It was 31 years ago when newlyweds Jude and Mike Dennis, the founders of Oregon Aero, took off for an epic trip in the AirCoupe Mike shared with his brother.
“We loaded her with camping gear and cameras, and left Oregon on a two-month adventure that took us to all four corners of the country,” Mike recalls. “We dropped in on friends and relatives, but mostly camped by the plane or, when it rained, slept on the FBO sofa.”
“Two months in half the cubic volume of a phone booth was the acid test for a relationship,” he continues. “It must have worked. We came home and founded Oregon Aero, which we still run together.”
In fact, the AirCoupe was the genesis of Oregon Aero.
“After we came home from that trip, she got out of the airplane and handed me the headset and said, ‘You know what? This hurts. Can you fix it for me?’ I realized there’s an implied message here: Fix it and keep flying. Don’t fix it, go into boating.”
So, he concocted the SoftTop to fix the problem at the top of the head because he perceived that it was a blood flow issue. He made two, then the couple made their way to the CAFE 400 race.“While we were there waiting for the fog to lift, one of the other guys came over, fished the headset out, and said, ‘What’s this?’ pointing to the cushion. I said, ‘Well, my wife’s head’s tender, and mine’s a little bit tender.’ He said, “Does it work?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’ll give you $50 for that.”
Mike refused, telling the man that if he sold it, then Jude wouldn’t have it “and she’ll make me sell the airplane.”
Then another man came up and asked the same thing, then a third man.
“I said ‘nope,’ because I had had a business earlier with a number of employees, and I decided that I didn’t ever want any employees again. I was working by myself in a one-man shop, and I got along with that guy.”
“I could just see that this could get out of hand,” he continues. “Then the man said, “You owe it to humanity to make that.”
On the way home from the race, Mike started thinking: “Everybody that’s approached me about this has had that universal response. There might be something to this. By the time I got home, I had talked myself into a hobby.”
He told Jude he would make the headset upgrades on the weekends, take them to fly-ins they were going to anyway and sell them for gas money.
“She said, “I thought you said no more employees.’ I said, “No, no, I’d be making these at home on the weekends.” She said, “Right, I can see you making about 12 of them before you want somebody else to do it.”
And, no surprise, she was right: “Indeed, I made 12 of them, and I hired neighborhood kids and my own kids to start making them. We had a little production line in the house, and they were busy making these things, and one thing led to another. Pretty soon, people are asking for other items for comfort. Our whole business came out of that airplane.”
Lost and Found
But then the airplane disappeared. Mike owned it with his brother, who got into some financial distress and sold the plane without telling Mike.
Over the years, Mike would peruse classified ads in aviation magazines to see if the AirCoupe was for sale.
And then, during this year’s SUN ’n FUN, he saw his beloved AirCoupe for sale “at a price that guaranteed it wasn’t going to be on the market for more than 20 seconds.”
Stuck in Philadelphia on a business project, he had sent his Executive Assistant Gayle Crowder to the fly-in. She was staying at a house just a few miles from where the AirCoupe was hangared at Gilbert Field in Winter Haven.
Mike emailed the owner and told him all about Gayle and that she wanted to see the plane.
Gayle, an airplane nut and student pilot when she moved from North Carolina to Oregon to work for Mike, is still a student pilot as — like so many pilots — her training was interrupted with a big life-changing move across the country.
“I haven’t flown much since I’ve been here because I’ve been too busy to get back into it,” she says.
Mike has known about her flying obsession since he met her.
“He’s always told me that the perfect airplane for me would be the AirCoupe. But he didn’t mean just any AirCoupe, he only meant this AirCoupe.”
So when she got an email on the Friday of SUN ’n FUN from Mike telling her about an AirCoupe for sale, it took only a glance before she realized it was his old airplane.
The earliest she could make it to look at the plane was 1 p.m. Saturday. The owner noted he had another buyer “waving a check” who wanted the plane. Mike asked him to just let Gayle look at the plane.
“She’s heard so many stories about it,” he told the owner. “It would be nice if she could see it in person.”
“I went out to the airport and met the owners and we started talking. We went flying and then we sat around and talked and got to know each other, became friends,” Gayle says.
“They fell in love with her North Carolina accent, and took her home and wanted to adopt her,” Mike adds with a laugh.
She called Mike and told him, “this is everything that you said it was. I went out and flew it. It’s wonderful, but I’d need a ferry pilot and I only have half the asking price.”
Mike offered to match her half, and help her fly it home. Now the two are partners in the AirCoupe.
Gayle had always imagined owning an airplane, “but I never imagined owning this particular one. I hadn’t gone there with the intention of buying anything. Sometimes things have a way of working out.”
“It was just the right thing to do at the right moment. Every single aspect of it lined up in a straight line, and all the pieces went together so smoothly.”
“It all just unfolded,” he says. “There was no pre-planned notion to it.”
“There was no time to think,” Gayle adds.
“Yeah, literally, there was no time,” Mike adds. “This started on a Friday. By the next Friday, we were back in Florida, picking it up. It was really fast. Maybe that’s the message. When it comes to deciding what you want to do with aviation, just do it. Don’t think about it.”
Getting her home
The pair both flew home to Oregon on Monday after SUN ’n FUN, then boarded a flight to Orlando on Friday to pick up the plane. They took off for Oregon at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday.
“We made it back here in two and a half days with no trouble, perfect weather, no issues whatsoever — and we had a blast,” Gayle says.
The trip took about 28 hours of flying time, with the first day taking them from Winter Haven, Florida, to Russell, Kansas.
“We had tailwinds all the way, and beautiful weather, just weather to die for the entire way to Kansas,” Mike says.
But then they got out of the plane in Kansas and realized they didn’t have any tie-downs. The airport didn’t have any either, and there were thunderstorms “in every direction.”
“As a matter of fact, the thunderstorms came and slammed Russell that night, and shut down electric power in the entire town. We thought, ‘Uh oh. There’s that airplane sitting out there with its parking brake set and no tie-downs.’ We hoped it would be there in the morning.”
When they returned to the airport, “there she was, sitting high and dry, so we were fortunate.”
Afraid the weather was “going to blow up again,” the duo took off before sunrise.
“Within a half hour of leaving, it did blow up — but not for us. It was clear skies and tailwinds all the way home.”
After a stop in Idaho to visit Mike’s brother, the pair headed home to Oregon, arriving about 1 p.m.
“We had a perfect trip,” Mike says. “The airplane behaved itself and nothing broke — 2,530 miles in a 100 mph airplane in two and half days, which is pretty damn good.”
Back where she belongs
A few days after arriving in Oregon, Jude — who spends a lot of time in Pennsylvania taking care of her 97-year-old mother — saw the airplane for the first time.
“She’s cool and calm and business-like, and she was planning on just enjoying the moment of the reintroduction to the airplane,” Mike recounts. “It didn’t work that way. She ended up walking around the airplane, and putting her hands over her face to keep everybody from seeing how much she was crying. We both sat in the airplane and cried. I don’t know if that’s us or the airplane. But for us, aviation has defined our lives, and that airplane was the starting point for the process, so to have it back seems kind of miraculous. Strangely, the 28 years in between have sort of vanished, and it’s like it was never gone.”
Gayle picks up the story: “When Jude saw the plane, she was taken aback. She climbed in the plane and sat down and that’s when the tears started. It was the most beautiful thing.”
According to Gayle, Jude said, “I did not expect to react this way. I never thought I’d see it again. It just takes me back 30 years.”
“Just looking at the two of them sitting in that cockpit, they looked 30 years younger that day,” Gayle recounts. “It was the most interesting transformation ever.”
Learning to fly
Now that she has her own airplane, Gayle will work on getting her private pilot certificate. She notes that the cross-country with Mike to bring the plane home opened her eyes.
“I never had a clue that you could confidently fly yourself in something so little, so far,” she says. “I’m not afraid to go anywhere now. I’m glad we did that cross-country flight. I learned to fly at an airport where most people just stay local. They hopped around in the same county and never really went anywhere. What’s the point of having an airplane if you can’t go places?”
Once she passes that check ride, she said one of the first destinations she plans to fly to is Nehalem Bay, Oregon.
“When I came out here to meet Mike the first time, he flew my husband Chris and me there and we landed at an airport right next to the beach. That was just the coolest thing. The idea of flying to the beach, going over all the traffic and the mountains, and not dealing with the roads, it’s just a really romantic mission that I can’t wait to do.”
But wait she must. The plane is now in maintenance.
“We flew it across the country, but we want to make sure everything is good to go with it,” she explains.
And she notes she’s feels no rush to get her ticket.
“We’re just having fun with it right now,” she says. “Now that I have a plane here, I’m not in a big hurry. I’m just going to do it as it happens.”
She plans to spend time flying with Mike to help her get comfortable, noting “I’m not too worried about the hours. I want the experience.”
And while the employer and employee were already pretty close, going through the experience has strengthened the bond.
“We’re all in this together,” Gayle says, recalling that when Jude saw the plane, she looked at Gayle and said, “I guess you’re not leaving us anytime soon, huh?”
“I said ‘nope,’” Gayle says.
Buying her employer’s beloved AirCoupe brings with it a sense of comfort and familiarity, according to Gayle.
“It’s like the plane has come full circle,” she says. “It’s back home where it belongs.”
A magical moment
When Mike Dennis was just 4 years old, his mother called him over, took a piece of paper, folded it into a paper airplane, then launched it.
She also launched his lifelong love affair with aviation.
“It was the neatest thing I’d ever seen,” he says. “I can still see it in my mind. I thought, ‘That lady is a witch. A good witch.’ I had seen the Wizard of Oz. ‘She must be a good witch. She made that useless piece of paper into that magical thing.’ That was it for me. I was never interested in anything else ever again.”
“I’ve spent my entire life trying to recreate that magical moment. I’ve done it. I’ve been very successful with it. I’ve got about 7,000 hours. To recreate the moment, I just had to spend more money,” he says with a laugh.
“Even as a little kid, I didn’t want to fly airplanes. I didn’t want to be a mechanic. I didn’t want to do all the normal things. What I wanted to be was part of aviation. I desperately wanted the whole experience. I didn’t even know what that meant, but there was no aspect of it to me that wasn’t almost sacred. If I got my hands on a piece of broken airplane, that was a relic that had to be protected and cherished.
“I was a little bit goofy that way, and maybe ‘a little bit’ is being too charitable to myself,” he continues. “The only good that bicycles and cars were to me is that they got to me to an airport or to a job where I earned the money so I could get to the airport and dispose of it.”
“Aviation has this humongous emotional component for me that’s undeniable. This airplane marked a turning point. I got an education by getting married very young, and I married somebody that I didn’t understand. I had a 15-year experience that just nearly killed me.
“Then along comes another woman who saved me from it, and the airplane came along at the very same time, so it’s all tangled together. There’s a large emotional component to this, and by the way, Jude and I are still together.”