This month’s column is inspired by the most recent AirVenture, which has left me reflecting on how it really isn’t the aircraft that draw us into this wonderfully immersive world, it’s the people. The aircraft we have a mutual passion for are just an excuse for all of us to associate. One advantage of advanced age and experience is getting to see how our worlds mix and mingle over time.
Please indulge me briefly for some background. I have wanted to be an airplane pilot for as long as I can remember. At the age of 19, already possessing a private ticket paid for by washing and fueling airplanes in my hometown of Boise, Idaho, I did a couple of years of voluntary service in Argentina. It was during this time that a chance meeting with a visiting authority of my faith, Elder Robert Wells, planted seeds that literally changed my life. Knowing that he was an avid general aviation pilot, I confided in him my passion for flying along with my doubts as to ever being able to accomplish my goals due to eyesight that didn’t meet military standards and finances that didn’t meet advanced rating standards. He told me two things that stuck. The first was that the determined usually find a way to accomplish what they seek. The second was that those who have an organic passion for aviation will always regret not acting upon it if they don’t.
About three years later, I was married with a young son, trying to finish college and pursue a career. I had interests, but every time an airplane flew over I couldn’t help but look up. A neighbor, Kevin McDonald, shared my interest in flying. The only thing fueling my passion at the time was subscribing to FLYING and reading the likes of Richard Collins, Mac McClellan and Len Morgan, who kept me enthralled. I sometimes wondered how cool it would be to do what they did.
A year or two passed. I kept thinking about what Robert Wells had said in Argentina. I finally mustered the courage to sit down with my wife and confess that she had my heart but my head was in the sky. Her only comment was that if we were going to do it, it had to be while the kids were little and couldn’t feel poverty. The very next day we listed our house for sale. We lived off her job while I collected a flurry of ratings full time. Once I got my CFI, my neighbor Kevin became one of my first students and we had a great time together. I set about building time and climbing the career ladder one rung at a time. A few years later I was nervously sitting in an office at SkyWest Airlines interviewing for a job. One of the interviewers was a management pilot named Craig Drew. I was hired and entered the turbine world in the mighty Metroliner. Aside from the paltry commuter wages of the day, life was good.
Sometime later, Craig Drew was at Southwest Airlines and he connected me with a senior captain named Jim Wethington and together they helped me get hired. Life was better still and my dream career came to fruition.
The career eventually afforded me the opportunity to build my Van’s RV-10. It was inspected by a DAR named Gary Towner. At one Copperstate airshow, I met a fellow named Paul Dye with a gorgeous RV-3 and we chatted a bit. A while later, I had, along with a half-dozen or so others, an incident involving a bad batch of prop governors. After I wrote about it on a forum, Paul reached out to see if I’d be interested in writing about it in KITPLANES®, which I did. One thing led to another and that led to this column.
Fast Forward to 2023
My plan had been to attend Oshkosh this year in the motor home, but since it was the 20th anniversary of the RV-10, I elected to fly. My travel companion was my original student of 38 years ago, Kevin McDonald, who is not only a friend but co-grandparent-in-law (his son Danny married my daughter Hailey), which has given us three wonderful grandsons to share. A few days prior to departing for OSH, I had the honor to purchase the airpark home of Jim Wethington, who had boosted my career so many years ago.
When launch day came, I flew up to Utah to pick up Kevin at the same airport, now South Valley Regional (U42), that we originally flew out of back in the CFI days, and we launched to OSH with no preplanned stop. As time wore on, I gave Kevin the task of using FlyQ and its fuel prices to find us a fuel stop along our route. He came up with Yankton (KYKN) as being ideal—with special OSH fuel prices and a free buffet lunch. It turned out to be a wonderful choice. The airport managers, the Roinstads, epitomize the small airfield friendliness that makes general aviation so special. While in the considerable line for fuel, a fellow in a nice RV-7 behind us walked up to me and introduced himself as Bruce Mason. He asked me if I happened to serve in Argentina in the late 1970s. When I said that I had, he mentioned that he had as well. Turns out we never worked directly together, but we had met a time or two. Small world.
Arrival at OSH on late Friday afternoon was uneventful, and we got randomly led to the midsection of homebuilt camping (HBC). After getting camp set up, we walked over to meet our next-wing neighbors. They turned out to be a father/son duo, the Browns, from Boise. Turns out that the dad had graduated from the exact same high school as I had, just a few years earlier than me. A bazillion high schools in the country and two Borah High graduates are wingtip to wingtip at OSH. Crazy.
A short while later, I walked to meet the fellow with a nice RV-7 in front of us. When I told him that I had a place in the Mogollon Airpark in Arizona he asked if I knew Gary Towner. I mentioned that Gary had signed off my airplane and he said that Gary had signed off his. Wow, all the thousands of Experimental aircraft at OSH signed off by hundreds of DARs and here there were two, nose-to-tail, signed off by the same guy. Crazier still.
Late that first night, I was under the HBC pavilion charging my phone and once again I bumped into Bruce Mason, the fellow I’d run into at Yankton who had been in Argentina when I had. I started telling him the story of talking to Robert Wells all those years ago, and he stopped me and pointed to a fellow at the table next to us. He then introduced me to David Wells, Robert’s son, who was there in his Bonanza.
Under the faint light of that pavilion, I shared with David the advice his father had given me and the profound effect it had had on my life and career. I couldn’t get it all out without my voice cracking. He told me that his father was slowed by age but still bright of mind and passionate about aviation. He assured me that he would tell his father of our meeting and my gratitude for his kindness and counsel 44 years before. A circle of life experience connected on both ends decades later. Unimaginable.
Fast-forward to Wednesday and our plan was to catch the night airshow, always a favorite. That afternoon I got a call from Craig Drew, the same person who hired me at my first airline and facilitated my employment at the second. He was at Oshkosh for the first time and asked what our plans were. Soon thereafter, in ideal early evening weather, a group of us were seated at the ultralight runway, thoroughly enjoying the moment while waiting for the night show.
Another advantage of advanced age and experience is how the circles of relationships reconnect years or even decades later. For the aero-addicted, nothing is more ethereal in a Kitty Hawkish sort of way than watching ultralights take off and land on grass. I sat there caught up in the moment of sitting between two of my dearest friends who collectively had had an enormous impact on my life and career. I felt blessed to be where I was at the moment.
In the meantime, Craig and I had been chatting about a fellow we knew from the airline world, Rich Hawley. Literally five minutes later we ran into Rich, and an hour later we were sitting under the wing of his pristine Cessna 195 to watch the night airshow, but not before watching the end of a sunset wedding under the wing of the neighboring C-195. Such is the magic (and madness) of Oshkosh.
I have enjoyed every one of my seven trips to the big show, five in the (airborne) RV and two in the (ground-bound) RV. From the first fuel stop on, this one just seemed to have a theme of people demonstrating a servant’s heart. We are blessed to be immersed in a marvelous community and AirVenture at Oshkosh magically serves as an epicenter of renewing treasured relationships of the past and developing new ones for the future.