Meet Joe Norris
EAA's Homebuilders Community Manager
My dad was a good friend of the ag pilot (at that time, ag pilots were called “crop dusters”) who worked with the cranberry growers in the area. His name was Jim Miles, and he has definitely been the biggest contributor to my lifelong interest in airplanes and aviation. Jim would come over to our house often and sit with my dad and me for hours, talking about flying. His interest and enthusiasm rubbed off.
Through these “hangar flying sessions,” Jim introduced me to EAA. He was EAA 158, and he encouraged me to join. In fact, he brought me to Oshkosh for the EAA convention in 1970, where we camped under the wing of his Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser. What a wonderful experience!
I joined EAA in 1976, and when I told Jim I had joined, his first comment was, “Are you going to build something?” He had built a beautiful Pitts Special S-1C and had helped many others build homebuilt aircraft. I knew he wouldn’t rest until I was working on a project. In fact, he thought I should get going right away on building an aircraft that I could then use for my flight training.
I didn’t get started on a project, but I did get my private pilot certificate in 1978. I took my primary training at Alexander Field (ISW) in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. My instructor was Ted Grunwald. Unfortunately, he was killed in an aircraft accident in Alaska shortly after I got my ticket. He was a great guy and a good instructor. I miss him!
I bought my first airplane in 1979 - a 1955 Piper Tri-Pacer. I flew it for about a year and then converted it to a PA-20 Pacer (tailwheel) configuration. This was my first aircraft project. During this same period, I met other EAA members in the Wisconsin Rapids area, and we decided to form an EAA chapter. Thus, I became a charter member of EAA Chapter 706.
One of the other founding members of EAA Chapter 706 was Ted Strub, who was building a Hatz biplane at the time. Through Ted, I met John Hatz (EAA 3990). John was another person who had a profound effect on my interest and involvement in aviation, and as it turned out, he was a friend of Jim Miles as well. Small world! With these fellows as close friends, there was no doubt I would end up building a homebuilt or restoring a vintage aircraft.
I finished the PA-20 conversion and the sprucing up of the Pacer in 1981 and decided to start on a homebuilt. After looking at lots of designs, I settled on the Sonerai II and started the project that fall. Around this same time, my wife decided to get her private certificate and started taking lessons from John Hatz in his J-3 Cub. After she completed her training, we decided we should have a Cub of our own, so the Pacer soon had a hangar mate—a 1940 Piper J-5A Cub Cruiser.
The Sonerai took longer to complete than I would have liked - 11 years! But between flying the Pacer and the Cruiser and upgrading my pilot certificate and ratings, I didn’t spend as much time working on it as I should have. By the time I finished the Sonerai, I was a commercial pilot with both airplane single-engine land and rotorcraft/helicopter ratings. I enjoyed building and flying the Sonerai, but before long I met someone who really liked it and made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Sold!
I had been interested in aerobatics since before I was a pilot, joined IAC (International Aerobatics Club) in 1980, and attended several aerobatic competitions. So I decided to pursue that interest next. To that end, I purchased a Pitts Special S-1C. I really enjoyed this aircraft, especially its amazing performance (due to its power-to-weight ratio of less than 6 pounds per horsepower). However, I discovered that I didn’t have the time to devote to the practice necessary to become competition-ready, and when I did have time, Wisconsin’s weather didn’t always cooperate. It became clear to me that competition aerobatics wasn’t going to be my calling, so I sold the Pitts.
About this time, we discovered some corrosion in the Pacer’s horizontal tail surfaces, so my next airplane project was obvious. The plane was disassembled and hauled to my shop, and I started in on the restoration. But this project was not destined to be completed, as circumstances conspired to point me in a new direction.
This new direction sprang from a detailed accounting of what it was going to cost to put the Pacer back in the air in the configuration I had in mind. When I finished adding up the numbers on the Pacer project, I learned about a Cessna 180 that a fellow EAAer had for sale. A quick run of the numbers made me realize that I could buy this flying Cessna 180 for about the same amount of money that I would end up having in the Pacer project, and I’d end up with a lot more airplane for the money. And I could fly right away! The course was set; I sold the Pacer project and the J-5A to purchase the Cessna 180. Then the deal fell through!
So there I was with no airplanes, which just wasn’t right. I immediately started scouring Trade-A-Plane, looking for a Cessna 180. I found a suitable example fairly quickly and once again had an airplane in the hangar. I still own that airplane and enjoy it more every time I fly it. Definitely a good choice!
Coming into the last half of the 1990s, several events happened fairly quickly, all of which would have a major effect on my aviation life. In 1995, I added an instrument rating to my pilot certificate, and in 1996 I gained my A&P mechanic certificate. In 1997, I added an airplane single-engine sea rating to my pilot certificate. In March 1997, I sold the family cranberry farm to concentrate all my efforts on aviation.
I immediately began working on my flight instructor certificate and my inspection authorization (IA). I took my initial flight instructor practical test for airplanes in February of 1998 and added the rotorcraft/helicopter rating to my instructor certificate in August 1998. In 1999, I earned my IA.
One of the main reasons I wanted to become a CFI was to help meet the need for tailwheel-qualified instructors. I purchased a 1957 Piper PA-18 Super Cub and planned to offer primary training and tailwheel checkouts and did so for a couple of years. But rapidly rising insurance premiums priced me out of business.
Throughout my life, I stayed actively involved with EAA, as a member and officer of EAA Chapter 706, as a member of Chapter 640, and as a technical counselor and flight advisor. I also volunteered each year at Oshkosh. When I saw a notice posted in the “Hotline” section of EAA Sport Aviation about the formation of the EAA Homebuilt Aircraft Council (HAC), I became interested in getting involved with the program. I was selected as one of five original members of the HAC, along with Alex Sloan, Doug Kelly, Mary Senft, and Ed Wischmeyer. I served on the HAC during its first two years and would have served a longer term except for another major turn of events—I became a full-time employee of EAA!
In October 2001, I was hired as a senior aviation specialist in EAA’s Aviation Services department (headed up by fellow EAA Chapter 252 member Charlie Becker). This job was previously held by Norm Petersen, a longtime EAA employee who needs no introduction to most EAA members. When Norm announced his retirement, I was encouraged by several fellow EAA members to apply for the job, though I certainly can’t replace him!
My current position at EAA is homebuilders community manager. While the job description is still developing, I can assure you that I will keep an eye on every aspect of EAA that touches the homebuilder community. I am looking forward to working with EAA staff and members to keep the homebuilder and homebuilt aircraft the core of EAA.
So that’s my story. I still have the Cessna 180 and a Super Cub and have added a Waco UPF-7 to my “fleet.” I am also in the planning stages of my next homebuilt project, but I’ll save that story for a future column.