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60 Years of EAA: A Bigger Role (1984-1997)
Second generation takes helm of organization
January 23, 2013 - Now in its new, permanent home in Oshkosh, EAA entered the mid-1980s with increased visibility inside and outside the aviation community, while creating programs to bring more people into flight.
The new EAA Aviation Center and its museum was an attraction in its own right, with more than 165,000 people coming through the museum doors in its first nine months of operation. The public could finally see the many treasures that had been under-displayed in EAA's former headquarters location.
EAA furthered its youth outreach in 1984 as well, opening its first Air Academy summer residence program for youth. The program allowed young people to discover more about aviation among those of their own age and was the start of a program that has welcomed hundreds of youth every summer for nearly three decades. While this program was a success, EAA's greatest impact for young people in aviation was still to come.
Meanwhile, EAA's permanent home adjacent to its fly-in grounds allowed work on features and attractions throughout the year. Suddenly there was no flying machine too big or idea too complicated that could not become a reality at Oshkosh.
In 1984, the world's media joined aviation enthusiasts with a focus on Oshkosh when Burt Rutan - already a renowned aircraft designer for homebuilders - brought his newest creation, Voyager, to the EAA fly-in. It was a crazy-looking airplane that had barely finished test flights when it arrived at Wittman Field. Rutan's concept was even more stunning at the time, as he projected the airplane would be the first to fly around the world, nonstop, on one tank of fuel.
It was a bold prediction, but one Rutan made happen less than two years later, with the support of thousands of EAA members who contributed to the privately funded project. It made for a triumphant return to Oshkosh by the aircraft and its team in 1987.
In 1985, however, the spectacular arrival of Concorde at the EAA fly-in signaled a new level for the event and the organization. The summer fly-in was becoming more than a gathering that also attracted the curious; it was evolving into a significant highlight on the aviation calendar. EAA members could take pride that their annual event was becoming the place to bring aircraft of any type.
There was further growth not only in EAA membership, which surpassed 100,000 for the first time in 1987, but also in facilities and programming. Pioneer Airport and its grass airstrip became reality in 1986 behind the then-named EAA Air Adventure Museum, and in 1987 the original Spirit of St. Louis replica was brought out of retirement, shipped to Paris, and flown at LeBourget Airport on the 60th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's original trans-Atlantic flight. In addition, the museum's Eagle Hangar honoring World War II veterans and aircraft opened in 1989.
Another significant change came in 1989 as a new generation took the helm of the organization. Paul Poberezny announced his retirement as EAA president. The EAA board chose Paul's son, Tom, to move from his executive vice president role to president while Paul would assume chairman of the board duties.
Tom had nearly two decades of experience within EAA's culture when he became president, but he also had his own ideas and dreams. That included at the EAA fly-in, where major features such as the Battle of Britain (1990), Salute to Desert Storm (1991), and the historic Salute to Apollo (1994) with 15 Apollo astronauts present further solidified Oshkosh as the leading aviation event in America.
EAA also took steps to make sure that personal aviation would endure beyond those who had originally built and grown EAA. In May 1992, the organization announced the Young Eagles program, which would invite young people for free demonstration flights piloted by EAA members. The first flights came at Oshkosh during the 1992 fly-in, conducted by Tom Poberezny and the program's first chairman, Academy Award-winning actor and pilot, the late Cliff Robertson. Since then, more than 1.7 million young people have taken Young Eagles flights and helped create thousands of aviators in a new generation.
As EAA approached the new millennium, the organization found itself larger and more influential than ever before. There would be new and bold ideas coming, as well as EAA's emergence into a key role in national aviation policy dictated by the association's own plans and well as outside circumstances. The local airplane club from the 1950s had grown up.