A conversation with Jack Pelton

06/29/2014 6:46 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

As child, former Cessna Aircraft chairman and CEO Jack Pelton attended the country’s largest aviation event – AirVenture Oshkosh – with his dad.

It was through his father that he got interested in the aviation industry.

“My dad was always an aviation enthusiast,” Pelton said.

Both of his parents were pilots. Pelton built his first airplane with his father in the 1970s as members of the EAA chapter in Riverside, Calif.

Today, Pelton, 55, is chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s board and its volunteer CEO. The organization sponsors the annual week-long event in Wisconsin.

It’s the second year of Pelton’s involvement in planning the show, which takes place July 28 to Aug. 3 in Oshkosh and draws about 500,000 attendees.

“It’s a significant change from my background of design and certification of the manufacturing of airplanes,” Pelton said. “Primarily you’re dealing with volunteers to make it all happen.”

AirVenture reminds him of good times he and his father shared at the show, where one can see nearly every kind of airplane ever built.

“It’s like going to the world’s fair of aviation,” Pelton said. “If you’re an aviation junkie, it satisfies all of your senses.”

Pelton holds airline transport and commercial pilot certificates. He’s earned instrument, multi-engine and seaplane ratings and is about to complete his commercial glider rating. After AirVenture, Pelton plans to explore getting a helicopter rating. He has about 5,000 flight hours.

Pelton came to Wichita in 2000 to join Cessna as senior vice president of product engineering, overseeing new aircraft development, testing, certification and improvements of Cessna planes.

In 2003, he was promoted to Cessna president, CEO and chairman. He retired from the company in 2011.

Before coming to Wichita, Pelton served as senior vice president of engineering for Dornier Aircraft in Germany. He began his career with Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, Calif.

Pelton currently serves on the board of Redbird Flight Simulations in Austin, Texas. He has also served on the Federal Aviation Association’s Management Advisory Committee and is past chairman of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association board. He has served on the boards of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Business Aviation Association, and the Corporate Angel Network.

Pelton and his wife, Rose, have no plans to move, he said.

“We love it in Wichita,” Pelton said.

The couple have two children and two grandchildren.

AirVenture is a huge endeavor. There are so many details – preparing the show grounds, working with volunteers, exhibitors and sponsors, getting entertainment and making sure there are showers, portable potties and food for campers and visitors. What else?

Then (it’s planning for the ) people who come there to also see in the afternoons the air show. There’s a year of preparation of getting the air show performers and the military demonstration teams ... and getting the hotel rooms for them and the line-up of performers in place to make it all happen.

It’s the first year that the Air Force’s Thunderbirds demonstration team will perform at AirVenture. That’s been your biggest challenge, How so?

It’s a much larger geographical flying demonstration so it requires us to get from the FAA a special waiver for the aerobatic box they perform in, which is a place in space over the airport reserved for the Thunderbirds to fly. You have to make sure the area is free and clear of any people. ... So when we started doing the planning process, we recognized that EAA occupies the west side of the Oshkosh airport, Wittman field. We can move our crowd line back because we have control of that. On the east side of the field, there’s a variety of businesses and residences that are inside that required clear zone for the Thunderbirds to perform.

At one point, you were literally knocking on doors. What happened?

It required going out to businesses and to the residents and sitting down with each of them asking if we could get their permission on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for about an hour and a half to relocate them farther to the east. That meant we had to have special preparations for them to watch the show. ... A lot of those people have their own parties that week to watch from their own backyards, which was disruptive.

There were also businesses to consider. Is that correct?

There’s approximately 10 businesses and probably close to 20 homes. These are major manufacturing businesses. We got the Thunderbirds to agree to perform as late in the day as possible so not to interfere with the manufacturing shifts. Logistically, there was a lot of planning we had to do. In the end, we got there.

For the first time last year the FAA required EAA to pay for extra air traffic controllers and other expenses required for AirVenture to handle all the planes flying in for the show. The bill was $475,000. It will be about the same this year. You said that sets a tone. How so?

It sets a tone as to the unfortunate circumstances that we see going forward with increased fees and costs from the FAA in support of general aviation. All the aviation groups – NBAA, GAMA, AOPA – we’re all working hand in hand to when the next funding of the FAA comes up for re-authorization to see if we can ensure that events like this are funded. No fees will be incurred.

Do you miss Cessna?

I miss the team at Cessna because they certainly, like myself, were very passionate about aviation and the industry and Cessna as a company. At the same time, I worry about the tough times they’ve been going through. But it looks like things are starting to pick up and get better. I’m feeling better for them. My emotions run the same ups and downs as the folks at Cessna as they experience the recent economic issues they’ve gone through.

What’s your biggest advice to someone wanting to get into the aviation industry?

One of the concerns I have is that we sometimes dwell on the negatives that have gone on, whether its the economic impacts on aviation or whether it’s the high fuel prices or the high cost of airplanes. I’ve been reading some interesting writings from the late ’40s and ’50s and ’60s from Paul Poberezny, the founder of EAA. It’s funny. He was complaining about the same things – fuel prices are almost a dollar. … My advice is don’t dwell on the past or the negatives, but get interested in what the future could or can be and how you might be part of influencing that. … There’s so much that can be done from an innovative perspective. And that’s a fun place to be.

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