EAA chairman: Only change is at the top

October 25, 2012

The sudden departure of Experimental Aircraft Association President and CEO Rod Hightower will not change the mission or focus of the association, the newly elevated Chairman Jack Pelton said this week.

In an interview with AOPA Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines on AOPA Live This Week, Pelton, the former Cessna CEO, detailed the first steps in this transition for the organization with about 175,000 members.

Haines: What do you see as your biggest responsibility in that new role?

Pelton: Well I think, you know, immediately what I’m trying to do is make sure that all of the stakeholders, starting with employees, our members, our volunteers and our major supports of EAA are getting reached out to, let them know what’s going on with this transition, why the transition, what the board decisions are. And then also reassuring that same group, along with outside sources like you, that, you know, we’re not changing EAA’s direction. It’s purely a leadership change. We’re still committed to making sure this organization supports all aviation enthusiasts and that is the direction we’re headed in.

We just ah, unfortunate circumstance where we had to make a leadership change and simultaneously the board did not have a chairman so we elected a chairman, and I happened to be in a position where I could step in and fill the CE role, being retired. I’m gonna continue after we find a CEO being the chairman of the board for a three-year period of time and it gets reelected after that three years. So, that’s kind of the framework of what’s taken place.

Haines: How quickly do you think you’ll have a CEO in place?
Pelton: We have not as a board sat down and discussed the timeline on that. That will—those discussions will begin in the coming weeks. But I think we’ve been very thoughtful in saying, we’re not going to go out and say that needs to happen today or tomorrow. I think [inaudible] at least feels at least there’s somebody in a volunteer position, being myself, that’s at least helping to work with the senior staff. You know, this organization’s got great people, it’s got great leadership and a senior staff that can continue to keep it on course and on track. So, our role as a board is to be very, very thoughtful in making sure we get a leader that is representing the values of the organization and is going to work with the employees and the rest of the members [inaudible] to keep moving it forward and growing it over time. Jack Pelton

Haines: You know one of the challenges for a lot of aviation associations like EAA, and to a certain extent AOPA, is the declining pilot population and the fact that general aviation is really quite stagnant right now. And particularly at EAA, the long-term members have had the long belief that the organization really represents experimental aircraft and have been resistant to the organization’s move to broaden its base of support into sort of general aviation across its entire spectrum. So, how do you intend to reassure the experimental group that EAA is still there for them while at the same time seeming to need to broaden that base of support?

Pelton: Well, that’s been the plan over the last couple of years …, and you know, part of the role I have to do is reach out to that group of EAA members and reassure them that they’re not going to get disenfranchised as EAA looks at ways to continue to grow. We’ve been very open in our mission and statement that while we are very proud of our heritage of being founded as [inaudible] owners, we’re also a group that represents all aviation enthusiasts. We want to be a very inclusive organization, and that’s not going to change.

And part of the role of the organization is to make sure that members in each of the various communities are being provided services that they need to feel that this is an organization that is of value to them. So, we’re working with homebuilders’ groups, and we also are working with our other organizations, whether it be vintage group, the IAC, the warbird community, all of those, you know, are existing EAA pieces of the organization.

So, you know, it’s a lot of hand-holding, it’s a lot of communicating. And it’s a lot of making sure that as we put programs in place [inaudible] all of the member’s needs.

And you’re right, it’s a tough environment for all of us. We do have a pilot population concern, we have, you know, a lot of other concerns. But I hope that together, AOPA and EAA can work to help build the bridges that are necessary to bring everybody [inaudible] aviation. Not only pilots.

Haines: Right. So, speaking of the relationships, how do you see EAA’s role in the general aviation industry working with the other aviation associations, and with the manufacturers and others to try to turn things around for general aviation?

Pelton: Well I think, you know, a lot of the associations have capabilities that are unique in what they’re best at, best in class at doing. You know, I look at GAMA certainly representing the manufacturers. AOPA has done a tremendous job at being kind of the force du jour in Washington, D.C., for advocacy issues on pilots and other issues. EAA has done a very good job of helping, starting with the homebuilders, the FAA and the regulatory folks allow access, allow us to really exist, and moving into the LSA arena. I think together, if we kind of divide and conquer where our strengths and weaknesses are as associations, that’s best uses of our resources. Because it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to be using resources in a competing nature, it’s more about getting our common agenda out there and finding out who needs to take the lead on any given issue.

Haines: So, one final question: For a lot of people, EAA is AirVenture, and the big airshow. Anything different we can expect at AirVenture this year?

Pelton: This is the crowning event for, I think, all of us. That is the coming-together party for all of EAA and all of the aviation enthusiasts around the world. We haven’t tipped our hat, yet, as to what you can expect to see. There’s a lot of planning on the grounds today. We’re spending a lot of money and time to improve the venue so that the experience for our campers and our folks that fly in and sleep in the campgrounds or under their wings is going to be better each year as we go forward. So I, I can’t really give you the early tip of the what to, what to expect.

I would like to make other point, the EAA involvement on the medical issues. [inaudible] Class three medicals. You know, we’ve been very active in that. We think that’s, as I think you would agree at AOPA, that’s another one of the key agenda items that will help all of us in aviation, at a minimum at least keep the decline from occurring. And hopefully, it will help provide some [inaudible] population.