By DAVID NIXON
When you find yourself going out of town, you usually ask a neighbor to keep an eye on things around your house. But when you have an airport to run and you are gone for months at a time, who do you ask?
A few years ago when Jack and Georgia Hoffman, the owner/operators of the Sandy River Airport (03S) in Sandy, Oregon, were faced with finding someone to help out with the day-to-day running of the airport, they did not go far afield to find help. In fact, they didn’t even have to ask anyone — airport local Paul LaPlante volunteered.
Paul has a variety of experience, including volunteer firefighter/EMT, tow truck driver, trucker, talented remote control airplane enthusiast, computer whiz, coupled with a lifelong love of aviation. His interest in aviation began as a youngster with flights in his grandfather’s Piper Tri-Pacer.
And like so many general aviation enthusiasts, Paul goes out of his way to make things run smoothly at the airport not just for the owners, but for visiting pilots as well. And he’s been known to go out of his way to encourage others to get involved in the aviation lifestyle.
Jack and Georgia Hoffman say Paul is an asset to the airport community.
“Paul is an aviator in the true sense of the word,” Georgia added.
Paul has been on the airport since 2008, first working for a company that built electrical components for the RC aircraft industry. During that time he got to know the Hoffmans and just about everyone else on the field. He says he “loves being at the airport.”
While the Hoffmans were off mining gold, Paul could be found mowing the 2,100-foot grass runway and adjacent taxiway/ramp area, fixing hangar doors, or handling a myriad of other issues.
Paul proved his ability to handle the position in 2009 when a Luscombe 8A overran the end of the runway on landing and flipped over. The Hoffmans were leaving to scout gold fields when the accident happened. The pilot and passenger were both unhurt, but the Luscombe was off the end of the runway, upside down.
The Hoffmans were hesitant to go, but Paul said he could handle the challenge and told the Hoffmans that everything would be fine. Being a former tow truck driver, he understood the many facets of recovering machines without incurring more damage and he also knew how fragile the airplane was in this condition.
Paul skillfully used a boom truck to right the poor Luscombe and get it off the runway without any further damage to the ship. That was no small feat.
After that, Paul volunteered to help out around the airport for the 2010 and 2011 gold mining seasons. He was more than just an extra hand around the airport. He kept an aviation transceiver on his golf cart to listen to and for traffic. He could be found on the airways if he recognized you flying overhead and offer a friendly “Hello.”
That’s a comfort for many a pilot as 03S is a challenging strip to come into when the wind is blowing up or down the river canyon. It is always nice to have a pilot on the ground giving you the current conditions.
One December when the Portland area was blanketed in a thick fog, Paul was at the airport when a Cessna 210 landed. The pilot, en route from Idaho to California, explained that Sandy River was the only open VFR airport in the area. The pilot tried to reach McMinnville for a fuel stop but could not make it VFR. Paul took him into the airport clubhouse, started a fire, made a pot of coffee, and brought out his laptop computer so they could see real time weather and send out emails to those waiting for the pilot’s arrival.
By the afternoon, four other planes were on the ground at Sandy River to wait out the fog. Paul even shuttled a few pilots up into Sandy so they could catch the transit system into Portland. To Paul, the effort was worth it.
“By the end of the day I had new friends from Canada to California,” he said.
And it can’t be a surprise to anyone that Paul volunteered as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Airport Support Network representing Sandy River Airport.
Being on and around the airport so much, Paul was motivated to complete his private pilot’s license, something he had been working toward since the late 1980s. In 2011 he finally earned his private pilot’s certificate.
Sandy River is a local hotbed of Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) activity with 11 LSA ships out of the 34 aircraft based at 03S. Being around so many LSA airplanes, Paul picked up a Sport Flight Talon XP airplane. It required a bit of hands-on work and paperwork shuffling getting it airworthy and legal.
Paul replaced the fabric envelopes on the wings and sheparded the airplane through the process to gain the Experimental-Exhibition Light Sport Aircraft certification from the FAA. All of this experience led Paul to seek out and earn the FAA Repairman’s Certificate for Light Sport Aircraft. He hopes to someday open a Light Sport repair facility to help owners/pilots and promote LSA activities in the area.
Paul has recently stepped away from helping around the airport so he can focus on his new endeavor — a homebuilt airplane. He is actively building a Zentith CH701. The tailfeathers and fuselage are mostly complete now. He is planning on using a Continental 80-hp motor for the powerplant. It will be a simple cruiser, for flying around the valley.
As if Paul helping out in so many realms of aviation isn’t enough, he can also be described as an general aviation booster as well.
One of his flight instructors knew a woman, Amy Shearer, at his church who was interested in aviation but never took the first step toward obtaining a license because she thought it was out of reach. The CFI told Paul about Amy’s dream of flying in a Piper J-3 Cub. Through Facebook, they connected and that got Paul thinking.
He had another friend who was also a CFI who had access to a J-3 Cub. Paul made arrangements for Amy, someone he had never met in person, to go for a one-hour ride in a J-3 as a Christmas present. He posted to her Facebook page to bring a logbook, because “she would be logging the time towards her private pilot license.”
Amy said she couldn’t believe that not only would she be able to get close to a J-3, but be able to fly it. She was so overwhelmed by the generosity of a stranger that she almost cried on the way to the airport. When she arrived and saw the Cub there, waiting for her to sit in the pilots seat and go flying, she said she almost burst into tears again.
When she landed she said she wanted to get her pilots license even more. “I NEED to be pilot,” she exclaimed.
Since the flight in the J-3, Amy completed her private pilot license. She is also now checked out in a Sport Cub at Stark’s Twin Oaks Airport. She is known to drop in and say hello to Paul out at Sandy River in a Cub.
Looking back on all this aviation activity, Paul said in each case he was just helping someone fulfill a dream.
After all he is living his dream: Doing what he loves to do, and being around airplanes and the people who fly them.