Now that I could see the airplane, I was pretty sure that It was an Aviat Husky. The down-to-your-shoelaces fog that I’d driven through to the airport was beginning to lose its battle with the sun. When I got out of my car 20 minutes ago, the fog had been the absolute master of the airport. I could hear a slow-moving airplane up above, seemingly standing sentinel over the invisible airport. Muted engine and prop noise in my ears, I went into one of the FBO’s big hangars to help set up for the huckleberry pancake breakfast fly-in.
Now, after 20 minutes of setting up chairs and tables and hearing the big propane griddles fire up, I stepped outside wondering if the weather would cooperate so pilots could fly in. I saw that there were great, uneven rents opening and closing in the fog. The trees on the other side of the runway would appear and then disappear as the fog and sun contested control over the airport. As I watched, patches of painfully bright blue sky appeared and widened. That’s when I was finally able to see the patient early responder to the lure of a fly-in breakfast. It was a Husky; its squared-off wingtips and smoothly rounded tail surfaces made clear. The power was pulled back to lowest cruise, the prop being barely hushed around. I could visualize the pilot—he or she had set manifold pressure and prop RPM at or near the bottom the green arcs, using minimal fuel and keeping the airplane as quiet as possible out of respect for those living near the airport and wishing to sleep to a reasonable hour on this Saturday.
The aviation lawyer in me smiled—I won’t have to defend this pilot from an FAA action—he or she obviously knew the regs. The airplane was in airspace requiring only one-mile visibility and that it stay clear of clouds. Above the diminishing fog, the visibility is undoubtedly unlimited and it would easy to remain out of the clouds and simply wait for the fog to break up. In the meantime, I can imagine the spectacular view the pilot has of mountain peaks in all directions, stark in the clear air, thousands of feet above the clouds huddled around their bases.
It’s still 30 minutes before the official start of the fly-in breakfast, but I need to get back inside to my assigned job because we’re certain to get people who arrive early, ready to eat. Our EAA Chapter, 757, of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, puts on its huckleberry pancake breakfast at the Boundary County Airport not just once a year—as is the case most places—but five times, on the last Saturday of May, June, July, August and September. It’s a big deal—and people from all around the area, not just pilots, look forward to it.
A Good News Aviation Fix
Walking back into the hangar, I looked at the faces of the teenagers and adults busy getting ready. Everyone was in a good mood. I needed an aviation good news fix. Badly.
I’d spent the previous evening in the Pilot’s Lounge at the virtual airport listening to the ADS-B procrastinators bemoan that now that they’d found the equipment they wanted for compliance with the January 1, 2020, mandate the radio shops were backed up and they couldn’t get the boxes installed in time; the usual complainers were in full voice about fuel prices and the cost of maintenance and how regulations were killing aviation and nobody wants to learn to fly and pilots are dying out and on, and on, and on.
I couldn’t take it any longer. I wanted to be with people who thought flying was pretty cool and fun and who were doing something to help some of the scores of kids who want to learn to fly make that dream of flight come true.
I knew the perfect place. That was why I was setting up chairs and tables and watching two of our EAA Chapter’s leaders, Kambiz Kamiab and Gene Andrews, discuss the consistency of the pancake batter they were creating using a power drill mixing arrangement. The huckleberries—the state fruit of Idaho—had been added and they wanted to make sure that the first batch of pancakes would be just right.
I wanted to be with people who came early to set up and stayed late to clean up a pancake breakfast that existed to raise scholarship money for kids to learn to fly. The right place to be was in this hangar so thick with enthusiasm for flying and people who want to fly that it seemed to ooze out the windows. I wanted to see what airplanes would fly in and talk with pilots and those who wanted to be pilots and those who just wanted to come and pay their seven dollars for breakfast because that would help kids in the community learn to fly.
EAA Chapter 757 has been putting on multiple huckleberry pancake breakfasts for longer than most of the members have been members. It’s become a community tradition that is pushed in the local newspapers and on banners in town.
It’s All For Aviation Scholarships
A restaurant hard by the airport, the Three Mile Store and Café, and two local grocery stores, Safeway and Super 1, donate all of the food. The FBO, Northern Air, opens up one of its big hangars, clears out the airplanes and invites everyone inside. Every cent of the money raised goes to the Chapter 757’s scholarship fund. Every cent. That means that the Chapter will give something north of $7,500 in scholarship money at the end of this season—mostly to local high school kids who want to learn to fly.
Before coming to the Bonners Ferry EAA breakfasts, I was used to seeing fly-in breakfasts dominated by the over the hill gang. Not here. Half of the people working the food line and clean up are high school age—they’re the ones who have received scholarships or are seeking them. They want to be around airplanes and airplane people. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
By the 8:00 am start time we’ve already served 20 meals of eggs, sausage and huckleberry pancakes. Around here if you aren’t early for a meeting or appointment, you’re late. There is a line of another 20 waiting. The hangar door has been opened and the fog has surrendered to the sun, so everyone can watch airplanes and make appropriate OOH and AAHH noises as landings are greased or well, um, you know. One of the kids has noticed that the picnic tables outside are still wet from yesterday’s rain, has dashed in, found some paper towels and dried off the tables and benches. They are immediately snapped up, best seats in the house.
Time To Enjoy The Airplanes
At 9:00 there is a lull in arrivals, so I take a short break and walk out to the ramp. I see the Husky with its large, backcountry tires, on one of the tiedowns. His patience with the fog was rewarded. There’s a line at the fuel pump. Northern Air does its best to keep its fuel prices among the lowest in the area, an extra incentive for pilots to come to breakfast. Three glistening Lake Amphibians have arrived in a group, the pilots and passengers are chatting animatedly as they push their airplanes forward for their turn at the pumps. A friend of mine parks his Steen Skybolt close to the hangar and instantly attracts a crowd. Kids are excitedly showing their parents the different airplanes on the ramp. I hear snatches of conversations ... “This is a Cessna 172; I’ll be taking my lessons in this one once I’m done with ground school ...” “That’s a RV-8, it’s so awesome ...” "That tailwheel Cessna 150 has a straight tail and Omnivision; I didn’t know any of those were made ...”
I went back inside and gave the first-string pancake chef a breather. Things started slowing down shortly after 10:00, a half hour before the official end of the breakfast, so I was tasked to start cleaning off tables and folding up chairs that were no longer needed. About 10:15 it was decided to shut down the griddles as there was no one in line. Naturally, one family came hurrying in at 10:35, apologetic at being late and asking if they could still get breakfast. Kambiz and Gene, old hands at this, had cooked just a little extra, so the full plates were handed to the latecomers amid smiles all around.
As I folded up and carried tables into the storage room, I listened to the sound of airplanes taxiing out and departing for the flight home and thought about what had just transpired. Around 200 people had eaten their fill of huckleberry pancakes while totally immersed in an aviation experience. About $1,400 was raised—and EAA Chapter 757 will give the money to help some kids who want to learn to fly more than anything in the world. To me, that’s an incredibly good thing.
Later, walking out to my car, under a brilliant, now cloudless, sky, I couldn’t help but think—I don’t have a silver bullet to save aviation at the grassroots level. I don’t think that there is one. I think that creating a future for general aviation means those of us who care for it have to find ways, large and small, to keep building up general aviation. We have to build general aviation a brick at a time, so that it becomes a solid structure created by many hands that will last long after we’re gone. Today, at a fly-in breakfast organized by some passionate pilots and run by those pilots and the kids who have received, or hope to receive, aviation scholarships, I think several bricks were cemented firmly into the foundation.
Rick Durden holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, is a CFII and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.
I’d stepped into the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport after finishing up with my last student of the day. I didn’t think anyone was still in the building and I wanted to make sure the coffee maker was off—it has a tendency to create enough smoke to fog the room by morning if left unattended. There’s supposed to be an automatic shutoff but I can’t help but suspect that it has developed a personality and gets upset at being ignored and retaliates when people leave of an evening.
The switch for the caffeine dispenser was firmly in the off position, so I started to turn toward the door, intending to head home. As I did so, I noticed that there was a copy of Last Plane Out, John Ball’s novel of aviators, personal integrity and what it means to have a passion for flight that defines one’s life, lying on the table nearby. I’d been deeply moved by the book when I’d read it as a teenager. Ball’s pilots were people who were a cut above ordinary because of their commitment to the highest standards in practicing their craft, readiness for—and ability to handle—the unexpected, an instant willingness to help others and a refreshing humility in their carriage. They had pride in their skills, without hubris, and the visceral understanding that no matter how much they knew, there was always so much more to learn. I grabbed the book and sat down to reread some of my favorite parts.
An hour later it was dark outside, and I was still engrossed in the book. I looked up at the sound of footsteps in the hallway. Karver came through the door and said, “Hey, how you doin’?”
“Great. What brings you here so late?”
“I just landed, put the plane away, saw your car in the lot and came in here looking for you.”
“Oh, man, what did I do this time?”
“I was hoping to talk to you about flying into AirVenture. I read that painful column you wrote after a friend of yours was killed in a crash just short of the airport on the Fisk arrival and you were furious at the stupid pilot stuff you’d seen that year. I’ve printed out the NOTAM for Oshkosh, read it, underlined and highlighted stuff; I’ve read just about everything I can find on flying in and watched a boatload of YouTube videos. But I’ve still got questions.”
“Karver, I think you’re doing all the right things. I’m not sure I can add anything to what you’ve done.”
“Look, you’ve flown into Oshkosh for over 45 years, right?”
“Something like that, but I missed a few years.”
“Yeah, so what do you think is really important about flying in?”
That stopped me for a moment. Karver is in his early 20s. He’s had his private ticket for something over six months, has already gotten a tailwheel checkout and is one of those poor schmucks who has lost is soul to flying. He reads everything he can, and I think I learn more from him when we talk than he does from me. As I thought, something came to me.
Pilots and Drivers
“I think flying into Oshkosh is where pilots are separated from airplane drivers.”
Karver looked puzzled, “What do you mean? I’ve got a tee shirt that says ‘Airplane Driver.’”
“Yeah, I guess the old insult has faded with time. When I was learning to fly, the worst thing you could say about a pilot was that he ‘drove’ an airplane. It meant that the person thought in only two dimensions, not three, had no pride in turning a collection of aluminum and rivets into a living, flying entity, probably couldn’t fly both straight and level at the same time and when he approached an airplane at its tiedown, the airplane hung its head in shame at having to put up with the ham-fisted machinations of the uncaring human that was about to turn the ignition key.
To me, Oshkosh is aviation’s Mecca. True pilots fly to Oshkosh. They make pilgrimages to Oshkosh. Hundreds of pilots save for years just to be able to afford to fly in one time. Think of what you’ve done already to prepare—you’re not making a $100 hamburger flight. You’re going to fly into the busiest airport in the world. You recognize the seriousness of the endeavor. That’s what pilots do.
“I think that’s the most important thing a pilot can do—recognize and respect the seriousness of flying into OSH during AirVenture and act appropriately.
“I think that means being determined to have your game at its highest level from the moment you’re 50 miles from Ripon on the arrival all the way through when you’re 50 miles out on the departure. To me that means having taken a flight review within the last month or so and being truly able to hold 90 KIAS within plus or minus five knots (and knowing the power setting you’ll need) as well as altitude within plus or minus 50 feet while tracking directly over a set of railroad tracks. That’s an objective standard. If you can’t fly to that level of precision, either practice until you can or don’t fly in to OSH. It seems to me that part of respecting the seriousness of flying into OSH is having the maturity and judgment to honestly evaluate yourself and say that as much as you want to fly in this year, you aren’t going to.
“I think it means knowing the NOTAM cold and having made and thought all the way through alternative plans for what you’re going to do if the airport closes or the weather comes down and you have to divert.
“I think it means planning the flight so that the leg into OSH is no longer than 1.5 or 2 hours so that you and your pax aren’t dealing with biological pressures that will adversely affect your ability to do the pilot and judgment thing that you’re going to need to do.
“I think it means little things such as respecting weight and balance because you may have to maneuver your airplane dramatically right now and over gross or out of C.G. may mean you can’t do it. It means making sure that you are comfortable flying a tight, right-hand pattern and landing on a spot. It means prepping your passengers for sterile cockpit, how to look for traffic and how to tell you about it. Oh, and it means learning that when taxiing on grass—as you’ll do at OSH—you need to hold the yoke all the way aft to maximize prop clearance and minimize the chance of dinging your prop.
“I think it means tamping down the greedy, game-the-system behavior we’re encouraged to have in today’s world and being ready to show consideration for other pilots and airplanes. A little courtesy goes a long way on the Fisk arrival. I keep thinking of the powerful southern lawyer I worked with years ago who was invariably a gentleman while doing his absolute utmost to win his case. He taught me that courtesy should never be misinterpreted as weakness. As pilots, the courtesy we show to another aircraft in coordinating an arrival may just keep all involved alive. After all, when we’re in flight, we’re playing for keeps—being a jerk can have fatal consequences.
“I think it means recognizing that the world is watching when we fly into OSH and we have an obligation beyond just ourselves to arrive not only safely, but with some degree of élan.
“Karver, I feel strongly about flying into Oshkosh. If a pilot doesn’t have respect for what it involves, he or she should absolutely not be doing it. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would try it without reading and being prepared to follow the NOTAM—I firmly believe that they have caused fatal accidents because they cost air time as ATC tried to sort them out and that triggered a reaction elsewhere that could have been stopped had the frequency not been tied up.
“Every one of us who flies in to OSH is on stage. Our errors are shouted to the world. We’ve had years where there were so many accidents that there was pressure to make radical changes to the arrival procedures that would reduce them to one airplane every few minutes. We have the most liberal general aviation regulations in the world—and there are those who would like to see them far more restrictive. A few crashes at OSH could go a long way toward making that happen. I firmly believe that one inconsiderate pilot could ruin what we have at AirVenture.
“We are pilots. Because of what we have learned and are able to do, we have come to know the glory of the sky. We make up a tiny fraction of one percent of the population. That sets us apart in many ways—one of which is a duty to recognize how fragile the privilege of flying ourselves can be, and to do our utmost to do nothing that would potentially ruin it for others. I think we have an obligation to demonstrate at the epicenter of the world for aviation passion—Oshkosh—that we take the process of flying into that hallowed place seriously. I think we have an obligation to show the world that we are pilots, not some lesser being.
“Karver, I wish I could go with you to AirVenture this year. You’re committed to doing your best and I know you will fly the Fisk arrival like a pro. I wish I could be sitting next to you when you hear that ultimate accolade a pilot can receive—after you fly that tight pattern, land on the colored dot and as you angle off the runway onto the grass the controller says, ‘Nice job. Welcome to Oshkosh.’”
Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.