Posted by: Petaluma Area Pilots Association | January 18, 2009

Creating a Sense of Community

How Pilots Coming Together on the Ground, Can Help Insure the Future of GA in the Air
by Susan Terrell

During a discussion on the AOPA internet forum board about the prospects for GA in this country, a statement was posted that if things keep going like they are, a sad vision for the future would be that of bringing a grandchild to an aviation museum someday, pointing to a Cessna 172 suspended from the ceiling, and having to say “There was a time when anyone with a pilot’s license could fly one of those through the sky.”

Thankfully, it’s not that bad yet, and hopefully never will be. But there is no denying that skyrocketing costs; loss of airports; and the continuing encroachment of regulations and restrictions on GA in the United States continues to place an enormous burden on those with the desire to take to the sky piloting a private aircraft. Add to that the stress and time restrictions that modern day life can impose, and building a community around the local airport; attracting new pilots to GA … seems to get harder and harder.

Then there is the fact that aviation as a whole has lost its sense of romance for the general public. Today there are no Lindberghs or Earharts to invoke the vision of heroism and adventure both once brought to it, or to inspire youth to want to fly. Commercial aviation has become ordinary; it is taken for granted, and become something that holds less than a favorable image in the eyes of the average person – attitudes that sadly also color the view people have of GA.

All and all, it’s hard to argue that aviation in this country isn’t in sad need of some good PR and a boost in advocacy. That said, it seems an equally sad given that GA in particular could use both even more. The ranks of private pilots are dwindling. Adults are deterred by cost; kids that used to hang out at a local airport and gawk at airplanes hoping to someday fly themselves, now not only have fewer airports around their homes to hang out at, but a huge array of organized sports, computers and technology with which to occupy their time instead.

But there is hope. Efforts at bringing back a sense of wonder for flying, and appreciation for the role a GA airport can play in a community, are out there to be found. They are epitomized by Brian Terwilliger’s film “One Six Right,” – a love story to flying told through the history of Van Nuys airport in Southern California. Successful programs like the EAA’s “Young Eagles” give youth the opportunity to experience first hand the thrill of flight and AOPA’S “Project Pilot” offers support to aspiring aviators. The world of the internet has opened up a new form of community building and support for the pilot and flying enthusiast with the creation of the on-line aviation forum board, and on the ground in the real world, grass roots efforts by those who love to fly are evident across the country.

It seems the latter though – grass roots efforts by those who love to fly – is the foundation for everything else. For an optimist would like to believe that with enough enthusiasm, a group of people coming together for a common cause and focused goals can form a community able to battle against all odds and prevail; that GA does not have to become something that “once existed” – that the glass can still be seen as half full.

But how does that group of people deciding to come together to promote GA in their community help keep the glass from draining?

A group of pilots at Petaluma Municipal Airport (069) in Petaluma, California are in the process of mapping out on the ground, a successful way to do exactly that.

Located in Sonoma County, California, this is a facility admittedly blessed with some ideal attributes for a GA airport in this day and age. Foresight by its founders give its flying community the luxury of not having to expend their energy “saving” the airport – there are navigation easements in the purchase agreements for housing surrounding the airport (housing which is limited in the flight path by prior design) as well as a long-active and vital airport commission keeping a solid handle on the facility’s best interests. O69 is well located, with a 3600 ft. runway surrounded by smooth terrain and no trees or phone lines at its edges, and there is a good mix of old and new members in the pilot community offering each other support, as well as a dose of energetic new enthusiasm when it’s needed.

But perhaps most importantly – and where the inspiration can be found for other GA airports – the pilot community comes together in the form of the Petaluma Area Pilot’s Association (P.A.P.A.) with a group vision and dedication to not only creating an active and involved flying community within the borders of the airport itself, but also of re-enforcing its long-term goal to be an active goodwill ambassador for GA in the non-flying community outside its borders, as well as to connect with fellow aviation communities in outlying areas.

In 2006, a 6.1- million dollar project was completed that added 55 new hangars to the airport. It also brought in new pilots, new planes and new reasons for P.A.P.A. to revive itself. As with any long-term surviving community group, P.A.P.A. found its membership base aging, and some complacency setting in. The addition of the new hangars to the airport, along with the resulting influx of new pilots, was an opportunity to inject new life into the association.

Don Smith is a longtime member of P.A.P.A. and considered by many to be the “Father” of Petaluma Municipal airport. On July 10, 1949, he did an exhibition parachute jump to open the original airport, “Petaluma Sky Ranch.” On September 1, 1985, he proudly participated in the Opening Ceremonies for the present day Petaluma Municipal, which he personally played a key roll in bringing to life.

Back in 1979, when there was argument over whether to fix up the old airport site or build a new one with a vision for the needs of the future, it was Don Smith who fought for the latter. He wisely said at the time “sinking borrowed money into fixing up Sky Ranch would be a short-lived alternate to building a larger field. Down the line in the future, it won’t work.”

Jump ahead almost 30 years later, and time has proved Don Smith correct. The larger field he fought for and helped create is now a vital part of the City of Petaluma itself, as well as a valued facility for outlying communities. 069 is a true GA airport, home to a wide variety of different aircraft, and used frequently by the nearby U.S. Coast Guard training base, REACH Emergency Medical, as well as by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.

But jump ahead almost 30 years later too, and although you have a well positioned and active GA airport, it is still one vulnerable to something that can be especially damaging in today’s challenged aviation climate – apathy within its own pilot community.

What makes it a roll model is how P.A.P.A. is fighting against that. There is rightly a sense developing among caring members that if pilots cannot bind together on the local level and bring a sense of community and love for what they do not only to each other but to the community at large – that yes, GA might just be … a dying breed.

So what did this pilot association do to revive itself, and offer a positive image to the non-flying community that surrounds it? Nothing difficult; their efforts can easily be duplicated at any GA airport across the country with people who can see the value in being pro-active and involved. A first helpful step is to find enthusiastic “cheerleaders” within the ranks, for demonstrated caring combined with effective leadership are powerful foundations that serve to inspire and motivate others.

In the case of 069, that came in the form of the old and the new coming together. Gary McDonald came to the airport with his Cessna 182 in September 2006 upon the completion of the new hangars. He brought with him an outgoing personality; a love for flying; and a desire to see a sense of community renewed amongst fellow pilots at the airport.

Marc Ashton came to the airport 25 years ago as a flight instructor. When Gary met him, he had an already established relationship with the pilot community within the airport, as well as a long history of trying to bring the airport to the outlying community. Marc participates in career days at local high schools; is on the pilot association’s impressive aviation scholarship program committee; and he is an active participant and supporter of on-site pilot events and flying activities that over the years has brought in and involved the public, such as the traditional Father’s Day “Penny a Pound” flights.

Next, you take an age-old GA airport tradition and add it to the mix; one that you can find easily at just about any airfield if you look hard enough – the old-timers morning donut/coffee get-together. Find any gathering of airport veteran pilots where it’s the stories that do the flying through the air, and – even if it is a small gathering – you’ll find a place where the sense of community can definitely be found. There’s where the spark is … it just needs to be “fanned.”

As a newcomer, Gary made it a point to sit in on occasion and listen to those stories; to become a part of that community. In doing so, he not only made new friends, but learned the history of the airport firsthand from longtime pilot community members like Don Smith and Dave Traversi, Phil Pieri, Al Kaplan, Bob Patterson, Mike Glose, Lauren Williams and Herb Lingl, all men who had lived it. From them he gained an appreciation as well as perspective, for the reasons behind why the pilot’s organization had grown a bit less vital and active over time.

He and Marc Ashton made a good combination when it came to caring, enthusiasm, and sharing a common goal. Time was well spent sitting in Gary’s hangar throwing out ideas over a long yellow legal pad; the airport had its “cheerleaders” and it didn’t take much time before their energy infected others.

Fast-forward to 2008. A new and active Board of Directors, headed by President Joe Pittelkow is at the helm of PAPA now. Joe is another pilot who came to 069 with the new hangars and cared enough to realize how important it is to be actively involved. Old and new PAPA members came together to revive the association, and soon ideas and events began to come to life.

Monthly dinner meetings resumed where high winger, low winger, tail dragger, etc., pilots take turns cooking the meal and various aviation related presentations are offered; a “get acquainted” hangar breakfast was held at Gary McDonald’s hangar, where the airport “old-timers” flung hash and eggs for the newcomers; a poker run flew to benefit the scholarship program; and in May PAPA hosted a Mountain Flying and Survival Seminar at 069, with experts Sparky Imeson and Rob Hunter that drew over 80 pilots from all over California, and was a success in no small part due to the combined efforts of PAPA members. Some pilots from the South Bay who flew in for the seminar were so impressed with the facility and the area, that they’re planning a fly-in to 069 soon.

In April, after months of work by 24 PAPA members, an impressive float, “The Wiseman Flyer” was built and entered in the local Petaluma “Butter and Eggs Day Parade.” The float – a depiction of the first airmail flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, complete with a rendition of a bi-plane with animated waving pilot Fred Wiseman, along with the theme music of “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” – won the Judges Choice Award in the parade. The association plans to also exhibit it this summer at the local County Fair.

This gesture served both as a goodwill ambassador from the airport community to the City it is a part of, as well as a curiosity inducing symbol for the children on the parade route. Enthusiastic responses were noted from spectators, “Wow … an airplane on a float! Wonder what it would be like to fly?” And with that thought, maybe, if GA is lucky, so it begins?

Those all-important little awakenings are happening all over the country in ways large and small. At heart, they are the result of people who love to fly taking their passion and finding innovative ways of sharing their enthusiasm for what they do with others.

Inquiries via the Internet on pilot forums about what is being done at local airports all over the country to further interest in flying, also leads to hopeful and inspiring stories. There is the one about an 18 year old girl’s mother who came by the airport inquiring about a “birthday flight” for her daughter. The pilot shared that the daughter was so taken with the flying experience he offered her, that she worked two jobs that summer to afford both college and flight lessons.

A pilot involved with giving “Young Eagle” Program flights, shared the joy of sitting next to a kid in his plane and watching, “As the kid GET’S IT. You know? There’s a sparkle…a switch turned on in their soul and you know they’re hooked. That makes my day, I tell ya.” But then he also goes on to ask, “Will there be an affordable GA for them when they come of age?”

Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball to look into and get an answer to that question. Yes, GA is getting more and more expensive; but dedicated pilots will consistently point out, “it’s about priorities; how much does flying mean to you, how hard are you willing to work, and what are you willing to sacrifice for it?”

Those that love to fly today; those who have the passion and ability to pilot their own aircraft; those that care about GA – need to actively promote that love and do what they can now – to find and encourage the pilots who will be its future.

Success stories like the Petaluma Area Pilot’s Association and the increasing popularity of internet pilot forums speak to the power of community, and the positive results inherent in people with a shared interest coming together to help and support one another.

How, as former AOPA President Phil Boyer recently asked of members, do you bring new pilots into GA; how do you boost the pilot population?

You gather together a group of current enthusiastic ones, and send them out into the world to give back to their community and inspire people.



  1. Fantastic story Susan!

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