The man who started it all: EAA founder Paul Poberezny shares tales from the old days

Experimental Aircraft Association founder Paul Poberezny likes to tell people that he and his wife, Audrey, are millionaires, then sit back and watch the reactions.

Many people are taken aback, until Poberezny finishes his thought: “We have a million friends and you can’t buy that with money.”

Poberezny says that he uses that thought as a lesson for his audience. “Money has value, but money doesn’t make the person,” he says.

Sharing those life lessons has been a goal of Poberezny’s since the founding of EAA in 1953. At this year’s Sun ‘n Fun, he sat down with Fantasy of Flight founder Kermit Weeks to discuss the early days of EAA, including the heartbreaks, celebrations, and hard work that went into bringing a dream to life.

Born in 1921 to a very poor family, Poberezny grew up in Milwaukee. “I used to look up and see airplanes fly over and they looked so small,” he recalls. “I thought they were flown by little men.”

He still remembers the first time he saw an airplane in real life. He had gone to the movies — 10 cents at that time — and when he returned, his mom told him that a plane had landed in a local field. He ran to the field as fast as he could, but admits he was “kind of scared” to get too close to the plane, which he thinks was a Waco 10. “I got a blanket and put it under the wing and slept under the wing,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Forced to go to school the next day, he fidgeted until school was out, but sadly the airplane already had taken off when he returned to the field.

His fidgeting continued throughout his school years as he was anxious to return home to build his model airplanes and dream about flight. A high school teacher noticed he wasn’t doing so well in school, so challenged a teen-aged Poberezny to restore an old Waco primary glider. The teacher gave him $67 and all the manuals — and told him to read them — and Poberezny had his first project.

“Once it was ready, a neighbor towed me into the air the first time,” he remembers fondly. “When I got off the ground — what a thrill. Then I pulled the release and I learned one thing: Keep your nose down.”

The importance of that teacher in his life is what inspired Poberezny to develop EAA’s youth and education programs. “Most people can’t name their relatives, but they can name the teacher who changed their lives,” he says.

While still in high school, Poberezny joined a flying club, soloing at 16. His dad, who worked for the WPA, borrowed $200 and bought him an American Eagle biplane. “I became the pilot and mechanic — and met a lot of farmers and a truant officer,” he says with a grin.

Probably the most influential person in Poberezny’s life was just 14 when he met her. He credits his wife, Audrey, with EAA’s success today. “I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for her,” he says. “You wouldn’t be either.”

Most of the couple’s courtship was at the airport and in the plane — “I couldn’t dance,” Poberezny says, noting they were married in 1944. The couple recently celebrated their 63rd anniversary.

Poberezny joined the service in 1942. He wanted to be an Army pilot, but didn’t have the education. Instead, the 250-hour pilot became a glider pilot. A few years later, he began training cadets in PT-19s and PT-23s. He’s proud that he never washed out a student.

“I couldn’t believe I was being paid to fly,” he says. “I ended up as a service pilot and I got paid better than a second lieutenant!”

During his time in the service, Poberezny “got to fly just about everything.” In fact, in one three-day period, he flew a P-39, P-63, P-47, P-40 and P-51. During the Korean war, he flew a P-80, P-51, B-25, T-6, and his favorite airplane, a C-47.

All during this time he continued restoring old planes. After World War II, he converted his garage to an airplane shop. “The ‘Baby Ace’ was born there,” he remembers.”

Influenced by a group of homebuilders he met in Milwaukee in the 1930s, he started holding meetings in that garage shop. It was at those meetings that the idea for EAA was born.

“Audrey typed up 30 postcards and we sent them out to fellows we thought would be interested,” he recalls. “The first meeting was held Jan. 25, 1953, in a dope and fabric shop at Curtiss Wright Airport in Milwaukee. The first fly-in was held later that year, with about 30 people attending.”

The couple converted their coal bin into an office, where Audrey typed up the first EAA newsletters called “Experimenter.” “We still have that first typewriter,” he says.

They ran the organization for 11 years from their home. During that time, Poberezny also was running an aircraft maintenance shop and maintaining his combat readiness by flying a variety of airplanes, including the Mustang, C-47, B-26 and more. “I’d get in them, start them up and go to work,” says Poberezny, who estimates he’s flown about 500 different airplanes. “And you know what? They all fly alike. I’ve always been able to get into an airplane and just wear it.”

The organization continued to grow and evolve, eventually settling in Oshkosh. “So many people believed in the cause,” Poberezny says. “We’re a family. The early members would bring their kids and later on we’d see the kids come and they’d be married, then years later those kids would come with their grandkids.”

That sense of family is still central to EAA’s success.

“It’s like the fellow building an airplane in his garage, while the mom is having a baby,” Poberezny says. “It takes longer to build a plane, so Dad is home and the kids see the plane being built. Then when it’s ready for that first flight, the family is there to see it.”

Poberezny was involved in founding Sun ‘n Fun and has been at every event since the beginning. “I think it’s important from the standpoint of loyalty to all the EAA members who have come here since the beginning,” he says. “I’m happy and pleased to help aviation and the members who come here.”

His favorite part of Sun ‘n Fun? It’s the same as his favorite part of AirVenture: The people. “I like helping them,” he says. “If I’m in the golf cart and I see people who need help, I’ll transport them.

“I enjoy the opportunity to mingle with them and learn of their feelings,” he continues. “People often tell me that they appreciate not only the great work of EAA, but that they appreciate how it has changed their lives and families.”

Poberezny is convinced that aviation — and especially general aviation — would be “poorer” without EAA. “EAA’s involvement and work over the years has provided the industry the opportunity to develop aircraft and products that they can sell to the public,” he says. “Would all these manufacturers and companies be here if it wasn’t for EAA? I don’t think so.”

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