Fast Five: Jack Pelton, EAA Chairman, CEO

Credit: Experimental Aircraft Association

Jack Pelton became chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association in 2012 and was named CEO in 2015. Pelton previously served as Cessna Aircraft Co. chairman, president and CEO, and as vice president of engineering for Dornier Aircraft. He began his career with Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California. 

What is your assessment of how general aviation fared during the pandemic? 
Through all of this, what’s been amazing is that general aviation has held up really well. If you talk to the aviation manufacturers, you talk to a lot of the OEMs, they’ve stayed very busy. In the early part of the pandemic, they had their shutdowns and furloughs they had to do. Pricing of used airplanes have gone through the roof. The availability of used aircraft is tight. It goes on the market and it’s sold the same day. It’s been good. The FAA records on flight hours on single-engine piston airplanes were better in July-August 2020 than it was in July to August of 2019.

What about new pilot starts during this time? How has COVID-19 affected the need for pilots?
New pilot starts–that was really the worry that people would say we just solved the pilot shortage because airlines were reducing pilots. The airlines are coming back faster than they originally thought. The pilot shortage remains real. I am coming out of this saying to young people, ‘It’s still a great time if you want to pursue a professional flying career. If you start today, by the time you get out of college and get all the certificates you need, it will be growing at rates we’ve never seen.

What was the biggest challenge brought on by COVID-19? 
I would say it was navigating through the unknown. We’ve gone through financial crises. You kind of know what the indicators were going to be. We were going to slow down production at Cessna, for example, but when we saw things pick up, we would start to increase it. The pandemic was such a big unknown. We were going month to month and trying to make decisions financially We did do some layoffs and we did do some furloughs. We had financial reserves set aside that would allow us to weather through this. 

You recently attended Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo, held April 13-18 in Lakeland, Florida. Some attendees commented that the event was laying the groundwork for AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 in July. What did you think?
It made us feel good. We looked at it and said that if Sun ’n Fun gets reasonable participation, exhibitions and flying activity, it will be a good indicator. With the timing, I still think it was a little early [with the COVID-19 pandemic], so exhibitor participation was down because they had to make decisions, I think back in December, if they wanted to get a refund. As you walked through the exhibit halls, exhibitor participation was down, but I felt ready good about the number of airplanes on the ground on Day One. It was better than it has been in a long time. Much better. All the way through the end of 2020, we were still being very conservative and saying that we have until May to make the decision. At that point in time, it was too early to call. Every day we’d get up and look at these dashboards, how many infections, how many hospitalizations. It wasn’t really until the vaccination rollout in the March time frame that the optimism got a lot higher. Now, it’s a go and our exhibitors are all lined up and anxious to get there. 

How important is AirVenture 2021 to EAA and to the general aviation industry? 
For us, personally, it’s really important that we get back to having the exhibitors’ ability to be with the aviation public and get our members back out and about but do it in a responsible way. That’s our angst. Every day we talk about let’s not assume it’s going to be a show like it is every other year. There are certain things we have to be more caring and protective of. If that means canceling the concert and the big dinners we have at night, that’s OK. We’re trying to let a little air out of the balloon and make it more manageable and get back to the basics of the show. We still have to have enough content so if someone is going to spend money to buy a daily pass, they’re going to have the forums and the workshops and people showing airplanes and that those reasons to be there are still in effect. I think there will be.

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.