Near-perfect weather conditions helped to draw just over 500 aircraft, and more than 7,500 people, to the University of Oklahoma Westheimer Airport in Norman on Saturday, Sept. 9, for the second of AOPA’s four 2017 regional fly-ins. The airport held its eleventh annual Aviation Festival on Saturday morning, in conjunction with the fly-in. The Norman event sets a new record for the highest attendance of any AOPA Fly-In, although the Bremerton, Washington, Fly-In in August 2016 still holds the record for the most aircraft.
But like all of AOPA’s 2017 Fly-Ins, the Norman event actually began on Friday with a series of all-day workshops. One of the workshops, Understanding Aviation Weather, leveraged Norman’s proximity to the National Weather Center, located on the south side of the University of Oklahoma’s sprawling campus in Norman. “I never thought about the weather until I became a pilot,” said Elizabeth Kummer of Dallas, a pilot for nine years who flies a Piper Archer. She said she enjoyed the variety of topics. “It’s interesting to see how they develop the [different weather] products.”
And a cadre of volunteers stayed busy Friday, parking aircraft and cars, and completing myriad other tasks required for the event to succeed. “I’m a rusty pilot. I figured this would be a good way to get back into it,” said Mike Klatt of Norman, who learned to fly as a University of Oklahoma student. Klatt, who said he hasn’t flown in 10 years, signed up for a Rusty Pilot seminar during the fly-in.
Nearby, Mike Derrick of Spencer, Oklahoma, also was marshalling arriving aircraft. He volunteered three days of his time to the event. “It’s the first opportunity I’ve had to do something like this,” he explained. “As much as AOPA has answered my questions over the years, I most assuredly had to volunteer and do whatever I could.” A former U.S. Air Force crew chief, flight engineer, and airline pilot, he mostly flies a Grumman AA-5 Traveler today.
Later in the afternoon, Jim Wick of Cañon City, Colorado, was pitching a tent under the wing of a Piper Tri-Pacer with a little help from his son, Xander, age 3 1/2. They had flown about 4.5 hours to reach Norman. Wick looked forward to camping with his son. “It’s something we just don’t get to do very often,” he said.
They soon were among the crowd streaming toward the Main Stage for the Barnstormers Party, presented by Jeppesen. Country musician John Wayne Schulz regaled his audience with a combination of original tunes and classic covers. A pilot as well as an active flight instructor, Schulz also is a cowboy and a horse trainer who sees some striking similarities between training pilots and training horses. Later in the evening, his rendition of John Denver’s "Take me home, country roads" became a sing-along.
Saturday morning’s pancake breakfast began with AOPA President Mark Baker introducing Doug Jackson of Operation Airdrop, a nascent organization recently formed to facilitate general aviation transportation of urgently needed supplies to hurricane-ravaged areas of Texas. “We’ve had over 500 flights so far. The response has been overwhelming,” Jackson said. More than 150 aircraft—some from as far away as Virginia, Minnesota, and Mexico—have delivered 250,000 pounds of supplies. Airplanes have ranged from Piper Comanches to a Douglas DC-3. Twenty to 30 flights were anticipated Saturday, he added.
Everything surrounding the effort has been coordinated through social media, Jackson explained. “We’ve had the speed of social media combined with the speed of aviation,” he said. “This might possibly be the largest general aviation response to a national disaster, and it happened with a grassroots effort.”
Asked why trucks weren’t used, he said, “We didn’t have trucks—we have airplanes. And some of the roads were blocked.” The group expects to be working in Florida in a matter of days, he added.
Tom Haines, AOPA senior vice president of media, communications, and outreach, announced that AOPA was collecting relief supplies in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, with plans to deliver them in Florida next week as soon as the storm passes.
During the day Saturday, guests could choose from a wide variety of seminars, static display aircraft, the exhibit hall, and the AOPA Village. The University of Oklahoma’s Sooner Air Academy—which runs aviation-themed summer camps in Norman for youth—offered special activities for young people all day. The university’s flight team was offering to clean windshields for $15 as a fundraiser, but early in the morning a flight team member said that business was slow.
At noon many eyes were on the skies for AOPA's first short takeoff and landing demonstration, the Texas STOL Roundup flight demonstration, for which Phillips 66 Aviation was the presenting sponsor. The team behind the Texas STOL Roundup demonstrated both its unique Obstacle STOL event, using inflatable pylons to represent that 50-foot obstacle frequently referenced in pilot operating handbooks, and traditional or Valdez-style STOL competition procedures. A seminar on Saturday morning covered important aspects of STOL operations and backcountry flying techniques.
During the afternoon’s Pilot Town Hall with AOPA President Mark Baker, which concluded the Fly-In, Baker and senior AOPA leadership discussed GA safety, BasicMed, and AOPA’s You Can Fly initiatives. But the audience seemed especially interested in the status of H.R.2997, also known as the 21st Century AIRR Act, the legislation that seeks to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system.
“We have the best system in the world. I’m still trying to figure out where it’s broken,” Baker said. “It’s about control—and it’s about the money.”
Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs and advocacy, said that a vote on H.R.2997 scheduled for next week has been postponed. “They don’t have the votes yet, but there’s a lot of arm-twisting going on,” Coon said. “This is probably going to be a full-on fight for the rest of the year. The current focus is in the House of Representatives, he said. “We want to stop it there.”