Jack Pelton admits he failed miserably at being retired.
That’s why the former president of Cessna is now preparing to celebrate his first anniversary as president and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
But that’s not what he envisioned doing when he left Cessna.
“My wife and I had pretty much established that we were just going to be retirees and live a life of leisure,” he recalled. “But I’m not really wired that way, so you could say I failed retirement pretty early on because I was involved in more things post-Cessna than I was during Cessna with EAA and a lot of other things.”
When he stepped in as volunteer chairman following the departure of Rod Hightower in 2012, Pelton said he made a commitment to the board to stay until the association was stabilized, then help with the search for a new president and CEO.
But the search committee realized that the best candidate was already in place.
They approached Pelton, noting, “this has been working,” adding there was risk involved in bringing somebody else in.
The board was adamant that whoever was in the top position needed to be “365 days a year” in Oshkosh. So, instead of retiring to Florida, Pelton and his wife Rose found themselves in Wisconsin.
It was Rose who provided the encouragement for him to take on the position permanently, Pelton noted.
“She said, ‘One: I can tell you love what you are doing. Two, I’m very proud of the things you have done there,’” he recalled, adding she then said, “you owe it to the organization to keep it going strong.”
“So then she said — as only my wife and my chief counselor could — ‘You know, if it goes bad after you leave, that’s your legacy, so don’t let that happen.”
So he said yes, and notes that he’s enjoyed the job.
“It’s been very rewarding on a personal level and I think my score card is showing that we’re at a good place, so that’s good.”
With almost a year under his belt at EAA’s top spot, what was his biggest surprise about the job?
“I would say understanding the commitment and passion of our members and volunteers,” he said.
He notes that members are not shy about telling him how important EAA is to them.
“Just last night I was picking up a to-go order and a guy stopped me who is an EAA member and after 30 minutes of letting me know how important EAA is to him and to the community, I finally had to apologize and tell him I needed to go since my hamburger was getting cold. It is a truly unique organization in the sense that it’s such a part of people’s lives.”
One of the most important initiatives EAA has worked on this past year is third class medical reform.
Another important initiative, unveiled at this year’s SUN ’n FUN, was the STC to allow Dynon avionics in certified aircraft.
According to Pelton, a lot of the efforts EAA officials are concentrating on are designed to help the legacy fleet continue flying with modern technologies, he said.
“That was kind of our mantra around why we did this STC,” he explained. “There is all this good stuff that’s out there that we want people to take advantage of because it’s going to improve safety,” he said.
That high priority around safety — especially loss of control — was why the initial Founder’s Innovation Prize was focused on improving GA’s safety record.
The winner of the first $25,000 prize, presented at this year’s AirVenture, was Ihab Awad and his “Airball,” which synthesizes air data from a number of sensors and graphically presents it so that a pilot can understand the current flight state of the airplane.
A blue ball on the display grows, shrinks, and moves around the display as airspeed, angle of attack, and yaw change. Keeping the ball the right size, and in the right place, ensures that the airplane is well outside any condition that may result in a loss of control accident.
Another priority for EAA is expanding its relationships with other associations. It has already signed collaboration agreements with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and the Soaring Society of America (SSA) and is looking to reach out to other organizations.
“We recognize that in the grand scheme of things, our communities are small, so if we band together that helps add strength and helps add access points for people to get interested in aviation based on different interests,” he said. “Soaring is a great example of where a young person can be flying at age 14 versus having to wait until they are older.”
The partnership with AMA recognizes that many aviators like to be around model airplanes, because it is an “affordable hobby,” he added.
EAA officials also are looking at the possibility of lobbying to increase the weight limit for light-sport aircraft, Pelton noted.
“The definition of a light-sport aircraft is limited to 1,320 pounds, and that does not include airplanes like a Cessna 150 and a lot of the other training airplanes that we’ve had over the years,” he said. “If we increase that number to, say, 1,600 pounds, it opens up the ability for people to buy low cost, used, older airplanes and fly them under the light-sport category.”
That will allow pilots to fly something that they are actually familiar with, he noted.
“Maybe you were a private pilot who no longer wants to operate under the private pilot’s rules and you don’t want to go through the medical stuff and you’ve been flying a Cessna 150 or a 172 for your whole life, this would allow you the opportunity to continue to do that,” he said.
Another initiative is the new Sport Pilot Academy, where people come to the EAA campus in Oshkosh and earn a sport pilot license in three weeks. It’s an “add-on” to the Young Eagles program, which has introduced more than 2 million kids between the ages of 8 and 17 to flight.
“It answers those Young Eagles who say, ‘Okay, great, you flew me as a young person, what’s my pathway to an aviation career, whether it be flying or mechanics or other things?’” Pelton said. “We’re trying to work on developing those.”
What does Pelton see in the future for GA and EAA?
One of the first things he mentioned is “untapped innovation” in GA. He specifically pointed to the 3D printing revolution.
“I think EAA will play a big part in that as to helping to reduce the cost and complexity of building an airplane and maintaining and flying airplanes as some of this technology comes on board,” he said.
He noted that General Electric has purchased two 3D printing companies in Europe that are actually going to be building parts for aircraft engines.
“I think GA will benefit from it, and I think EAA, being historically kind of the incubator of innovation, we’ll play a big part in that by either promoting or enabling or being a part of it somehow,” he said.
“I still think there’s so much technology out there today that we’ve yet to integrate into general aviation to help reduce the time to learn to fly and the cost,” he continued, specifically pointing to flight simulators. “You know, to get a type rating in a business jet, you never spend a minute in the actual airplane. You do it all through simulation, and you walk out of there with a certificate from the FAA and then go out and say, “Ooh, that’s what the airplane actually looks like. We’ve got to find a way to do that and I think it will happen through technology.”
Perhaps EAA’s most critical initiative remains finding a way to “penetrate the younger generation to help convince them recreational flying is something that they can be a part of,” he said. “But the code we’re trying to crack is they have the attention span of three-minute YouTube videos. How do we become appealing and interesting to do that? That’s what we’re going to have to do at EAA.”
It’s a challenge that Pelton has a personal interest in. He tells of bringing his grandson to AirVenture this year, adding he took the time to shadow him as he experienced the show for the first time.
“It was great to see him sitting in a lawn chair watching an airshow saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this kind of stuff before up close and personal,’” he recalled. “And then hopefully we’re inquisitive enough to ask questions and learn from them and say, ‘What is it that makes this cool for you? What can we learn and what can we do and how do we help enable that for kids?”