Vero Beach Memoirs

With apologies to both playwright Neil Simon and Brighton Beach, it was a sentimental journey Nov. 10 to Vero Beach, Florida, for Piper’s Factory Fly-In, the final event of the Cub’s 75th Anniversary year.

Scattered among the 40 yellow taildraggers at the invitational fly-in were the all-metal Pipers of MY youth. I could only reminisce.

I recalled times in Vero Beach as a young staffer for the General Aviation Manufactures Association (GAMA). It’s painful now to see what’s not there. Missing are acres of new planes ready for flight test, sure, but even some newer production buildings are gone – victims of a 2004 hurricane. Fly-in guests saw today’s production snaking through buildings dating from Piper’s expansion to Florida in 1957.

While tempted to see Piper as “half-empty,” I was happy it is still building our kind of airplane. My mood improved on finding a row of newly assembled Pipers still in unpainted aluminum and temporary N-numbers, just as I remember them. And Piper’s GAMA shipment numbers ARE looking up these days. I hope this proves that the company, properly scaled, can do sustainable business, even if half of it is overseas. In the troubled 1980s, for instance, half of Piper production went to the temporarily still-viable California market. You’ve got to follow demand where it takes you, across the country or around the world.

Drew Steketee

That’s why president Simon Caldecott told guests that Piper is again called to the flight training market – its focus many times even since an aggressive, ever-expanding Cessna “taught the world to fly” in the 1960s. Now, Piper boasts it’s the only manufacturer still offering both single- and twin-engine trainers cut from the same cloth. That’s valuable commonality for both student training and fleet support.

To illustrate, Piper will offer G-1000-equipped Archers and Seminoles in 2013, beginning with eight “Archer TXs” for nearby Florida Institute of Technology (plus options for 16 more singles and twins later.) It has also established an Aviation Career Alliance with FIT encompassing “Piper internships, scholarships, career interviews and mentoring.”

Piper can do some good again in flight training. In fact, the following week’s Wall Street Journal series was quite convincing about a fast-approaching pilot supply crisis (thanks to the upcoming 1,500-hour TT requirement.) Flight academies and academic institutions are likely fleet buyers if professional training booms anew. Piper claims it taught 28% of the pilot population to fly. I hope they get another chance with this wave.

Back outside with the Cubs and Spam Cans, I recalled riding my bike to the little old Morrisville, Pa., airport in 1961 to look into “flying lessons.” One gander at their Colts and Tri-Pacers had me riding home pronto. But four years later, I was prime meat for the “big airport” Cessna Pilot Center and its sleek new, swept-tail C-150s and 172s. And then as a young commercial-rated pilot in my 20s, it was those low-wing Pipers that were the real, grown-up airplanes I was proud to fly, sitting atop the wing with unobstructed view of everything at my altitude. I finally felt like an adult, not a trainee.

Piper’s all-metal classics at the 75th anniversary fly-in may have been there only in their ones and twos, but there they were. A real draw was a just-restored sky blue-and-white 1957 Apache from Naples, Florida. (I got my multi in an Apache. Didn’t you?) It was on the line with a Comanche, Cherokee and PA-32 or two. It all reminded me that I liked these planes from way back as a kid after first discovering the purposeful Piper Comanche as a plastic model.

Before I fell in love with the A-36 Bonanza in my mid-30s, I was privileged to fly many hours in the Saratoga, Seminole and Seneca for work. A typical mission would depart Washington National in a PA-32 at 1800 Friday night to arrive in Vero Beach in four hours non-stop. Those 102 gallons usable meant making it every time. Next morning, I’d switch to a factory twin for that trip’s VIP jaunt out to the Islands. Tough duty for me. Good exposure for Piper.

VIP trips and meetings in Vero were my first exposure to an aircraft factory. On one occasion, I got into hot water for being at the wrong place (outside the Piper flight test center) at the wrong time (when someone left the hangar door open.) In an instant, chief engineer Jim Griswold was poking me in the ribs fuming, “What you just saw, you didn’t see!” Of course, it was the rumored but still-secret Piper Malibu.

Face it: the company is a treasure trove of GA heritage. (Go to Lock Haven and it will break your heart.) But ours is not to wallow in history, if we are to survive. This new Piper management is out to make history again. In Vero Beach, it was tough to face the contrast with what was — but good to see what can be. I hope it works out.

 

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

 

© Story and Photos Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

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