by Kate Bernard
I wrote this story while I was an EAA volunteer, when my aviation career was in its infancy. The year after I wrote this, I was awarded the Everett Weekley Internship and worked at Pioneer Airport full-time over the summer. Without the generosity of others interested in sharing their passion for aviation, I would not be where I am today. I thank EAA for its commitment to youth and encourage others to support aviation education.
A fateful flight, some special people, and a great organization changed my life.
I was 16 years old when I joined the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) in July of 1998. I had taken my first flight one month prior, and since then, had a terrible desire to get involved in aviation in every way possible. I mostly joined EAA because I wanted a discount on admission to their annual fly-in. Little did I know, getting involved with EAA would do much more for me than save me a few dollars at AirVenture.
I quickly learned how much EAA has to offer. I became interested in the EAA Air Adventure Museum, (now called the “EAA AirVenture Museum”). Oshkosh was an hour’s drive away and not a usual family destination, but with enough begging and pleading, I convinced my parents to take me there. Finally, in late September of ‘98, I went to the museum and to adjacent Pioneer Airport.
I had only flown twice but was already addicted to flying. I couldn’t resist buying a ride in one of the planes at Pioneer Airport, a red 1937 Waco YKS-7 cabin-class biplane. I was alone with the pilot in that four-seat antique beauty. I’ll never forget how he asked if I wanted to fly, then let me take the controls. I couldn’t believe what he was offering me. My nervous hands held the controls with a cold sweat as I felt the joy of flying an airplane myself for the first time. This volunteer pilot was fulfilling a dream I had since I was a little kid playing with model planes. The feeling was indescribable. My ride was only 15 minutes long, but the smile was stuck on my face for days.
Immediately after that flight, I bought a ticket for the Ford Tri-Motor. The people in the office looked surprised. I didn’t blame them. A teenage girl without a part-time job, whose parents weren’t buying the ticket, was eagerly shoving money across the counter as if her life depended on taking another flight.
The story could have ended there: a visit to the museum and a couple of airplane rides. But I got something out of this experience that I could never have predicted.
I couldn’t stop thinking about those two flights. About a week after my museum visit, I e-mailed EAA thanking them for the great experience I had at Pioneer Airport. I told them that I especially wanted to thank the pilot of the Waco, mentioning that I thought his name was Dave. I expected no reply to this e-mail. I wondered if anyone would do more than skim it.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I checked my e-mail a couple of weeks later. I didn’t receive a response from the museum but from the Waco pilot himself. His name was Dave Lammers. In the e-mail he offered to give me an “inside look” at Pioneer Airport and invited me to become a volunteer.
In late October my mom and I met with Dave. He told me about some things I could start out doing, such as pilot timesheets, selling tickets, and helping passengers get into the planes, among other things. I almost drooled over the thought that I would get to work with airplanes! I never got that opportunity anywhere else. I decided volunteering was something I definitely wanted to do. I thought of some of the benefits: getting to learn a lot about planes and flying, meeting people, being able to hang around pilots, and of course occasionally going for an airplane ride. When Dave asked me if I had any questions, all I could ask was, “Where do I sign up?” I enthusiastically filled out the paperwork and added my name to the ranks of Pioneer volunteers.
The day I talked to Dave was the last Saturday of the season, so I’d have to wait until the next summer to volunteer. That seemed too far away! I knew I’d be counting the days.
November passed and December began when suddenly another e-mail from Dave appeared in my inbox. His first had surprised me a little, but this one left my jaw hanging wide open. He and a few others would be building three RV-6 kitplanes at Pioneer over the winter, and he invited me to join them. I couldn’t believe it. Me? Someone who he hardly knew? A 16-year-old girl who couldn’t tell a ratchet from a wrench? Wow! I was more than willing to learn. I agreed to help.
The RV-6 kits were unpacked early in December, but I didn’t make it to Oshkosh again until the first week of January. (I had to get my driver’s license first.) Once I finally made it there, I returned again and again. Not only was I hooked on flying airplanes, now I was hooked on building them.
Over the winter I got to know several people. Five of them were “regulars” building the planes, and I met a lot more people that helped out from time to time. I was by far the youngest, so it was awkward for me at first, but in time I went from shy and scared to feeling like part of the family. I returned to Oshkosh nearly every weekend between January and May to help with the RV-6s.
I worked almost entirely under Joe Schumacher’s direction. That airplane-building genius taught me so many skills that I could almost start my own airplane project now if I wanted. Occasionally I worked with Dave, who is also an excellent teacher. I worked with hand tools and power tools, and with aluminum, steel, and fiberglass. I drilled, dimpled and deburred holes, wired lights, riveted, painted, laid out instrument panels, cut things, shaped things, assembled things… Throughout the project I worked on everything from the fuselages to the flaps, from the canopies to the static systems, from the interiors to the engine baffles. I put in about 80 hours of work spread over a year and a half. Finally, in May of 2000 I watched those three airplanes fly. It was an awesome, indescribable feeling to know that I helped build them. My own hands had helped turn those piles of parts into flying machines.
And when I got to fly two of them sitting in the left seat, I felt a satisfaction like no other. One day I’m tossing balsa airplanes in the air and building planes out of Legos, and the next I am flying real airplanes I helped build myelf. Unbelievable.
Let me back up to the summer of 1999 the summer after I started building. The flying season at Pioneer Airport opened in May. That’s when everything changed a bit. Along with meeting several new people, my focus shifted to the summer volunteering tasks. The RV-6s were at a stage where I couldn’t help much. Just in time, my help was needed on the flight line. I kept timesheets, loaded and unloaded passengers, and moved and washed airplanes. Ground crew kept me busy nearly every weekend of the summer. I also spent a few hours here and there working on the RV-6s.
Summer came to a close much too quickly, and soon we closed our season at Pioneer. Where the airport was once bustling with crowds and volunteers, now only the voices of the few RV-6 builders could be heard. Since the RV-6s were so far along there wasn’t much for me to do. Still, into the fall and winter I managed to help build on a few weekends.
It was a great day in late April of 2000 when all the volunteers reunited for training weekend. It marked the start of another summer flying season at Pioneer. Work and flight training kept me very busy that summer. I still went to Pioneer Airport several weekends, although not as often as I would have liked. My season was cut short when I had to leave for college in August.
In the spring of 2001 my third season at Pioneer Airport was upon me. It was hard to believe that I’d been there so long, that I was already19 years old, or that I just finished my freshman year of college. Unfortunately, other commitments kept me from volunteering as much as I would have liked during the summer. But I still helped out a few weekends at Pioneer. And for the first time, I spent two half-day shifts working with the Ford Tri-Motor at AirVenture, which was a very demanding task. I felt very privileged to do it.
Since my first day volunteering at Pioneer I have kept track of my hours. The grand total for 1999 was 232 hours. I volunteered 55 hours in 2000 and about 30 in 2001. Grand total as of the end of the 2001 season: 317 hours. That number amazes me, and so does this one: In 1999 and 2000, driving back and forth to Oshkosh put about 10,000 total miles on my car!
Although my life continues to change as I go through college, and my days of volunteering every weekend are gone for the moment, I will continue to volunteer at Pioneer Airport as much as I can. Eventually I hope to fly the RV-6s there, including the one I helped build, taking Young Eagles on local flights. Perhaps one day I will also be one of the intern flight instructors at the EAA Air Academy.
I originally started volunteering to work with airplanes. Now it’s not just the planes that draw me to Pioneer Airport, it’s the people. Seeing our visitors smile is enough to make it all worth it. And I love the volunteers like family. They are a great resource. If I have questions about flying, I only need to ask one of the many pilots, who range from recreational to airline transport pilots. We all share the same love and we’re all willing to share our knowledge. When I am not in Oshkosh, I know that there are several friends just a phone call away.
Volunteering at Pioneer Airport has given me valuable skills. I’ve learned a lot about building airplanes. I’ve learned about safety in the strict environment of the Pioneer flight line. Very importantly for me, I’ve gained confidence and skills in teaching and relating to the public. I have also gained a strong work ethic: giving freely of myself, following rules, and striving to meet high standards.
The skills and experience I gained at Pioneer Airport helped me get a part-time job working in avionics. My new knowledge of tools and aircraft construction came in very handy. I started working at Airtronics, Inc. in the summer of 1999 and still work there when I’m home from college.
My experience with EAA influenced my career choice. I had always wandered from interest to interest. I was unsure where I wanted to go to college or what I wanted to major in. Volunteering at Pioneer Airport helped me settle on a direction. I found my passion, something few people my age are lucky enough to find. I discovered that I could be a pilot–that it wasn’t impossible like I once thought. I learned that I could have a flying career and love what I do for the rest of my life. I was accepted to the University of Dubuque and started there in the fall of 2000 with a major in aviation. I plan have a career as a pilot.
All of this started with the random connection I made in 1998. Dave Lammers and other EAA members were willing to open aviation’s doors to someone who had a passion for it.
I want others to experience that generosity. After I earned my private pilot certificate in March of 2001, I became an EAA Young Eagles pilot. Through sharing flight with young people, I do my best to inspire them to reach for their dreams. The kids I have flown with so far have shown the same smiles I had when I first started flying. I’ve learned what a little nurturing can do for someone. The support I’ve received through the wonderful people I’ve met helped me climb higher than I ever thought I could.