Being part of the EAA doesn’t require riches. All you need is a passion for flying and a willingness to be part of a team of eclectic, but innovative, dreamers.
When some people think about the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), they tend to picture the EAA’s AirVenture fly-in, which takes place each summer in Oshkosh, Wis. But did you know that in the 1960s the annual event was held in Rockford?
While the EAA still celebrates experimental and home-built aircraft, it also incorporates all facets of aviation.
“It’s an association of people with an interest in aviation, and there’s an organized effort to promote aviation that encompasses both the home builder and the private pilot,” says Bruce Jacobsen, a longtime board member of Rockford’s EAA Chapter 22. He credits those long-ago Rockford fly-ins for igniting his lifelong interest in aviation.
Providing opportunities for hands-on experience is important to the EAA, so members such as Doug Miller and Brian Stukenberg of Rockford are collaborating with older youth on constructing a Murphy Rebel, a plane designed to operate in the Alaskan bush country.
“That’s a multi-seat, single-engine aircraft that’s pretty sturdy and durable,” Jacobsen says. “It’s being built by club members and youths who we’re training to work on planes. It gives them experience in actually building an aircraft. Adults interested in aircraft construction are also watching and helping, and those interested can come and learn.”
While Jacobsen says many people drawn to aviation have a knack for engineering, the EAA boasts an eclectic membership that demonstrates how the aviation community is open to all.
Anyone Can Join
If you think experimental aircrafts are only for CEOs, high-paid professionals or the independently wealthy, think again.
Meet EAA Chapter 22 president Jeff Bonaguro. “I drive a cargo van for a trucking company out of Rockford. We cover pretty much the whole Chicago area, but I do get road trips now and then – Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota,” Bonaguro says. Before that, he drove a freight truck, worked as a dispatcher for an HVAC company, and spent five years as a bus dispatcher for the Rockford School District.
Growing up, Bonaguro wanted to become an airline pilot, but back then pilots couldn’t wear corrective glasses or contacts, and he wore glasses. He joined the EAA about 15 years ago and has served, off and on, as president for much of that time.
Chapter 22’s current vice president, Mark Grocholl, is a pharmacist by day.
“I always wanted to learn to fly, and about seven years ago I started taking flight lessons,” Grocholl says. “I got my private pilot’s license, then proceeded to do additional training to get my instrument rating and my commercial pilot’s license.” A certified ground school instructor, Grocholl is also Chapter 22’s scholarship coordinator.
Jacobsen says people of all walks of life, from students to retired airline pilots, make up the chapter’s 65 or so local members.
With local dues of $25 per person, or $40 per family, joining EAA Chapter 22 is less expensive than most extracurricular or family activities.
“That’s a bargain when you consider all the supporting materials that we have,” Jacobsen says. “The family membership is a smart thing if parents want to get kids involved.”
Full national membership packages cost slightly more – $40 per person or $50 per family – but they include a year-long subscription to Sport Aviation magazine, along with several other benefits.
“You don’t have to be a pilot to be a member of EAA or to attend one of our events,” Bonaguro says. “If you’re an aviation nut, come on out and see what our chapter is about.”
Almost every month, events are held at Cottonwood Airport, located across the street from Rockford’s Auburn High School.
“You don’t need to be a millionaire to learn how to fly,” Grocholl says. “We’ve had people involved who are apartment managers, electricians and people who’ve worked in factories their whole lives while dreaming of becoming a pilot.”
He says there’s always a way to make it work, given the cooperative spirit of the aviation community.
For example, when Grocholl discovered a 1968 Cessna 150 that hadn’t been flown in over 20 years, a small group of aircraft mechanics he knew evaluated the plane’s condition, determined it was worth repairing, helped him buy it and together they got it back in the air.
The EAA holds fun events to draw people to Cottonwood, generate awareness about Local 22 and, perhaps most importantly, attract potential members.
“Back in May, we had a huge turnout for our pancake breakfast. Far more cars showed up than the 29 airplanes that flew in,” Jacobsen says. “We had a really big crowd that drove in from the community, so that was a good outreach effort. And in April we had a Scoopy Night at the Winnebago Culver’s. We had a bunch of flyers printed up that they put in the food bags the week prior to the event. The front side announced the event, and on the back was information about the chapter so if they have any interest, they know where to get more information or to get involved.
Opportunities in Aviation
A big part of Jacobsen’s mission is to spread the word that aviation is more than a hobby. It’s also a viable career path.
“The aviation industry is in dire need of pilots and technicians to keep the airlines running,” Jacobsen says. “A few months ago, Delta announced that over the next five years they’ll need 4,000 pilots. A lot of flight delays are because there wasn’t a pilot available to fly the plane. And if that plane doesn’t get from point A to B, it can’t get to point C. It creates a big cascading effect when they lose a leg in their network of operations.”
“The world of opportunity in aviation is limitless,” Bonaguro adds. “It’s not limited to flying – you have meteorology, air traffic control and aerospace.” Mechanics and engineers are needed, too.
Creating early awareness is vital to finding people who will one day fill those jobs, so the EAA likes introducing kids to aviation as early as possible. During the pandemic, Grocholl says the group collaborated with a grade-school teacher who held a few remote classes from the airport. Scouts can even earn an aviation merit badge.
“Once or twice a year, different Scout troops from the Rockford area come out,” Grocholl says. “We put together a little class, and then, if whether permits, we take them up for an airplane ride to show them what it’s all about. Recently, we had about a dozen Scouts do it. Not only were we able to take the Scouts up, but we had plenty of time and were able to take up all the parents who wanted to go for an airplane ride. We want to make it a family-type atmosphere where people learn something while having a great experience.”
The EAA also has an official program for youths, The Young Eagles.
“It’s for kids from 8 to 18. They get a free flight, a little introductory session, and then you get registered,” Jacobsen says, pointing out that all individuals who work with the kids go through a screening process including both security and background checks. Kids who complete the program received an official EAA youth member number. “As a youth member, they’re able to access the EAA’s magazine over the internet, and they’re able to access different benefits.”
Learn to Fly
Earning your pilot’s license takes time, commitment, and approximately $10,000 to $15,000 by the time you’ve completed both ground school and flight training. Roughly 10% of the tuition is for ground school; flight training is expensive due to the costs involved in flying.
According to Grocholl, the EAA’s ground school course uses FAA-approved textbooks and software, and it covers the same volume of material as a comparable college-level class.
Grocholl has seen his ground school classes grow from one or two students to nearly a dozen. “Any day now I’ll have close to 20 students of all ages,” he says. “I had one student who was in his late 60s and had always dreamed of flying. Now he’s going to start flight training.”
Ground school meets for about 60 to 90 minutes one evening per week at Cottonwood Airport. “We normally take about three months to go through all of the material needed to complete a private pilot license,” says Grocholl. “It’s normally twice a year; my next class begins in September. There’s a lot to learn.”
Once students pass their written exam, they can choose to proceed onto flight school where they have to complete 30-40 hours of dual flight time and another 25-35 hours of solo flying before they take their final flight test.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling when the instructor walks out of the plane and you have to fly it by yourself with nobody sitting next to you,” Grocholl says. “You’re in charge of your own destiny. You have to correct any mistakes you make. You have to become a pilot in command and start thinking, ‘What do I need to do now? What do I need to do in the future?’ But the freedom it gives you is unbelievable. You’re up in the air with a new perspective on the world in front of you.
The $10,000 Ray Scholarship, which comes from the EAA and the Ray Foundation, is awarded to one person between the ages of 15 and 19 who has passed an FAA-mandated physical exam and can complete training within one year.
With only one scholarship offered per year, the competition is tough.
“We ask the kids to put together a short essay about why they want to get a pilot’s license,” Grocholl says. “We ask for letters of recommendation, one being from a teacher so we can find out how truly dedicated they are.”
Between school, extracurriculars and part-time jobs, today’s teenagers can have busy schedules, so it’s important to make sure the scholarship recipient will have time to earn their pilot’s license.
“This is a large commitment,” Grocholl says. “The average student needs somewhere between 50 and 60 hours of flight time. So, flying just once or twice a week, that’s maybe a 20- or 30-week commitment on top of doing all of the bookwork for ground school.”
As the scholarship coordinator, Grocholl leads a committee that interviews top candidates.
“We have about half a dozen pilots on the committee,” Grocholl says. “It’s a real challenge. The past three times we’ve had five or six quality candidates who all could have probably completed it. There’s very much a debate over who we think is the best candidate, and then the committee votes.”
“We also have local scholarships,” Jacobsen notes. “They’re obviously smaller than the Ray scholarship – which is part of a multimillion-dollar program run out of Oshkosh. While the smaller scholarships won’t cover the entire cost of obtaining a pilot’s license, they can help reduce costs.
The Aviation Community
Funding local scholarships and bringing vintage aircraft to town takes money and community support. When Rockford’s EAA chapter planned to bring a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor to town this June, donated hangar space fell through and the community stepped up.
“There were so many people in this network of organizations involved with the Tri-Motor,” Jacobsen says. “The Navy Club came up with another location, but because prior to that we’d had a donated space, it meant we had to do some fundraising.”
Artists’ Ensemble Theater helped promote the event by writing the Ford Tri-Motor into its play and parking a rare vintage 1928 Model A Roadster in front of the theater.
The next big event is a fly-in celebrating veterans on July 2 at Cottonwood Airport.
“We get the veterans out, bring in some World War II planes, trainers and other things. And it’s open to the public,” Bonaguro says. Details are available on the chapter’s website, https://chapters.eaa.org/eaa22, and in its Facebook group.
From pancake breakfasts, chili fly-ins and corn boils to hosting historic planes, EAA events aren’t necessarily big fundraisers, but they are vital. “They’re also a service to the community, to inspire aviation interest and acknowledge the history of aircraft,” Jacobsen says. And there is always a donation can on hand.
No matter if it’s a big event or a regular meeting, Local 22 is as much about community as flying. In good weather, they usually hold an informal cookout at the airport before meetings.
“Almost every night there are a ton of aviators and pilots at Cottonwood Airport,” Grocholl says. “It’s like a parkway family environment. You go to the gate, come in, and the next thing you know someone is asking if you want to go for an airplane ride and you’re flying over Winnebago County, seeing things you’ve never seen. It’s truly a welcoming and open community.”