Of the thousands of aircraft on display at SUN ‘n FUN in Lakeland, Florida, this week, one is of particular interest.
While the Blue Angels thunder through their routine in the sky above and vendors from every corner of the continent display their latest and greatest wares, I will be at least a little bit distracted by a Beech Baron that was built back when Ronald Reagan was just getting settled into the Oval Office.
N3864U is unremarkable in every way but one. And that one point is a big one. Its paint scheme is original and largely cream in color. The panel has been rebuilt since it first rolled off the line, but the airplane is today what the airplane was then – a general aviation transport.
What makes this specific Beech Baron unique is not the equipment inside or any newsworthy exploit it might have had in the air.
No, what makes this airplane unique and important is that it was owned and flown by one of America’s true aeronautical heroes. For 30 years, N3864U was the airplane John Glenn used to go about the business of being a United States senator, presidential candidate, and all around aviation icon.
“I love this airplane,” says pilot and longtime admirer of the Baron Joel Weaner. Joel is a corporate pilot, a flight instructor, and a long-time associate of Jim Kelly, who purchased the Baron from Glenn when he finally gave up flying…at 90 years of age.
As he flew for Jim Kelly in years past, Joel flies for Jim’s widow Chryol Kelly now, traveling to airshows and fly-ins with her treasured Baron for the benefit of others. Joel’s mission is an easy one: Take this GA version of Friendship 7 to places where the public at large can see it up close. His goal is to “make it a memory for everybody.”
Jason Schappert, the almost unimaginably enthusiastic flight instructor and owner of MzeroA.com rides along with Joel on these ventures into the public arena, picking up the fuel bill and booth space costs as a means of sponsoring the flights and static displays.
“It’s not a museum piece,” Schappert says. “It’s working.”
That’s the real connection between American heroes of aeronautics and the average man or woman on the ramp. This is a working airplane. It fills the same role it did when John Glenn picked it up from the factory back in 1981. It takes people from Point A to Point B while flying above much of the weather, at a speed that makes the journey relatively short.
Flying an airplane like this is an entirely attainable goal. And while Glenn might have piloted the original Friendship 7 into Earth orbit, and Neil Armstrong might have commanded the first spacecraft to land on the moon, even the most notable astronauts in our history books had a rich and long-lived relationship with general aviation aircraft — the very same general aviation aircraft we fly today.
John Glenn didn’t start out as an American hero. He was just a kid living in Ohio. His dad ran a plumbing business and his mom doted on her son and his four sisters. From there he took incremental steps to move from high school to college, and from college to the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He became a Marine pilot, deployed to the South Pacific in World War II, and later into Korea. He flew piston powered aircraft, then jets, then rockets headed for space.
His wasn’t a meteoric rise to stardom and fortune, it was a simple case of an ambitious young man seeking out opportunity and making the most of whatever came his way, including his use of general aviation to enrich his life and extend his reach.
That could be said of any one of us, if we would only pick up the ball and run with it. Many do, but there is plenty of room for many more to follow in the footsteps of those who have.
If you didn’t make it to the annual SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In and Expo, don’t fret. You haven’t lost your chance to see a piece of American aeronautical history for yourself. Joel and Jason will also bring the Baron to AirVenture in Oshkosh (July 24-30), as well as to three of AOPA’s Regional Fly-ins at Norman, Oklahoma (Sept. 8 – 9), Groton, Connecticut (Oct. 6 – 7), and Tampa, Florida (Oct. 27-28).
The key to the future of general aviation just might rest with the sort of curiosity the Friendship 7 and her ramp mates instill in the youngest of us. Perhaps a young boy will ask his dad, “Why does this airplane has a painting of an astronaut on it?” Or maybe an adolescent girl will ask her mother, “Who is Annie Glenn, and why did she sign her name on the nose of that airplane?”
The answers to both those questions and the conversations that might result are the exact reason Joel and Jason are positioning the airplane on the grounds of these major fly-ins this year. It’s the reason Chryol Kelly has released her husband’s airplane, the same one he bought from his good friend John, to roam the land in the hopes of inspiring the same kind of excitement and adventure in people its original owner brought to the American population as a whole in 1962 when he launched into space from a beach not so far away.
The future is as bright as we make it. And right now, it looks to be about as brilliant as a Florida sunrise. Happy SUN ‘ FUN y’all. This is general aviation’s chance to shine.