(May 2011) DID WE ACTUALLY MAKE a better pilot out of anybody, save any lives or keep any bent airplanes from littering the landscape? Who knows, but we sure had a good time putting on Wings Weekend at Hogan Field or, more properly, Butler County Regional Airport in Hamilton, Ohio. It started with me (and a chalkboard) on a Saturday morning at Blue Ash Airport, trading CFI renewals for donations of dual instruction, and it morphed into an annual 2½-day event with 70 to 80 instructors and up to 200 pilots earning their “wings.” For the next 13 years any pilot could “just show up” at the airport for one day on the last weekend in June to get the required three hours of dual flight instruction and attend the required safety seminar. Thus, he earned one of the 20 phases in FAA’s Pilot Proficiency Program and went home with a fancy certificate, pseudomilitary wings with stars, banners and phony gemstones and a genuine 61.56 flight review sign-off.
The idea of offering dual flight instruction and a seminar for free and all in one day wasn’t original. I’d heard about something like it in Kentucky, so I flew the 180 over to Owensboro on a covert spy mission. Sure enough, a chaotic mob of pilots and instructors were milling around, the CFIs holding up homemade signs advertising themselves (for free) and their airplanes (for rent). We could do this better by pairing up the pilots and CFIs in advance and giving the dual in two out-and-back sessions. And we’d have a bunch of rental airplanes available from local FBOs.
Putting this wildly ambitious scheme into motion without help was a colossal nightmare; at least 80 percent of people with “firm” reservations changed their plans in the 24 hours preceding the event. My low-tech system — humongous sheets of poster board and magic markers — was woefully inadequate, but somehow it worked.
Enter Jimmie G. Crain on a white charger, and we moved to Hamilton, where Jim was on the airport board and where Clippard Instrument put its big, new hangar at our disposal. A retired Air National Guard F-100 driver, Jim was an executive at Clippard, ran its flight department and was genuinely devoted to aviation safety. He was full of fun and enthusiasm but also brought a cool head, common sense and self-discipline — qualities way down at the bottom of my bag of tricks.
The other player was Jeff Crabtree, whom I met when he was managing the Aero Club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Jeff’s sense of humor and his opinion of bureaucracies meshed with mine — nothing was sacred, which, of course, explained why he was running his own automotive supply business instead of working for the Air Force and why I was and would remain a lowly safety program person. Jim and Jeff were skeptical about my “just show up and we’ll pair you with a CFI” plan, convinced it spelled chaos at best and major rioting if things got ugly. But somehow, magically, with a microphone and a bank of blackboards, we matched pilots and instructors who didn’t know each other and sent them off for a briefing session and three hours of dual. I strongly believed the “not knowing each other” part was key to an effective program.
“Mr. Foster, you’ll be flying with Bob McConnaughey. Yeah, I know you planned on flying with Skid Slipmore again, but hey, say hi to Bob here and go fly. You’ll love it.”
“Skid,” of course, was the reason this guy couldn’t handle a crosswind over 5 knots or keep the ball anywhere near the center in a climb.
Hands down the biggest challenge wasn’t accommodating everybody, making last-minute changes, attracting instructors or volunteers, wheedling seed money from sponsors or rounding up rental airplanes. The challenge was ...
FINDING A SPEAKER
See, for whatever reason, there absolutely, positively had to be a banquet on Saturday night in the Clippard hangar. That meant we were always on the lookout for a banquet speaker with a recognizable name whom we could afford. Since we fed the CFIs and volunteers for free, there had to be a decent crowd of paying customers to break even, and nobody would come back to the airport after a sweaty, hard day of flying to listen to some FAA type pontificate on safety and regulations. Rod Machado, Bob Hoover and the Kings were way over our budget, so it had to be a nonprofit kind of guy or somebody selling his new book, an airplane or membership in an organization.
One year Jeff snagged the iconic and charming Bill Kirschner, who was in Dayton for something going on at Wright-Patterson. And the year Phil Boyer came, I put out a flier advertising it as an AOPA town meeting, not realizing how much additional preparation and resource that involved. When I unexpectedly ran into Mr. Boyer at Sporty’s in early May and told him how excited we were about the town meeting, he was, well, furious. It was too late to recall the flier, so he arrived in June with lots of audiovisual equipment and an impressive support staff. That was a huge success ... for us; I’m not sure how AOPA felt about the whole thing.