“We’re back. We’re finally back,” said EAA Chairman of the Board and CEO Jack Pelton during a wrap-up news conference after 608,000 aviators and aviation enthusiasts swarmed the grounds at Wittman Regional Airport.
“I think this is the resurgence [of aviation] and what we’re going to see in the years to come,” he added. “We had 16,000 to 17,000 airplanes on the grounds” and “didn’t turn anybody away.”
Pelton seemingly was in multiple places at once: meeting with FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, attending rulemaking updates with AOPA President Mark Baker, participating in fuel innovation announcements, and greeting outreach organizations and attendees swarming Boeing Plaza during a salute to humanitarian organizations.
“[It] was a great AirVenture and certainly coming off a pandemic we’ve had a lot of challenges,” Pelton said. “It’s almost unbelievable.”
He was not as kind to Dickson, an airline captain with “zero general aviation experience.” Dickson and the FAA’s interpretation of flight training compensation are at the heart of a stifling directive that affects thousands of owners of experimental, limited, and primary category aircraft. The FAA indicated that flight training in standard category aircraft and light sport aircraft is not impacted.
Though Dickson held out an olive branch during a Meet the Administrator opportunity saying the letter of deviation authority process is “really easier than sending in an address change for your pilot license,” it did not resonate with EAA, AOPA, or other GA organizations.
“The training [application process] is the biggest embarrassment I’ve seen by a public agency,” Pelton said. “For them to make a reinterpretation of that is just embarrassing.” He predicted that “turning around” the predicament would be “a rude awakening. We’ve got a lot of educating to do.”
On a brighter note, a donation by the Boeing Co. offset the entrance fee for youth 18 and under and drove attendance levels for young people to new heights. “Hopefully we got them excited about what’s going on” in aviation and aerospace, Pelton said. He vowed that EAA would “do the 18-and-under forever, as long as I’m here. It’s something we’ll have to do” to keep aviation interest high on the list for young people.
“This is so awesome,” shrieked Kim Kissh, a corporate pilot who normally commands a Gulfstream G550, as she performed a loop with the Phillips Aerostars during a flight July 28 promoting scholarships for women through the I Hart Flying Foundation. “I’m signing up for aerobatic lessons as soon as I get home” to Illinois, she vowed. The flight occurred on what would normally be the group picture day for EAA WomenVenture, but crowd capacity limited to 50 in the aftermath of COVID-19 protocols scratched the photo opp.
Aviation job recruiters and attendees at the career fair were “so excited and geeked out to be back” that they were line dancing to the Electric Slide and the Cupid Shuffle, said JSfirm.com Executive Director Abbey Hutter. She noted an increase in career activity over 2019, the last time AirVenture was held live. When they weren’t dancing or talking to potential career pilots, Hutter and her teenage daughter, Katie, joined others spontaneously breaking into sing-alongs of Sweet Caroline. Hutter said the jovial atmosphere was another example of the enthusiasm shared all week by attendees, exhibitors, and airshow performers.
A mad scramble in the face of menacing thunderstorms canceled the traditional Wednesday night airshow July 28, and some of the 12,000 campers were temporarily evacuated to the EAA Aviation Museum on the west end of the show grounds, but there were no reports of any damage, except for soggy tents and wet clothes.
There were four minor airplane incidents including a Boeing Stearman nose-over that temporarily closed arrivals July 24, an ultralight long-landing, a deer running across the runway, and two airplanes that collided during taxi. None resulted in injuries.
Pelton said that despite a few challenges, EAA AirVenture “was a huge, huge success. We had a great week of support” from airshow performers, volunteers, exhibitors, and attendees, “and I couldn’t feel better about it.”