Was that cheering?

I’ve been a long-time skeptic about most General Aviation record-setting or publicity flights. Especially in this latter day of aviation, who is impressed? In any case, there’s a distinction between a flight purposefully pushing technology and the risky publicity stunt or ego exercise.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), whose cause I served at a significant time in its history, had a strict bias against involvement in aerobatic stunts or record-setting flights. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) took a cool view, too, when I worked there.

I remember the last-minute debate at GAMA before Voyager was to depart around the world un-refueled in 1986. Even though a major GAMA — Beech — was providing support and chase aircraft, there seemed to be too much downside. And it had too little to do with convincing everyday Americans to integrate GAMA-member products into their lifestyles.

Before the 1980s, experimental aviation and the “homebuilt movement” was a minority influence in the high-flying market for modern, factory-built planes. Things changed, of course, as pilots tired of ever-pricier Cessnas and Pipers, and their “same-old same-old” cruise speeds. And today, GAMA and AOPA interact with EAA and its world.

Conservatism about stunt flying and record-setting had reasonable precedent, however. Trans-Atlantic competitors for Lindbergh’s ultimate triumph crashed on test flights or were lost forever.

Post-war years suffered many highly publicized fatalities, including Bill Odom’s era-ending crash at the 1949 National Air Races in Cleveland. And with constant airliner crashes in the piston era, many Americans said, “You won’t get me up in one of those things.”

There were also some great demonstrations of safety and utility as modern GA took hold. That same Bill Odom, who died in a modified P-51 at Cleveland, had just flown the new Beech Bonanza non-stop from Honolulu to Teterboro.

Max Conrad flew the new all-metal Pipers everywhere in the world, it seemed.

And this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of 1964’s ‘round-the world jaunt by Ohio housewife Jerrie Mock in her Cessna 180, the Spirit of Columbus.

Many want to make their mark in aviation. Sometimes, they go too far. The spurt of kid records in the 1990s is case-in-point. One of AOPA’s biggest PR challenges was the Jessica Dubroff crash and similar fiascoes. Believe me, it was tough to come out against fellow pilots (often AOPA members.) Yet for the good of GA, it had to be done.

Chasing record times or media timetables can override good judgment. The 1996 Dubroff flight was trying to beat weather out of a Wyoming fuel stop — “to adhere to an overly ambitious itinerary in part because of media commitments,” NTSB said. An industry acquaintance of mine died the same way early one foggy morn trying to make a 9 a.m. press conference.

The latter had pitched me over lunch at D.C.’s famed Duke Zeibert’s restaurant months before. While thrilled to “see-and-be-seen” at D.C.’s “power lunch” spot, I was less impressed with his pointless record attempt at landing in all 50 state capitals. The topper? He was taking his new girlfriend along. It sounded like a mid-life crisis, someone trying to be young again. And he was way old enough to know better.

Approaching his last stop at 2 a.m., behind schedule and due into DCA at 9 o’clock to meet the press, he pushed a night approach to minimums into foggy Charleston, West Virginia – his last state capital. It WAS his last. And hers, too. The media waited in vain at Washington National for a Mooney that never arrived. It made a pathetic story in the papers.

With that background, I didn’t know what to think of Think Global Flight and its “round-the-world” departure from SUN ‘n FUN April 3. My fault, perhaps. I didn’t attend the press conference; I just shot the departure doings. I was confused to learn that 1) Judy Rice would NOT be flying all the way around the world in that nice-looking Cirrus, and 2) the flight would not be continuous. Just stuck in the conventions of round-the-world flights, I guess.

Of note, most such flights these days seem to be chasing purposeful educational or environmental goals, not world records or bragging rights. New personalities in aviation (many of them women) are promoting STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math. I’ll buy on to that immediately. America needs a boost in these areas; we’re losing our post-World War II advantages.

It only recently dawned on me that aviation’s push for STEM is not just another feel-good cause. Pitching STEM to school kids targets those who are (or would be) interested in science, technology, engineering and math – and, perhaps, the learning, challenge and fulfillment of flying. Call me slow!

Aviation education advocates are involved in ThinkGlobalFlight. Judy Rice has a nice-looking resume, including EAA’s youth efforts and Civil Air Patrol Aerospace Education. I don’t know much about her, but I do know advisory committee member Lori Bradner — until recently SUN ‘n FUN’s aviation education chief. I also notice that ex-GAMA staffer and Woman in Aviation activist Shelly Simi, now Jeppesen’s PR person in Washington, is chairwoman of that advisory committee.

The final clincher? The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is a sponsor. That must testify that this is not a record race against the clock. The trip will be done in stages. And the hard parts will be flown in a business jet, apparently. So maybe I took this “round-the-world” departure too seriously.

The real value of ThinkGlobalFlight is the planned involvement of 20,000 school kids through Internet communications and student “control centers” at schools. ThinkGlobalFlight tells them, “Aviate around the world with us.” Sounds effective.

AldrinSo I trooped out to the flight line to watch Judy Rice’s “launch.” Holy heck, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was going with her on the first leg, riding in back behind navigator Fred Nauer. And there was Dick Rutan, pilot of the 1986 Voyager triumph, shaking hands and seeing them off. There’s some poetry in all that.

And there was excitement. That Cirrus looked big, tall on its gear and purposeful with sponsor names pasted to its flanks. A healthy media contingent snapped away as Judy Rice did a last pre-flight. Then – what was that? It was cheering from behind the fence. There was a decidedly feminine tone to it; no doubt Rice’s friends and supporters were the cheering section. But the mood was all excitement, good wishes and pride.

RiceEven the press seemed to get into it. Why not? When was the last time we heard cheering for GA? For me, not for a while now.

Some people are getting out there and doing SOMETHING. And there are exciting new technologies and developments in the works. Many are yet to prove out. Some are at least worth pondering. And some, at very least, deserve a cheer.

© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved 


  1. Dan Colburn says

    I should add that I’m 91 years old and have had a wonderful life doing nothing but fly airplanes. I beat the 60 year rule when I had to stop flying DC 10s by flying the Grand Canyon till I was 71. I also flew the DC-2 for fifteen years just for fun. Now its time for a sport pilot ticket.

  2. Dan Colburn says

    Max Conrad soloed me 72 years ago, then hired me as a co-pilot when I came back from WWII. I should write a book about Max, a wonderful guy. Many of his flights were record breakers. He and Steve Whitman should not be forgotten,
    Dan Colburn

  3. Shelly Simi says

    Thanks for the article Drew! Think Global is having an impact …and I’m proud to be a part of it! It’s refreshing that efforts are still being made and that there is hope for our great aviation industry again.

    • Drew Steketee says

      I was very happy to see that you are involved with the effort and chairwoman of the committee. Keep up the good work. – Drew

  4. says

    Dear Drew,

    “The real value of ThinkGlobalFlight is the planned involvement of 20,000 school kids through Internet communications and student “control centers” at schools. ThinkGlobalFlight tells them, “Aviate around the world with us.” Sounds effective.”

    While this may be an interesting adjunct to sometime boring education, sadly and in my view, it will do little for improving the health of the GA. Here is my issue with this project. While there is a great value in learning here, and perhaps that is the sole object of it, it really is not going to do much for getting too many of our young into aviation.

    The project is directed at young people, most of whom earn a minimum wage at a local fast food joint, while going to school. After we teach them some math from the STE(Math) initiative, and after they see the sticker price of a Cirrus, they will stick with their skate boards, and stop dreaming about planes. Later, when they do come to some money, for most, the flight will be all but forgotten.

    I got the bug when I was about nine, watching planes gliding in for landings, lying in a ditch on the approach to the field. This passtime awoke a dream, and later GA flying became a reality for me. Yes, I could have spend my money on more practical item than a plane, but then I would have not lived my dream.

    I always liked the kit building projects at high schools. It is, when done right, STEM at its best. I wonder how many dreams these projects ignited. We, well meaning adults, seem to forget that our adult oriented “alphabets” and their missions mean nothing to our young. To spark and nurture dreams, we must think more like our youngsters. This is very tough, I know this first hand, my wife is a teacher. Have you ever made a beautiful caterpillar from an egg carton? My fist grade granddaughter did. That’s what good teachers do. Invoke imagination, and create the atmosphere for dreams to flourish. If we can do that, the perception of unreacheable mountain peaks, reserved for experienced climbers only, become just hills we all can climb. Flying, even at today’s costs can by done. I do it, and I am definitely not rich. I am just enjoying living my dream that started when I was nine.

  5. Douglas Blair says

    I made a record breaking flight 37 years ago. It was done by me as an adventure in aviation and my LOVE of flying. Flight planning, paperwork and observer coordination to verify this record was, for me, a hoot. Taking off and landing a Bonanza at 138 different airports was my way of staying sharp and having fun. By the sound of your article you would not have approved. I sure am glad I didn’t ask you for permission.
    Douglas Blair
    AOPA 428975

    • Drew Steketee says

      The nice thing is you don’t have to! That’s the American way. And the NAA record-setting process has offered fulfillment to many aviators while extending a challenge and purpose to fly in new ways and to new destinations. I was always interested to hear NAA’s annual announcement of record flights each year, especially those by everyday flyers. The “hairy” flights are worth the risk when technology is advanced by people who approach the challenge professionally. And your mention of “flight planning, paperwork and observer coordination” indicates you did your flight right. But meaningless risky flights, risking kids and risks based on media attention/timetables ARE NOT my cup of tea. – Drew Steketee

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