Your connection with the sky

Reaching Outside the Airport Fence

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This is to tell the man in the red plane that he has a fan.

I've been watching you from the ground. Well, from my farm pastures and yard actually. More often than you know. I am in awe of your skill and the performance you give is wonderful and joyous.

Who are you? Are you a man or a woman? A professional stunt pilot or a pleasure flyer of that pretty red plane? Do you perform for others besides me, or is what I'm seeing just an expression of your own preferences?

So went the letter to the editor of the Fauquier Times-Democrat on May 26, 2009 by a woman in Virginia named Star Milihram.  Not the all-too-common complaint about noise or some perceived safety issue.  A pure reaction uncolored by the misconceptions of the mainstream media.  An objective, perhaps even innocent reaction to a rare and special thing in the sky.  A thank-you for the grace and beauty of the performance.

Enter Mike Anderson, the manager of the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport (KHWY) in Midland, Virginia), a few miles outside the Washington, DC ADIZ.  Like many good airport managers, Mike knew many of the pilots based at the airport or who bought fuel there and thought he might be able to identify the pilot.

After asking around, Mike determined that the red airplane in question was a Christen Eagle II, N8EC, a two-place, 200-hp aerobatic biplane.

And it turns out that the man in the red airplane was Bob Struth.  Some know him as “Prof,” his US Navy callsign from when he flew the F-14 Tomcat.  And (get this!) when he was a technical consultant on the movie Top Gun.

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Mike contacted Bob and called Star’s letter to Bob’s attention.  As is the proclivity of pilots everywhere, Bob immediately offered to give Star a ride in that very airplane.  Not long after, Star and Bob met at the airport to make the flight.  Bob set her up with a parachute, gave her a safety briefing, loaded up, and took her for a flight in the red airplane.

Star isn’t the aerobatic type.  At least not yet and not from the vantage point of the cockpit.  She told Bob this early on.  Bob, like all good pilots, understood and respected Star’s wishes and conducted a graceful and smooth flight, despite the convective turbulence that so often rises from the Virginia countryside in summer.

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And that’s not the only touch that Star had with the airport.  Several of the local pilots invited her to the Flying Circus Aerodrome in nearby Bealeton, Virgina to see more performances at the airshows that happen there just about every Sunday from May to October.  And they invited her to pilot gatherings at Warrenton-Fauquier.

This is a great example of what can happen when we in the aviation community are prepared and take the time to reach back when people reach out.

I truly believe that most non-pilots, given the chance to come to their own conclusions, will see the beauty, grace, and challenge of aviation for what it is.  Most people are friends of aviation who haven’t met aviation yet.  As the people inside the airport fence who already “get it,” we need to reach outside the fence every chance we get to bring more people in.  Or at least to explain what we’re about to those who prefer to remain outside.

I wish every airport manager was as attentive and savvy as Mike Anderson.  He did a spectacular job of identifying the opportunity to bring Star inside the fence and make her feel welcome at the airport. 

Bob gave the perfect ride in the Eagle.  Exactly what the passenger wanted and with reassuring words and actions throughout.

And the other pilots were – well – pilots.  Welcoming, friendly, and competent.  Understanding that sometimes it’s just a cup of coffee or a potluck on folding tables downwind of some avgas and freshly-mown grass that matters.

Those outside the fence don’t often reach out to us.  That’s why we have to keep having open houses, talking the airport up at social gatherings, and otherwise constantly wearing our public relations hats.  And, when non-pilots do reach out, we need to be ready with welcoming words and actions like Mike, Bob, and the pilots of the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport.

I’m glad that Star reached out and I’m glad that we reached back.  One more heart and mind to welcome to our tribe.

There are more out there.  Let’s be ready when they reach out.


Link to the full letter to the editor of the Fauquier Times-Democrat:

Show notes and link to audio from the Airspeed episode, The Guy in the Red Airplane:

3 Responses to “Reaching Outside the Airport Fence”

  1. Great story, Steve. Thanks for sharing this. I cannot agree more that this was handled just the way all of these opportunities should be handled. Now let's get out there and not make it a one-time thing. Let this be the standard by which we all reach outside the fence!

  2. Great story!

    I've been trying to get glider pilots in the Soaring Society of America to carry 'business cards' with URL's for the SSA webside and their local soaring club as well as their own contact information. These cards should be given to anyone who shows the slightest interest in flying.

    Almost any flying activity will have a few "fence sitters" watching the action. Walking over to them for a friendly chat and giving them a card to guide them if they decide to seek more information can only help aviation.

  3. Hello i'm trying to get a hold of Bob i went flying with him in 2009 in cedar rapids Iowa and he moved away ever since i just can not forget the day i went flying with him and he made a big impact on my life if you have any idea on any thing please contact me

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