They reached for the stars


The pride of my small aviation art and poster collection is a glimpse into one of GA’s most daring – and star-crossed – new products. It’s time to dig out my prize Starship poster and look back on troubled times at Beech, now that Textron has taken ownership.

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Memorial Day: Early and late this year

Last month, it seemed that Memorial Day came early, didn’t it? Regardless of the calendar, it came early for some of my old buddies in aviation. And it came decades late for some World War II GA fliers I knew. Let me explain.

First, there was the memorial luncheon for my buddy and president of the National Association of Aviation Officials, Henry Ogrodzinki — the much-loved Washington association leader and former communications exec who left us way too soon.

Henry O

Henry O

Our careers had paralleled from the start, it seemed. When I left the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), Henry — known by most as Henry O — took my job there. I was pursued by Gulfstream but chose Beech instead. Henry later took the Gulfstream job and excelled, doing the launch of the G-V. (He later resuscitated the Dayton Air Show, then took NASAO to unprecedented heights while helming major D.C. aviation functions like the Wright Day Dinner.)

Many Washington aviation types gathered May 15 to celebrate a guy who made the Washington scene a brighter, “funner” place to work for aviation. State aviation officials sang his praises, then audience members rose with remembrances and perspectives. Henry’s co-recipient of last year’s Elder Statesman of Aviation Award, former FLYING publisher Dick Koenig, graciously came to D.C. for the event.

I took my turn  to say that one’s impressive bio (in a city of extensive resumes) pales in the final accounting. One’s true measure is what you have been to people. Here, again, my peer Henry beat me by a mile. I was proud to say he excelled in this and so many other ways.

While we were still digesting our emotions about Henry, time moved on. News arrived that Jim Christiansen had died suddenly that day. You may not know the name, but he was big (and much admired) in business aviation — especially the charter business. He was a good guy. And (gulp), he was “only” 67.

Then, another sad notice: “Skeets” Coleman had “flown West” at 95. He had been famous for “flying UP” – taking off and landing vertically atop the bizarre Convair XFY-1 Pogo, a 35-foot-tall turboprop “tail-sitter” fighter. Backing-down from vertical hover without instruments or computer guidance, Skeets would land it by twisting around in his seat, straining to see down over his shoulder!

Air & Space Magazine recalled that Skeets was “one of the last people ever to venture aloft in a machine that nobody knew how to fly, that no simulator had proved would fly, and that no computer could promise would be controllable.”

Coleman was awarded the 1955 Harmon Trophy for his exploits despite the Navy’s abandonment of the concept. (The XFY-1’s competitor for a shipboard vertical-takeoff fighter, the Lockheed XFV, is on outside display at SUN ‘n FUN in Lakeland, Florida.)

Why do I mourn Skeets? It’s based on just one evening with him as a bunch of us guys “did dinner” in Atlanta at the National Business Aviation Association show. I guess I got myself invited through the generosity of Bob Hoover. But there I was, talking the night away with the walks-on-water test pilot I had just read about in one of Bob Searles’ “Reflections” columns in Business and Commercial Aviation magazine.

In any case, that’s aviation: The bond that joins us all can stretch across industry segments and experience levels, or at least it can with great guys like Jim Christiansen or Skeets Coleman (and Bob Hoover, for that matter.) Some modern-day “superstar jet jocks” may think themselves “too good” for a GA guy but they pale in comparison. I’m not going to envy, let alone celebrate, their lives. They will do enough of that on their own.

And now to the very nearly forgotten: Memorial Day came decades late for the Civil Air Patrol Subchasers of World War II, but  it finally came. On May 30, the President signed Senate Bill 309 awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to veterans of Civil Air Patrol.

No doubt pushed by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the U.S. national honor is one of few for WWII CAP veterans and decades later than recognition for other military auxiliaries like the WASPs. I was proud to engineer a major tribute to CAP Subchasers at AOPA EXPO ’95 in Atlantic City, NJ. From this, I continued years of such pro bono work under the CAP Historical Foundation.

If you don’t know, volunteer Coastal Patrol pilots flew against marauding Nazi subs off U.S. shores in 1942-43 in single-engine Stinson 10s, Fairchild 24s or anything else they had. CAP operations during all of World War II totaled 86,685 missions, 244,600 flight hours, 24 million air miles and 59 dead fliers (including 26 lost at sea.)

Beyond a new CAP website, you can find CAP’s story in the National CAP Museum on the Web.

Honoring these daring GA flyers was gratifying. But best was my association with these modest heroes in their later years. Like others of our “Greatest Generation,” they did it for their country — not for fame or bragging rights.

There are now only about 100 still with us, CAP says. They all just carried on with their lives after the war, not expecting payback. In fact, pilots often told me they never expected to be remembered. But a new generation of fans — like D.C.-area independent CAP historian Roger Theil or those supporting the 1997-2008 CAP Historical Foundation — re-told their story before most were gone.

Memorial Day is sometime around the end of May, isn’t it? For me, it seemed to come early this year, then again later. These were especially meaningful memorial days.


© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

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.

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Rockin’ the Runways


The passing of aviation’s glory days? Much has been said. Sure, people are now more fascinated with easier, trendier, more hedonistic things. So what’s a perennial air show to do after a 2011 performer fatality and subsequently cancelled air shows? The answer: Rock and Roll!

“Give ‘em what they want,” the adage goes. For many, it’s music and good times. Nothing wrong with that. To re-vitalize its annual spring air show, Flagler County Airport in northeastern Florida based a renewed April 25-26 event on rock concerts.

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The Right Stuff for a post-SUN ‘n FUN trip


SUN ‘n FUN is coming up soon. If you are heading to the show in Lakeland, Florida, what else can you do while you’re in Florida? Of course, there’s always Disney World, but why not see the hub of America’s space program, the Kennedy Space Center?

Granted, it ain’t cheap and without advance planning, you could be disappointed. But its “Up Close Tours” are a unique opportunity to see America’s aerospace heritage. And its display of Space Shuttle Atlantis is second-to-none.

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Tips for flying the media and other influencers

We often encourage activist pilots and airport advocates to engage the media and community leaders, including by flying them. For two-plus decades, that was part of my job. I had a few ironclad principles for this. A potential disaster with Ralph Nader’s consumer organization dramatized why!

This month’s passing of Nader’s long-time publisher and collaborator brought all this to mind. Starting with Nader’s landmark 1965 first book, Unsafe At Any Speed (best known for its indictment of the Chevrolet Corvair), their work kick-started the modern consumer movement.

My demo flight with Nader’s collaborator began as normal — a phone call to the Communications office of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. This particular inquiry would be touchier than most. It would decide if the Nader organization would do their next book on General Aviation safety.

The phone interview was convincing, so the author agreed to fly from AOPA HQ. I booked a nice, big Piper Saratoga to impress. (A capacious, professional-looking single always surprises those expecting “a little puddle-jumper.”) By this time, I had found out that my demo passenger was, indeed, Nader’s frequent co-author.

The morning of the flight was rushed, but I always leave time to complete an unbreakable routine: a VERY careful pre-flight and a MANDATORY preliminary flight. If you’re not doing this on a media/VIP flight, you’re not doing it right.

Pre-flying the airplane is proof that everything’s working. The aircraft will be warmed up and limber for the demo flight, as will the pilot. And pre-flying the local area familiarizes you with what’s happening on and around the airport NOW — not the last time you flew. (The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds do it. Are you any better?)

This time, the warm-up routine really paid off – and fortunately well before Nader’s guy arrived. It could have been bad priming technique, but the Piper wouldn’t start. Before another try, I cleared the engine but —WOOSH! A bright orange glow appeared from the right side. Nuts! I continued cranking and FBO personnel approached with extinguishers but (thank God) the stack fire went out on its own. There was no damage save the black soot on cowling and fuselage.

After a clean-up and quick mechanical inspection, the warm-up flight went perfectly and so did the demo. Imagine a stack fire on a first-time engine start with media aboard. Those orange flames would have been Chapter One of a new Nader book!

If you fly a media/VIP ride — or even just hop kids for Young Eagles Day — please do a warm-up flight well ahead of time. Get aircraft, pilot and airport area all checked, cleared and primed to host our visitors.

A word on handling media: You should know who you’re flying. Research the reporter and his/her media outlet to know “where he/she is coming from.” PR pros do this all the time, spending hours following media trade news about reporters, new hires and beats/assignments. I realized, just in time, “Hey, this is Nader’s co-author!” My risk/reward calculation immediately hit the stratosphere.

That kind of intel also allowed me to step in when a reporter aggressively approached a prominent DC-area flight school. Knowing she had just been hired as a hot new daytime cable news anchor, I smelled “expose.” (Reporters often try to start new jobs with an immediate “big story.”) I met the anchor-to-be at the flight school and confronted her assumed story premise. The weather for a newbie demo flight was awfully hazy but we had only one chance. We broke the “good weather rule” and flew. She wasn’t in love with the low-vis flight but she went away quietly after finding GA professional and competent.

Some of this is for the pros. That’s why AOPA and other communications departments should have accomplished PR pros who are also well-qualified pilots. On the local level, you can do better, safer demo flights if you follow a disciplined approach. This is not the time to “kick-the-tires-and-go.” It’s certainly not the time to show off or brag. It’s time to prepare, be professional … and be more cautious (in word and deed) than you’ve ever been.

GA’s reputation rides with you.


© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

GA’s ‘Voice in the Newspaper’ turns 90

Jack Elliott and his family

Today, a mailbox in Warren, New Jersey, should be overflowing with birthday cards and good wishes. The occasion? It’s the 90th birthday of Jack Elliott, longtime aviation columnist for The Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger. Longevity did not win this praise; it was Jack Elliott’s storytelling and his “human interest” focus on people who fly.

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