Meet Ron Wagner
EAA's Manager of Field Relations
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania right under the final approach to Conway Airport, where Taylorcraft was located at the time. My first airplane ride was when I was about 3 years old with my uncle, Ken Hendrickson, a demo pilot for T-Craft and co-owner of one. I was hooked from that time forward. The airport there closed when I was in high school, but up until it closed, it was my favorite hangout. I was always building and flying models and looking forward to learning to fly.
In my sophomore year of college, I discovered a grass strip about 10 miles from where I was going to school. I started washing planes on Saturdays in return for a half-hour of flight time in the evening. At some point I realized that at that rate I would never get my certificate, so I decided to wait until I graduated. I discovered Flying Acres Airport on the outskirts of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, while still in college, where EAA Chapter 161 was then located. The chapter members took me under their wing, and anytime I showed up and the weather was good, we would go flying. In the summer of 1967 I was taking my last college class. The final exam was during EAA’s annual fly-in convention in Rockford, Illinois, so I asked the professor if I would pass if I missed the exam. He said I would, so I skipped the test and headed for Rockford.
The day after I got my first paycheck after college graduation I took out a loan for $700, which paid for 50 hours of flight time and enough dual to complete my private. The following spring, before I finished my private, I bought a 1940 Taylorcraft BL-55 for $1,100 that I flew all summer, and then I sold it in the fall for $1,150. I thought I was a genius because I had flown for the cost of gas because the $50 profit paid all my tie-down expenses. Needless to say, I couldn’t buy another airplane the next spring for less than $2,000, so my genius began to fade.
About this time, I met my wife, Marilyn, and a few years later we started a family. All the usual expenses of raising a family kept me from flying regularly, but I maintained contact with Chapter 161 and actually served a couple terms as president during that time. A group within the chapter was building a Bakeng Deuce, so I immediately joined that group and began to learn many basic aircraft building skills. Family vacations were always to Oshkosh; I was usually working on some aircraft project. I particularly liked to weld and built a number of steel tube fuselages. I never got an aircraft finished because someone always wanted to buy the project before it was completed, and I always needed money.
In the early 1980s, a group of us within the chapter started a two-year project to build a Long-EZ. Twelve years and a lot of learning later (none of us had previously worked with composites) Long-EZ 161WM took to the air. We flew it for about five years and had a lot of fun with it. After the Long-EZ, I continued to be an airport bum and served a couple more terms as president of Chapter 161. About that time we decided the chapter should have an annual fly-in breakfast, and I became chairman of that event. The event grew to the point that one year we had at least 150 airplanes and more than 1,000 attendees. Not bad for a small town in Western Pennsylvania.
By 1996 I was approaching 30 years in my teaching job and had picked up a master’s in marketing, so I was looking for something to do after retirement from teaching. The local fixed base operation (FBO) was up for sale, so I thought I could defy the odds against making money in aviation and bought it. That lasted about four years before I ran out of money. During the time that I had the FBO, I picked up a glider rating and bought and restored a couple gliders, a winch, and a towplane, and started selling rides and offering flight instruction in gliders. I also wanted to keep my mechanics busy when they weren’t doing annuals, so I built a paint booth and started a restoration shop. We restored two Schweizer gliders, a 7AC Champ, a Piper Pacer, and a Piper Colt, which I put on the line as a trainer.
I needed to get out of the FBO business and saw an ad in EAA Sport Aviation magazine for a program marketing manager. I immediately sent a résumé to EAA, and about eight weeks later we were moving to Oshkosh. I joined the staff the day before EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and thought I’d gone to heaven. I was working alongside the people I had read about all my life. I worked extensively on presenting the then-proposed sport pilot rule to the members. I initiated the Sport Pilot Center, which evolved into the Light-Sport Aircraft Mall; helped to initiate the Sport Pilot Hotline; worked with the Sport Pilot newsletter; and began to do many of EAA’s sport pilot forums at AirVenture and at events throughout the country. At the same time I managed the EAA Sport Pilot Tour, which visited about 15 cities across the United States over a period of about two years. I also worked with the EAA SportAir Workshops program for about a year after EAA purchased it.
Since that time, I have become part of the member and chapter relations department where I work primarily with field events. I get to attend and help coordinate EAA’s presence at Sun ’n Fun, Sebring, and what were formerly the regional events. Additionally, I assist the chapter department when needed. I also serve as a backup to the folks in the aviation services department, taking calls when they are not available. Last year I was responsible for implementing the Affordable Flying Center at AirVenture, a role that I will continue in 2009, along with developing the new Fuel Education Center.