in buying an airplane from us," he said. "It's enabled us to get word out to the people in this area, and we've drawn a lot of interest." As of Saturday, there were no firm sales for the plane-with-a-parachute but Sullivan is expecting that might change next year. "This isn't an impulse decision. People will go away and think about it for a year, and they'll come back," he said. Most of the big names in homebuilt and light-certified aircraft were there, and flight demos took up much of the morning each day.

Rod Cowgill with the Mifyter Tooling Prototype
Bill Markey and Bob Starkey Check Out a Rutan Defiant

At the other end of the sales spectrum, Rod Cowgill used Arlington to debut his own creation, which in terms of scale might be more modest but is right up there in the kind of grassroots (that term again) initiative that has driven the recreational-aviation movement. While the well-heeled creased the leather of Cirrus's mockup in air-conditioned comfort, Cowgill had a patch of grass and a lawn chair for those who's idea of flying is an open cockpit, wires singing in the slipstream, and as little as $15,000 (plus engine, instruments, and prop) out of the savings account. He said he decided to start building the Mifyter kits after earning so many accolades for the one he built, from scratch, for himself. He said it "resembles" a two-thirds scale Fokker D7, takes off in 75 feet, and flies like a dream. You can even add a fake bomb ($325) and machine guns ($495 each) to complete the World War I look. Scarf and leather helmet are up to you.

Not everyone selling airplanes at Arlington had brochures and business cards. In fact, most of the parking areas looked like a swap shop, with For Sale signs adorning a hefty percentage of the planes. There were more tire kickers than a Chevy lot on Sunday, looking at almost every configuration of light aircraft. The old standards, like C-140s, C-172s, and Cubs, were well-represented, as were Mooneys, Beeches, and Pipers, and lots of the more conventional homebuilt designs were on hand. But those looking for the exotic weren't disappointed, either. Bill Markey, of Cashmere, Wash., and Bob Starkey, of Creston, Wash., spent a few minutes going over a Rutan Defiant, a twin push-pull design with the famous pedigree. It kept company with Velocities, Long-Ezs, and other composite creations. There was even a Mantis, which looked remarkably like a grasshopper with wings, up for sale.

Tom Marsh in the Composite Construction Class
Eric Beard with the Anywhere System
Dave Zoppa Dotes Over His Beloved C-140

Those who didn't know what to look for could have found a wealth of information at one of the more than 100 educational forums held at the Arlington show. Doug Kelly, of the EAA Homebuilt Council, guided dozens of prospective buyers through the pleasures and pitfalls of buying or building an aircraft. Tom Marsh, of Fairbanks, Alaska, wanted a more hands-on experience. He's thinking of building his own plane, and made the 2,000-mile trek to Arlington to help him decide which type he might tackle. He took a course on basic composite construction put on by Larry Graves of Air Crafters. "This was the closest place for me to come to do something like this," said Marsh, who also has the extreme cold of his hometown winters to consider in his decision. For classmate Mac Asher, the decision has already been made, and he was at the class to make sure his future project is a success.

Most of the major avionics firms were represented, and cockpit mockups attracted a lot of drools. MFDs, moving maps, and graphical engine and flight data make today's modern cockpit look like the starship Enterprise. But not everyone has the room or funds to install all the screens and buttons. One of the ways airshow performer Eric Beard pays the bills and brings a bit of the modern world into his Yak 54 is a clever marriage of portable technology that gives him flight-planning information, weather, METARs, and even graphical depictions of TFRs, in a package that straps to his knee. Using a satellite phone interfaced with an IPAC notepad computer, Beard gets all the enroute info he needs. Anywhere Maps and Anywhere Wx gets to paint their name and logo on his plane. He said the little device makes it a lot easier to navigate and dodge weather, and the satellite phone itself is invaluable. "It doesn't matter where you go down, with that you can call for help and the computer will give your exact position," he said. Beard said it made him feel a lot safer flying in Alaska and northern B.C., where FSSs and FBOs can be hundreds of miles apart.

But for many people, like Dave Zoppa, of Chilliwack, B.C., Arlington is a much more appealing version of the $100 hamburger. He flew his beloved C-140 the 50 nm from his home field and sat under the wings with other devotees of Cessna's introduction to the GA mass market. His 55-year-old baby is his pride and joy, and anyone asking a question is guaranteed to get about 100 more answered. "I just love the atmosphere here," he said.

And that's a point that Tolbert and the other organizers ponder as they watch their Fly-In grow from the coattails of the nearby Abbotsford International Airshow, just across the Canadian border. The Fly-In has its roots almost 40 years ago when Seattle-area pilots used Arlington as the staging area for their annual trek to the Abbotsford spectacle. Pretty soon there was some organization to the gathering, and an airshow was born. It didn't really take flight until Tolbert's father, Jim Scott, took over the show on the little-used western end of the field and ran it from the ultralight center he built there. With big exhibitors like Cirrus putting their stake in Arlington, other majors are sure to enhance their presence, and the commercial momentum will build. The show has also been granted event status by the DOD, meaning military fly-bys and static displays could be added. Tolbert said growth is definitely on the agenda for the show, but it will be done with respect to the hundreds of volunteers and patrons who have been along for the ride so far. "This is a volunteer-driven event, and we have to recognize that, so we will limit our growth to 15 to 20 percent," she said.

Kristen Banfield Enjoying the Show

A willing partner in that growth is the City of Arlington, which has signed a 30-year event contract with the Northwest EAA that includes room for expansion. Since the airport lands encompass 25 percent of city, that's a major commitment, said Tolbert. City Administrator Kristin Banfield said the airshow gets major support from the city in terms of extra policing, firefighting, and security personnel, but the airshow is also a major contributor to the city. "We only have a population of about 13,000, so this is a huge influx for us every year," said Banfield, who was showing her personal support by skipping work and taking in the afternoon show. "It's a great way to spend the day," she said.


More photos from Arlington 2002