Remembering How Tom Helped Keep the Spirit of Flight Alive

By Philip Handleman, EAA Lifetime 227599

Learning that Tom Poberezny had gone west just as this year’s AirVenture was unfolding gave those of us who fly and who may have worked with Tom an especially poignant opportunity to reflect on his outsized impact on the world of flight.

When the avuncular Poberezny family patriarch Paul, along with his wife Audrey, started the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1953, they infused it with a simple mission girded by enduring values. As the outfit was ripening, son Tom came of age and pitched in. Applying his exacting standards and love of flight, Tom built on the solid foundation and successfully ushered his parents’ faithfully handcrafted brainchild into a dynamic new era.

By the time Tom retired in 2011, EAA had become one of aviation’s powerhouses, noted for hosting the world’s greatest yearly flying event, for the rich collections of aeronautical artifacts exquisitely exhibited in its magnificent museum, and for commanding a seat at the policy-making table where the organization remains a resolute voice for sport pilots.

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During much of Tom’s tenure at EAA’s helm, his aviating expertise was on display, fostering a level of credibility that no one could deny. Under the names Red Devils and later the Eagles, Tom was wingman to partners Charlie Hillard and Gene Soucy. These consummate performers wowed air show audiences nationwide for 25 years, setting a record for longevity unmatched by any civilian aerial display team.

Clinching the U.S. National Unlimited Aerobatic Championship bolstered Tom’s credibility even more while showing his deep commitment to sport flying’s most demanding niche. If Tom had done nothing other than his competition and show flying, this alone would have earned him a lasting place in the pantheon of aviation luminaries.

Of course, he did so much more. He put his stamp indelibly on EAA. The annual gathering that turns Oshkosh’s Wittman Regional Airport into the center of the aviation universe evolved under Tom’s leadership, drawing increasing numbers of flying enthusiasts and the aerospace trade, large and small. The extravaganza has featured CubCrafters and Boeing, Aircraft Spruce and Honeywell, local aero modelers and NASA, warbirds and the Air Force, student pilots and fighter aces, antiquers and Virgin Galactic. Think of it  — AirVenture is Blakesburg, Paris, and the Smithsonian rolled into one with everything in between.

Some will point to what happens mostly at small, out-of-the-way airports as Tom’s greatest legacy. To revive aviation’s dwindling ranks, he launched EAA’s Young Eagles program. In the 30 years of its existence, more than two million youngsters have received introductory flights, inspiring many to pursue aviation either as a profession or just for the inherent reward.

These fantastic feats are rightly in the public record, known to almost everyone who has been active in aviation for any length of time. However, there is something not nearly as well known that I think speaks to the soul of the man, including his passion for keeping the spirit of flight alive.

Many years ago, I sought to remove a locally imposed restriction on my grass airstrip, which as a practical matter had the particularly onerous effect of denying aerial access to anyone but the owner. While I knew that standing up to officialdom to make things right came without a guarantee of success, I had no idea that this exercise in civic engagement was destined to turn into a grueling legal battle stretching out for a half-dozen years. Indeed, as weeks morphed into months and then years amid fiery rhetoric and worse directed my way without any progress, feelings of powerlessness and loneliness set in.

Our browbeaten patch of greenery, which my wife Mary and I had cheerily dubbed the Sky Ranch, was nestled in the leafy pasturelands and horse country of southeast Michigan. All the goodwill we had striven to engender from the beginning of our ownership didn’t seem to matter; the airstrip had become a convenient whipping post, reduced to an object of unfounded fears and resentments. With our arguments falling on deaf ears and reason lost in the background noise, I reached out to EAA for help.

The staff was sympathetic and after considerable vetting of the case, Tom gave his okay for the EAA imprimatur to go on a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Sky Ranch. Next time in court, I had, at least figuratively, every EAAer standing alongside me. It didn’t feel so lonely any more.

Before the matter finally wended its way to a satisfying verdict, others jumped on board to help as well, including the Michigan Attorney General’s office, which filed a brief out of concern that the municipality was usurping the role of the state aeronautics commission. Several local pilots upset with being prohibited from landing at the Sky Ranch signed on to fight the one-of-a-kind restriction and even the FAA, which felt the need to address the municipality’s encroachment of its authority, offered supportive statements for filing in the proceedings.

The winds of fate blew the case from one court to the next until eventually the original court voided the restriction. To preclude an appeal, I agreed to settle ancillary aspects of the case with the municipality. But, alas, a small group of local residents, intent on keeping the restriction, pursued their own appeal, ratcheting up the ante by adding a wild-eyed demand that, in the alternative, the Sky Ranch be permanently shut down.

The affair dragged on for another two years. When the case finally came before the appellate judges, their opinion was swift and unanimous in upholding the lower court’s ruling. It

was vindication, a sweet end to a long and excruciating ordeal.

Even though the case had swirled around a little private grass airstrip, Tom clearly understood that the principle involved was important. If municipal officials could impose their oddball brand of regulation on flight activity at a properly registered and legally existing airport, then it would risk opening a Pandora’s box whereby local governments across the country could assert such powers on a whim to unravel the regulatory uniformity that ensures the viability of the national network of airports and the airspace that overlies them.

By reinforcing the longstanding doctrine of preemption in matters pertaining to regulation of flight operations, the courts had rendered not just a victory for the Sky Ranch but a win for all of aviation.

The litigation soon faded like an ugly nightmare, and things calmed down in the neighborhood. With the restriction having been relegated to the trash bin, we invited flyers to come visit and, every so often over the next couple of decades, we hosted festive fly-ins. We usually had a theme, like honoring veterans or currently serving members of the armed forces.

Neighbors we had befriended would join us for rides or just to enjoy the sights and sounds. Word sometimes spread so that if the weather was really nice scores of other neighbors would line the perimeter fence, craning their necks skyward to observe beautifully restored antiques punctuating the late afternoon or early evening sky.

Quietly over time there was a realization by our neighbors, grudging though it may have been, that the airstrip tucked into a corner of the community wasn’t a pariah to be feared or resisted. Rather, the Sky Ranch came to be seen by most of the local residents for what it was  —

an emerald oasis, perfectly compatible with the bucolic surroundings, and a field of dreams in

which we and they could partake with equal delight along with our pilot friends.

Because of the ringer Mary and I had been through, there was not a single day that we

took the ability to fly from our strips for granted. Nor for a single day did we forget those, like

Tom, who stood with us when all seemed so amiss, so grim, so lonely.

There is no way I could thank Tom enough for what he did. By deciding to support the Sky Ranch at such a critical point in time, he lifted our hearts more than he ever knew. His nod to the Sky Ranch represented the flying brotherhood’s finest quality  — the willingness to extend a hand to a fellow aviator and in the process help to keep the spirit of flight alive.

Philip Handleman, EAA Lifetime 227599, was a longtime Stearman pilot. He is the author most recently of Soaring to Glory, the story of a World War II fighter pilot.

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