Monday, February 6, 2012

Changes at EAA or Changing Times?

Last month, the aviation public got its first view of changes that have been quietly sweeping through EAA. Unnoticed by rank and file members until that day, they have been occurring since Rod Hightower came to the party. Yet, let there be no doubt, these and many more have and will continue to happen. But are they that bad? It depends on what you believe about EAA.

There’s no question that many current and past EAA members are unhappy with the organization. Having started out as a grass roots, wrench it together in your basement, calloused hands type of assembly, it isn’t hard to understand why. Once a bastion of America’s salt of the earth, risk be damned, pursue your dreams citizens, in recent years it had become a bureaucracy of “Poberezny yes men” and ever lasting board members whose focus was Airventure, fundraising, and risk aversion. Then change happened.

That day, a quick scan of social networks and all other forms of messaging revealed immediately that people were not happy. Humans, by nature, do not like change. Pilots dislike the mere discussion. And so began the weekend of EAA facebook flaming.

One week later, fading embers gave up the remaining heat and it was over. Those who were let go were already talking of other options while those who would like to leave searched the horizon. Everyone else fell silent.

Looking back, it is apparent that some really good people were let go and some that should have been were not. Parallel to this, some of those remaining should have been promoted and some of those that were should not have been. That my friends, sums up the staff changes. Any questions?

As for the group’s leadership, EAA has been a free floating barge for some time. Yes, there was Paul and then there was Tom. Yet, despite all the good things I can say about both, the reality is that EAA has been adrift for the last five to ten years. Everyone knows this.

A few people still blame Paul, quite a few blame Tom, others who know the whole story say it was a combination of leadership, the board, and HQ employees that couldn’t say no. Whoever is right, in the process EAA became little more than Airventure and a magazine. But really, what group isn’t?

Look at any organization to see what defines the “group” and it almost always comes down to those who get the magazine and those that attend the event. You may not want to agree but that’s clearly what most organizations are. Those that are more have a spirit, a soul. EAA had that but most of it has gone. This is where the big debate about recent changes comes to a head; soul or money?

On the surface, the question of soul or money seems easy, doesn’t it? No real pilot would ever say money because aviation is a sport of souls. However, no successful organization ever operated long without money. So what’s a group to do? I believe Rod Hightower, and those around him, looked at the situation like a business, made decisions based on money, then, understanding they had to keep the membership involved, launched a plan to put the face of a soul on it. Now let me be clear, despite the evidence they are not being completely open with their members about changes, I am not saying they are being deceptive. Instead, I believe the new BMOC decided EAA needed to grow, broaden its base, and expand its level of influence and that to do so meant choosing money over soul, metal over fabric. Unfortunately, although I don’t know if it was the right decision, I do believe that had they chosen soul, to stay EAA, many more cuts would likely have been required. This too would have been wildly unpopular with members.

I wish I had a way of knowing how many true EAA members, in the spirit of the old days, exist today? Caution: being in love with the idea of being an old style EAA member does not make you one. Could EAA survive on them alone? Are there enough of them left? And what about the die-hard EAA members that complain but when talk turns to walk, they all want to go to Oshkosh because it is the biggest aviation event in the world? Are these people truly mad at EAA? If so, then wouldn’t they instead go to any number of other events struggling to attract followers? One would assume so yet, year after year, EAA members vote with their feet and go to Oshkosh after a year of bitching about Oshkosh. For leaders, it’s a tough place to be. This is no different than politicians dealing with constituents who complain about spending and then ask them to allocate money to their issue of choice; if people don’t like something, why do they keep coming back for more? For a group, or country for that matter, to be successful, everyone has to understand the issues at hand and be on the same team. Adapting to changing times EAA leadership understands. But, do the members?

What is it that EAA members are looking to get from EAA? My experience tells me they want to feel like part of a group, they like to attend Oshkosh, hope to read about homebuilt planes in Sport Aviation, and a few of them actually attend and are members of active EAA Chapters; remember those? Some of them still get together and go to Oshkosh as such. But, anymore a lot of them come away feeling like they brought a stage coach to a car show. Yes the old days are gone, but I believe most of the old time members are also. Yet, accept it or not, EAA continues to offer the things most modern members want.

Today the typical EAA member wants easy to build flying Lego kits like RV’s, feels unsafe without flight following, has no idea what a rudder is, and is deathly afraid of clouds. Yet, as soon as EAA puts an article in Sport Aviation about a turbine, they flip out. Yes, I flipped out over the hiring of Mac but I also don’t match the descriptors from the sentence two back. So what’s your excuse? Maybe you, like me, wish the old days never left, and if so, I feel for you. But let’s face it, as long as most members say one thing but truly believe another, EAA as we know it is dead.

Let me ask you something. If you were Rod Hightower and a member complained that you never covered cheap (inexpensive) airplanes, how would you respond? I know how I would because nearly every week I read some post from some guy bitching about all the expensive planes in Sport Aviation. The lucky few of these people I know get the same response, “Hey, I saw your post and wanted to let you know there’s a Fly-Baby for sale a hundred miles away for $7500, go get it”. All of them give me the same response, “Well, I’m not in the market for a plane”. “Then why the hell are you complaining about the lack of cheap airplanes?” I ask.

Ultimately, for EAA to support you as EAA, then you have to actually want EAA, not just talk about it. If you are happy getting a monthly magazine, like to attend the largest aviation event in the world as a member, and you like the way being an EAA member infers you are a little more of a pilot than others who are not, then hey, you are at the right place and you should be happy. But, if you wish all planes were taildraggers, ATC didn’t exist, and every runway was grass, then there are plenty of events for you to attend instead of Oshkosh. There’s this one in Southern Indiana next to the river but I digress.

If you’ve been reading my posts for some time, maybe you’re wondering what’s happened to me.

Yes, I have certainly had my share of issues with EAA through the years but I also truly long for the old days of EAA. Most in their hearts do not and, to me, that is a far bigger crisis than change at EAA.


Shannon said...

Rich thank you for openly saying what so many of us are thinking. I am involved with Judy Birchler and ladies love taildraggers in the capacity of fly in coordinator and we are trying to put on one of the kind of events you speak of back to grass roots the event is all about the women pilots that love there tailwheel air planes but it go's farther then that it go's back to grass roots inexpensive fun with airplanes with our families as it should be again thanks rich chuck avon

Bill Cloughley said...

I built and fly an RV-7. It was not a quickbuild. It took me five years (3000 hours). The Vans kits are a lot easier than building from Plans, but it is not "easy" to build one to completion. It was pretty hard, actually. Not in the sense that it was rocket science, but in the sense that it required a lot of perseverance, effort, and dedication. They are not Lego kits that you just snap together. The Vans kits have enabled thousands like myself who never would have even attempted to build from Plans to realize the dream of building their own airplane.

Rich Davidson said...

First let me point out that you did a scratch built RV. That is far different than a quick-build. It is also something to be extremely proud of. With that out of the way, I have said nothing bad about RV's. I am merely pointing out the changes in the group's membership. And yeah, I do not think a lot of those changes are for the best. But that's not what I am discussing. I am discussing complaints about EAA.
Why do so many people build RVs? I always hear two reason; quick and easy. Neither of these was what the old EAA was about. The old EAA was not about angle of attack indicators, ILSs, and auto-pilots. It was also not about what is the easiest thing to build; cheapest maybe, but not easiest. It was a diverse group of people than when brought together did not fill up twenty acres with the same airplane (essentially). I have not said that was bad. I merely said that that who today's homebuilders are and as they have changed, so have the other areas, and with that, so must EAA to be relevant. What irks me is all the people complaining about wanting the old EAA back but what they want back isn't the old EAA. Actually, I'm not even sure people really want anything but to complain. If people were actually unhappy, they'd quit going to Oshkosh and cancel their memberships or they would start trying to do something about it. Instead, they just complain. So Bill, that's what I was discussing. Be proud of that RV. We get them through here all the time and we've even had one ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Well here I go again, where trying to put my thoughts into words leads to me writing jibberish and my regretting what I wrote.

Have been an EAA member since 80', life member since 88'. Am one of those whom I guess you could say belongs for the magazine since I have never been to Oshkosh, no desire to go (way too big for me), do belong to a local Chapter but rarely, well most never attend meetings, but am not much of a "joiner" anyway.

My first being really aware of the EAA was in having a High School teacher in 75' and his building a volkswagon engine powered airplane of his own design. Toiling for hours in a little shed behind his house and figuring things out. Real grassroots stuff.

In some defense of the EAA, homebuilt has come to cover many, many aircraft that were not even dreamed of when I first joined, and it is tough to make everyone happy. On the other hand the EAA seems to support more the ever growing higher and faster and lower and slower has taken what little is left.

Over the last few years I have read most every EAA Chapter newsletter that is on-line and what I see is a growing trend of many Chapters becoming an "RV Club", or a "Sonex Club", or you name the model.

Have talked with more than a few antique aviation guys and asked them had they visited a local Chapter. The usual repsonse in total is, yes and they were a bunch of jerks. They say they want to grow their membership but sure make a new person feel unwanted, especially if you do not own or are building "the club aircraft".

So what to do? Should the EAA be divided into EAA antique, EAA RV, EAA fill in name here?

Side note; As one who is most interested in airplanes that like a grass runway over pavement, I would like to see the EAA and other organizations put more interest in having existing airports, having the space, to add a grass runway. Support the buildng of them and help in the fight to keep them open.

But as people like Rich and Ginger know, good grass runways are a lot of work and maybe even take up the cost of being able to afford an airplane for yourself.

Anyway, is just some random thoughts and open for discussion.


Anonymous said...

I have complained about the Direction EAA has steered toward. Any comments to The Organization brings justification answers and really no satisfaction that THEY care .
I am scratch building a rag and tube plane . I enjoy THAT part of EAA. I get the Magazine , but have no desire to throw Big Bucks on a Trip to Oshland. I will be going to smaller events that cater more to the part of Aviation I enjoy . Keep doing your Grass Airstrip Work . Alot of US appreciate it . One of the First places I want to Visit with my New Plane is that lil peace of Heaven I have heard about in Southern Indianna. WE can keep the ambers of the REAL reason we joined EAA burning in smaller camps across Our Great Land !
Terry Ridgeway
SE Ohio

Jim said...

I've lived here in the Blue Grass for the last 42 years and I've seen lots of events start out nice and grow to become a total mess. The "great balloon race" and Oaks day, come immediately to mind. Frankly, I'm beginning to think that Wood,Fabric & Tailwheels is getting to be in that category! Yes, it's a great event and I love it, but it is growing and getting close to the limit. I mention this only to point out that any thing that people like is going to grow and with growth comes problems. I love flying, but would be absolutely terrified go get much over 3 or 4 feet off the ground in something that I built. There has to be more to the EAA than building from scratch.

Rich Davidson said...

I understand that for some people, the Lee Bottom Fly-In has become too busy. I guess it is damned if you do and damned if you don't. This is, albeit on a much smaller scale, the same issue Oshkosh and EAA have. People go because it is the biggest and then they complain that it is so big. People want something to do, you give it to them, and then they don't like that all those other people showed up to enjoy the fun. If you have some suggestions as to how we could improve it, we'd love to hear them.

Jim said...

Please don't take my comments about the Fly-In wrong. I love it, and am certainly not smart enough to have any idea how to improve it. You and Ginger have done an outstanding job at, I'm sure, great personal time and expense and made a small field with a falling-down hanger into a fine event. I think that we really are on the same page when you say "This is, albeit on a much smaller scale, the same issue Oshkosh and EAA have" because that was my point too. I hope this year to be healthy enough to make the Sinful Sunday's and the Fly-In and to be able to volunteer to help.

Steven W. Oxman said...

Rich and Ginger:
I have not YET been to your event, but I am going to try to come to your field this year in my Twin Beech. I live in Annapolis, Maryland, so I am so close, but I am close enough. I love aviation, I love flying, I love places like yours, and I love EAA (politics and all). Is EAA perfect, no, but no organization is perfect. Like many organizations, a part of how good it is, is how much YOU put into it. I also love the VAA (Vintage Aircraft Association). I guess I am a bit of a "join-er", I am a member of AOPA, American Bonanza Society, the North East Bonanza Group, and the Beechcraft Heritage Museum, all groups that assist me in enjoying my aviation love. I also try to give back, I am a member of the Civil Air Patrol where I teach Aerospace Education to our cadets. Is life perfect - no; but it is good when you put something into it. I try to put into the EAA, VAA, etc whenever I can and when I am able. Your passion with the Lee Bottom is amazing. I need to get there and meet you guys.
With great resepct for all that you two have done, Steven Oxman, Riva, MD 21140.