The Fellowship of the Wing

Free flight.


In the classic J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy Lord of the Rings, a small band of intrepid adventurers are sent on a near-impossible mission—to save the world they know from evil and to set civilization back on a path toward goodness. This fellowship seems, at first, to be horribly ill-conceived. Its members include a couple of small, peace- and fun-loving Hobbits; a warrior elf; a curmudgeonly dwarf; a great wizard; and several humans who wandered into the picture. Normally, in the world of “Middle Earth,” you would rarely (if ever) have seen such a disparate group together. In fact, they could often be mistaken as being antagonistic toward one another. But thrown together as they were, a mutual respect eventually developed, and a sense of teamwork and purpose made them all more powerful as a group than they were individually. If you wish to skip reading all three volumes of this entertaining story, you now know one of the lessons you can learn from Tolkien’s philosophy.

Since the Wrights’ earliest flights at Big Kill Devil Hill, sport aviation has always been about freedom. (Photo: Library of Congress)

And what, pray tell, does this have to do with kit aircraft or planes of any kind, for that matter? Well, the truth is, our world is under attack from forces outside our circle—forces that, if not truly evil, are nevertheless arrayed against us and are up to no good. These forces would be very happy to see sport aviation go away completely. Sport aviation (homebuilders, warbirds, antiques, Light Sport, ultralights) is a category of flying which—by the very nature of the word “sport”—is considered by many to be nonessential. Superfluous. A waste of time and resources. An impediment to the growth of “real” aviation: airlines, corporate transportation and the military. To the general public, sport aviators are simply spoiled rich people who can afford toys that waste fuel and are the source of air and noise pollution. And, being a minority in a very large world, sport aviators are more and more an embattled species.

When you are a small minority in a larger population, it makes no difference if “right” is on your side. If the disparity in size between the majority and minority is great enough (and in our case it is very much great enough), the minority has little chance of surviving if the majority decides to take up arms against it. If the minority is furthermore broken up into small, arguing camps, this just makes the majority’s job that much easier. It is much less effort to stomp out a bunch of little embers than a large campfire.

So this brings us back to Tolkien’s work. Sport aviation is much like the Fellowship of the Ring. Whether you identify yourself as a human, hobbit, dwarf or elf is beside the point; we are all members of a minority “species.” While many here are homebuilders, there are a large number of antiquers, warbirders, balloonists, Light Sport pilots—all of whom are being threatened by the forces outside our little “ring.” And the truth is, we need each other far more than the rest of the world needs us.

You see, the average businessman boarding a Southwest flight to Chicago doesn’t really care about how much you enjoyed creating that rudder in your workshop. He doesn’t care that someone has spent years lovingly restoring a pre-war J-3. And he certainly has no interest in something as obsolete as a propeller-driven fighter plane from 1943. None of this matters…he just wants to get through the long TSA lines and make his meeting in Chicago. And from what he hears, there is a crisis in air travel—not enough runways to handle all of the airplanes, not enough “slots” to keep all the scheduled flights running on time. Delays due to traffic overload are common knowledge out there in the general public’s mind, for they know nothing at all about reliever airports, VFR flying, and the fact that sport aviation simply doesn’t use the same resources being fought over by the airlines.

Worse yet, they are fed lies by those airlines that would like to see a monopoly of the skies. As foolish as we know it to be, there are business majors in airline corporate offices who see every person traveling in their own airplane as one less person buying a ticket on one of their aluminum mailing tubes. The guys who fly those airliners (many of whom are sport aviators themselves) aren’t responsible for this fiction—they are as powerless as we are to change the image among the traveling public.

Pretty bleak outlook, huh? Just as Frodo, Gandalf, the elf and the dwarf saw nothing but the Orc armies of evil spread out on the plains before them, we are facing a terrible battle if we wish to see our cherished pastime survive. Yes, the times are bleak, and we are hanging on by a thread. It takes only a small swing of votes in Washington to do irreparable harm. Yet what do we do? We constantly bicker among ourselves! The homebuilders are upset with the warbirders, and both think that the antiquers have been sniffing too much dope. We argue over who has the best tent at Oshkosh, at who gets their expenses paid at Sun ’n Fun. We complain about the lack of attention our group gets compared to the others—and the only thing we agree on is that the guys who fly Spam cans are completely out to lunch (never mind that many, if not most, of them are sport aviators in their own right)!

Folks, we need to band together; we need to put aside the differences in order to look at our similarities. The Orcs are pounding at the gates—the FAA, the media, the public (because of what the media tells them)…and the airlines. We need to bring together anyone and everyone who flies for the love of flying. They might very well be doing it for a living as well, but if they get joy from their involvement (as well as a paycheck), then we are all one. Like the disparate heroes of the Ring Fellowship, we must form our own bonds—the “Fellowship of the Wing” so to speak. It is not enough to be good homebuilders. That is important, yes. But we must also be good members of this band called Sport Aviators and accept that while others may have different passions, we need to focus on our similarities.

Sport aviation is about freedom, and I am just old enough to remember being brought up in a country that was founded on that one concept—freedom. I don’t often talk or indulge in the political process, and in fact, I am not talking politics at all when I say that, above all else, our country was founded on the principle that all men should be free—free to choose how they wish to live and free to choose what they wish to do. And there is nothing like the freedom of the air—to be free in three dimensions, to go where you want, when you want…or to go nowhere at all, simply hovering in a balloon. Whether you enjoy the freedom of flying to a neighboring town to enjoy an overpriced hamburger with like-minded friends from other neighboring towns, whether you turn yourself inside-out flying local aerobatics, or whether you enjoy explaining the history of your warbird or antique to a passerby at an airshow or simply on the ramp in front of your hangar…it is hard to deny that the freedom to partake in any or all of these activities is what we cherish.

We don’t need to argue over glass versus metal—or even better, tube and fabric. We should all revel in whatever brings the joy of flight! (Photo: Richard VanderMeulen)

For me, nothing says freedom like scattered cumulus—scattered like grazing sheep among the fields of deep blue—in the last hour before sunset. The golden hue of the filtered light creating shadows in which I can hide from the glare as I twist and turn through the calming air is something that few others have experienced. I believe that if they did, they might understand. But they don’t. They can’t…because they haven’t been there and haven’t had the chance. And the forces of evil will deny that chance if they can. We must form a defense against that, a line that we cannot allow them to cross. Homebuilders aren’t strong enough to hold that line. Neither are the warbirders or the antiquers or the ballooners. But together…we might be. We might be able to build a case to keep our foothold in the sky.

Oh, we’ll never get rid of the differences. We will always love our own little bit of aviation more than those in which we don’t partake. There will be suspicions that the other guys aren’t really as committed to the cause as we are. But that works in all directions and is true of all alliances. But alliances are necessary, and sometimes they even change attitudes and beliefs. You never know…allow yourself the chance to spend an evening in the grass in one of the “other camps” at Oshkosh this year. You might just find that you’re talking with folks that have the same deep passions as you do. You might even find a brother (or a sister)…in the Fellowship of the Wing.

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Paul Dye
Paul Dye, KITPLANES® Editor at Large, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the Space Shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 and SubSonex jet that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra and an electric Xenos motorglider they completed. Currently, they are building an F1 Rocket. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 6000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, FAA DAR, EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor; he was formerly a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.


  1. There is also the problem of finding a Sport plane to train in. I live in Southern Florida. People tell me train in a Cessna, don’t worry the FAA is raising the max weight this year.

  2. Paul:

    Well said.
    The more we focus on what we have in common, the greater our strength, our ability, and our influence.
    Every Young Eagle is another informed advocate; every student pilot is another influencer; and every pilot iis another spokesperson for what we do, and want, and support.

  3. An article to “Dye” for!

    Some aviation “experts” have tended to trash others, they see as competing against their own pet solutions to problems like cheating drag, boosting power, or advancing safety. They say Edison was like that. Maybe it goes with the territory occupied by super smart people in the rarified air of great innovation. Sad. We all gain by unity around our sport—aviation. In my little group of hangar rats we have, Gasp!, some whose political views are quite different from others. But we avoid the acrimony that may prevail over Thanksgiving dinners in families who accentuate their differences. We focus instead on what unites us. Love of private, fun aviation. The real enemies are out there, not in here!


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