Rockford 1966 to AirVenture 2016
A few months short of age seven, I knew I loved aviation. I’d flown with dad many times and had seen my first P-51D (N51KB… Then N988C) fly. As best I can remember, I’d been to a local airshow and spent more time at the airport than at home. Then Dad and I went on an adventure of a lifetime, a trip from Oriskany NY to Rockford IL in a 1963 Corvair.
The drive took forever, no interstates to speak of, no more entertainment than an AM radio and no air conditioning. We got to the show and slept in the car. Dad in the backseat and me in the little space under the rear window. Showers were at the bathhouse and cold until the sun warmed up the water tank, but the field was covered with aviation and life. The feeling was the same as today, excitement, but different times and different people.
There are pilots and there are aviators. To me, a pilot goes to flight school and learns to fly, his time spent with aviation is when he is at the airport and knows little more about the airplane than how the controls operate. An aviator lives “the life”, you could say he learned to fly in a more casual environment, he learns constantly from the experiences of others and knows what makes the airplane fly and can actually fly it. Back in 1966 there were more aviators than pilots. Men and women who could take the controls and handle the plane. Back then there were no computers on board (unless you want to really call an E6B a “computer”), and you needed real situational awareness. You weren’t playing a video game like you are now. When you left home to fly your homebuilt to Rockford, you had a sectional chart and an alcohol compass, chances are you didn’t even have a radio. It took skill and a degree of confidence you simply don’t see very often now.
The crowd was different back in 1966. People there were more participants than spectators. They came to learn more to help them build their own airplane, rather than to watch another airshow. There are still people today who scratch build planes of their own design from tubing and fabric. But there were a lot more of them in 1966. Guys started talking, then out came piece of paper and a pencil then they started drawing. Then someone figured out how to make a new part or even design a new plane. There were a lot of designs back then. Few were commercial successes. Some didn’t go beyond one airframe. Many probably didn’t make it past the cocktail napkin they were first sketched on. Some of those airplanes are still with us today.
The homebuilders at that time were in the basement or garage at home. There were no kits and for some of the planes they built there were no plans. They bought materials at the local lumberyard and plumbing supply store. They wrote letters ordering other things from Trade-a-Plane vendors. There wasn’t a central one stop shopping place until 1965 when Bob Irwin invented “Aircraft Spruce & Specialty”. Bob initially sold aircraft grade spruce lumber, but branched out into parts and supporting plan built airplanes with “kits”. Fifty years later they sell just about anything related to aviation. I think everyone has bought something from Aircraft Spruce by now….
In 1966, among “interesting” looking airplanes, there was the Lesher Teal N4291C. Today, its pusher design and spindly landing gear may have it confused with a Predator Drone. When Edgar Lesher flew it back in 1965, he knew he had something. Aluminum construction with a pusher prop, it set a great number of closed course speed records, as well as distance records. It flew up until the 1990s and was donated to the EAA Museum where it resides today.
Ray Hegy was a homebuilder, who became a propeller maker, from Texas. Back in 1966 one of the things a lot of builders did was make their own wooden prop. Homebuilts needed a prop that was different than others. It had to be smaller in diameter and those props were simply not commercially available. Ray saw an opportunity and went into the propeller business. It was easier and a lot safer to buy a prop than trying to make your own. Ray used to be at Rockford too. He had a small red biplane, that he buzzed the field with every morning at dawn. The engine screaming and the prop tips at supersonic speed waking everyone up for a new day of fun. That was the “El Chuparosa” N9360, he spent ten years designing and building it, flying it first in 1959 (same year I was born). It was displayed at Rockford in 1960, attended countless conventions, and still lives in the EAA Museum where it was donated in 1977.
The “hottest” new plane at the time was the Pitts Special. While Curtis Pitts had designed it over twenty years before, the plans had only been available for a few years. There were a lot of Pitts on the field and Dad wanted to build one. As an A&P for Mohawk Airlines and an aviator, he was well qualified, but wanted to get all the ideas he could from the eleven Pitts Specials attending the show. He never built a Pitts, but he eventually bought an S-1C in the 1980s. Curtis Pitts was approachable and dad talked to him for a long time. Years later, I’d speak to him myself. AirVenture has such a casual atmosphere, that you can talk to many people who you would never see in any other situation. In 2015, the EAA held a celebration of 70 years of the Pitts with (according to my count) well over thirty in attendance.
1966 Curtis Pitts bought a new plane to Rockford, it was the S-2 “Big Stinker”, a two seat and slightly larger version of his S-1 biplane. Eventually it became a certificated production aircraft and a standard trainer for aerobatic pilots. The original S2 from 1966 N22Q is in the EAA Museum.
In 2016, aerobatic pilots fly high powered, purpose-built machines that are very impressive. In 1966, there was Duane Cole. In a 1938 clipped wing BF-50 Taylorcraft, he wowed the crowd. He was also US Aerobatic Champion in 1962 and 1964, the Taylorcraft was modified over the years to single seat and 150HP, but still it was nothing in comparison to a lightweight carbon fiber/composite monoplane or 400HP to 500HP biplane. Duane could simply fly better than just about anyone else. He wrote the book on aerobatics, appropriately titled “Roll Around a Point” and was a real master flying. The airplane is in the EAA Museum and Duane went west in 2004.
You got to share the experience of flight back in 1966. At AirVenture, you can get a ride in a Ford TriMotor NC8407. In 1966 there was the same TriMotor, giving rides when it was operated by the Erhart Flying Service. There were P-51 rides that were $25 or $50 back in 1966; and maybe $1500 to $1750 per half hour now.
The cool ride in 1966 was in the “Breezy”, it was a tube fuselage pusher using Piper PA-12 wings and no cabin or windshield. Its’ first appearance was in 1965. The windscreen was the goggles you wore and you sat at the end of a “rail”. Carl Unger, one of the designers, gave countless thousands of rides in it over the years. The original Breezy RLU-1 N59Y is in the EAA Museum, donated in 1990 by Mr. Unger.
What caught my eye was a bright red scaled down clipped wing Cub (or so I thought it was one). That was the Myers Special, built by Pete Myers in 1950. N42963 was at the first EAA Fly In at Milwaukee in 1953. It looked like a 3/4 scale cub and was aerobatic. Not to mention with 100HP eventually going to 150HP it did some short field take offs too. To me, it just looked really sporty and seemed like it would be a great airplane to fly. Of course you can find it in the EAA Museum too.
The people of 1966 had fewer airplanes to choose from than there are now, the Wright Brothers having only flown sixty-three years before. There were vintage aircraft from the 1930s, warbirds (a group of Mustangs, a Bearcat and a Hellcat), as well as homebuilts.
Warbirds are a major draw now, but they were more a sideline back then. 1966 saw a dozen P-51s, a Bearcat, and even a Hellcat at Rockford. If I had to guess, in 1966 there weren’t twenty-five flyable P-51s in the USA, there wasn’t a support network, nor newly machined parts, etc. for them. The few that were left flew based on a lot of hard work from their owners. Also, there were none that were in military paint, or restored to stock condition (some may not have been totally civilianized at that point). Some of those attending in 1966 are still flying today, others have been lost. One very unique warbird, the P-64, is still around.
Paul Poberezny was the man that started the EAA in 1953 and stayed at the helm until 2010. In 1966 he wasn’t even on the payroll, it was years later that his full time job became his occupation. Paul was associated with acquiring and flying the EAA’s P-64 N840. The P-64 was a rare export fighter version of the AT-6 Texan trainer with shorter wings and a bigger engine. The airplane was acquired in 1964 for the EAA. It was a regular at airshows all over the USA until the 1990s when they stopped flying it. It sat until 2013 when the engine was run for the first time in two decades. In 2017 it flew in the AirVenture Airshow; thirteen were built and two survive. This one is still in the EAA Museum.
The homebuilders were all aviators, not pilots. They flew planes of their own design or construction or both. The planes were small, and most of looked like they had a lot of characteristics what would make them absolutely wicked fliers. A 172 pilot with a ten hour taildragger endorsement wouldn’t have lasted very long in any of them. For that matter, many of the homebuilts of fifty years ago wouldn’t have made it without the EAA. The builders needed a purpose to fly their planes, going to the conventions in Rockford and later in Oshkosh gave them the need to fly. As the builder/pilots aged, they rapidly found out that their dream airplane wasn’t necessarily the dream of someone else. Instead of the engine getting sold and the airframe scrapped, the EAA Museum was the recipient of many aircraft over the years (as you can see above).
The EAA still actively supports homebuilders, in a time when it would have been easy to abandon them. Every year at AirVenture there are countless workshops on wood, fabric, and metal working. The still teach people to build and repair airplanes, that part has never changed. A few years back, the founder of PhotoRecon.net, Joe Kates, came to AirVenture. He came to see the airshows, planes, technology, etc. Joe ended up in the Forums, learning to weld, and work with metal and never even saw an airshow. He’s coming back next year, not for the show, but for the forums.
I’ve known Zachary Baughman the EAA Curator of Collections for many years. He tells me that the EAA has over three hundred airplanes in their collection. They are in the EAA Museum, the hangars at Pioneer Airport (behind the Museum) and stored in the exhibit buildings all over the airport. Some are really only on display to the public during the convention, when they get pulled out and tied down. As you walk through the grounds you will see homebuilts all over the place. These may look old, but in their day they were stars and on the cover of Sport Aviation. They lived, because their owners donated them to the EAA instead of scrapping them when their useful lives were over. The EAA has the largest collection of amateur built aircraft in the world, saved and preserved by people who care about aviation.
Homebuilts in attendance in 1966 were 222; total airplanes in 2017, maybe 10,000 give or take a few. There were about 9000 EAA members at the end of the 1966 Rockford Fly In with the last membership number at 31,377. In 2017 there are about 180,000 members with the last membership number at about 1.3 Million. That’s a lot of growth over the years.
This trip became the father-son trip. Dad and I went back many countless times. The night before we left for Oshkosh in 1996, Dad died of a heart attack at work in a USAir hangar in Pittsburgh. I put a stone out for him under the “E” of the “Welcome” at the brown arch which is the symbolic gateway to the event. Monday of this year was twenty years that he has been gone. Coming back to AirVenture is a tradition that will continue until my son puts a stone in for me at the arch. But I’ll never forget that first trip. Never.
So when you take your child to AirVenture, you may well be giving him a memory that lasts a lifetime and for that matter… a life changing experience.
I’d like to thank my father, Charles Hrutkay for many of the photos that illustrate this story. I’d also like to thank my friends, Zachary Baughman and Dick Knapinski, of the EAA for their assistance in this story. You can contact the author Mark Hrutkay @TNMark1@GMail.Com