NORMAN — Hundreds of planes and aviation enthusiasts descended on Norman Saturday for the 11th annual Aviation Festival at Max Westheimer Airport as it welcomed the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association fly-in for the first time.
Volunteer Chris Loney said Norman’s aviation festival has drawn some good crowds in the past, but Saturday’s affair — which beckoned more than 10,000 visitors, more than 260 planes and fly-ins from around the country — was a different aerial animal altogether.
“This is the first time AOPA has brought one here to Norman,” he said. “There are air shows and other kinds of events, but this is a big fly-in. So, people can fly in with tents and just park it underneath your wing.”
Saturday marked Loney’s third straight year of volunteering at the festival. He said he keeps coming back because he loves the atmosphere and camaraderie, and he doesn’t mind that people keep trying to sell him an airplane. After all, he’s hoping to own one someday, and he said the dream isn’t so monetarily farfetched as it might seem.
“I don’t know if I’ll buy one today, but I eventually will,” he said. “I told my wife we can get an SUV that’s, like, $50,000 or we can buy a plane. A lot of these planes will start at maybe $20,000 and go up from there. There are some that are really affordable.”
If it flies or can be affixed to a wing or anything in between, it was on display Saturday. There were expert seminars and “rusty pilot” seminars and short takeoff and landing demonstrations (STOL) that attracted a lot of attention.
Vendors were showing off the latest avionics and gadgets, airplane insurance salesmen and financiers were giving quotes, and representatives from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the National Weather Center and the Norman Police Department — which was doing a bit of show and tell with SWAT gear — were there to meet the public.
Plenty of old planes and history were on display, but the festival was just as much about the future as it was the past.
Kids flocked to virtual reality simulators and Norman-based drone company Pro Presenters / Industrial Drone Pros had many curious visitors, as well.
The company was founded 15 years ago with a focus on professional audio and video. With the emergence of drone technology, owner Steve Patrick saw an opportunity for his company to take to the skies. Now, the company has taken on a new addition to its name (Industrial Drone Pros) and operates in two prongs with a little bit of overlap for the aerial video enthusiast.
“The drone manufacturers descended one year on our national annual convention,” he said. “We were trying to learn about lights and videos and sound and that sort of thing, but there was a little crossover there because you can put a camera on them.”
Patrick said his company was one of the early adopters of the technology, though he said he took a little convincing at first.
“I had to digest [it] for a little while, months actually,” Patrick said. “I thought, ‘How can this cross over into what we’re doing?’ And then we bought one and drank the Kool-Aid. We immediately saw the utility of it and the potential.”
While Patrick said drones are a new frontier of possibility, they’re also a new frontier for rules and safety. He said the FAA has been forced into a bit of a catch-up situation, but has done a fine job, most notably with the introduction of the FAA Part 107 Commercial Drone License program in 2016.
“It may be even ahead of public acceptance,” he said. “It’s a little scary because there are rules, there are laws, you have to know things. There’s a pretty solid community of hobbyists and RC pilots, but this can do things that an RC plane can’t do. It can hover, it can carry a payload. Plus, you’ve got Chinese manufacturing. It’s being mass produced and prices are going down.
“So, the public is beginning to accept that it’s now affordable, but they have to follow FAA rules. If you have a little knowledge about how to fly legally and responsibly, all the pieces are in place now.”
He said the Matrice M600 Pro they had on display Saturday isn’t a toy, and even though some of the smaller drones may seem like playthings, entry models like the DJI Spark retail for about $500.
Still, he said there are ways for amateur drone aviators to dip their feet in the water, and $50 models are good ways to train. He said some are relatively crash-proof, because they’re built to bounce on impact.
“When you start using a $4,800 model, you don’t have to worry about crashing it, because you’re already trained on something that will fly,” he said.
Even the old guard, like retired U.S. Marine Corps pilot Ed Kostiuk, said it was everything an aviation fan could hope for.
“AOPA always puts on a great show,” he said. “There are a lot of different aircraft and I think it’s just incredible that Norman is sponsoring something like this.”
He said it’s great for everyone who already has a love of flying, but it also can inspire a new crop of aviators.
“It’s that next generation, before they become pilots, the young kids who have just started looking at aviation,” he said. “We get a lot these kids out here who love airplanes, and I’m hoping that these kids we’re looking at right now are going to be future pilots. Someday when I’m here with a walker, walking around with no teeth, they’ll be the ones who will show me their airplanes.”
Kostiuk said he learned from WWII and Korean War-era pilots and it’s only natural pilots want to pass on that knowledge and legacy.
“I started flying at 17 and didn’t quit,” he said. “I just turned 65. That’s exactly what I went in the Marine Corps for and that’s what it allowed me to do and I miss it, ever since I retired in 1998 after 30 years. It was a challenge, but it was a lot of fun.”
OU aviation professor Bob Dionne had a similar take. He said having the STOL demonstrations was a big hit, and, like Kostiuk, he said he hopes it inspires future pilots.
“It gets young people interested in aviation and lets them see the options they have,” he said. “If we can get them excited when they’re young, they’ll be working on their STEM studies so they can pursue a career in aviation in the future. Hopefully, they’ll come to OU to study aviation and take flight from there.”
For kids like Jaxon Schneider, 6, who came looking for old WWII-era planes like the P-51 Mustang, it was a smorgasbord of mechanical fascination.
The one he may have heard a buzz about is called Miss America, and it flies out of Wiley Post in Bethany. He didn’t find a P-51, but he found a number of classic planes at the festival that piqued his interest, like open-air-cockpit relics and the chrome-covered North American TG Texan.
For others, the festival may not have planted the seeds of a high-altitude career, but it was a chance to see something remarkable. Brayden Caldwell examined the cockpit of a military jet. It was hist first glimpse at one up close.
“It’s bigger than I expected. I thought it would be more medium-sized.”
He said he doesn’t see himself becoming a pilot, due to his aversion to heights, but he said there’s no harm in looking.
“It’s just really cool,” he said.