40 Years Ago


Leadersby Ken Blackman

It was April, of 1976 and plans were being firmed up to fly 9 American and Grumman American aircraft from Paine field, Everett, WA to Merced, CA to attend the first official Annual Convention of the American Yankee Association. These 9 aircraft constituted the entire fleet of the North location of Skytrek Aviation. They would meet up with the same number of aircraft from the Southern location of Skytrek, both were a division of Western Aero Sales, Inc. which was a Grumman American Dealer. The combined company had been born of the merger of Hillview Aero Club of Reid Hillview Airport (San Jose, CA) and Skytrek Aviation of Paine Field, Everett, WA. Hillview Aero was a Grumman American Dealer and had been one of the early American Aviation Dealers for the original American Yankee. The company was growing fast making a mark in the still young dealership organization of the newly re-named aircraft manufacturer “Grumman American Aviation Corp” following the acquisition of American Aviation by Grumman Aerospace’s General Aviation Division based at Savannah, GA .

Rewind the tape 4 years to April of 1972. A 29 year old drummer, and leader of a traveling trio that was playing a nightclub in Santa Clara, CA made the acquaintance of a local trombone player who had a “big band” playing special shows and dances in the S.F. Bay area and who had become a regular on Wednesday nights (after his band’s rehearsal) at the night club. The two were talking while the trio was on break about music, hobbies, and goals. The traveling drummer had always wanted to learn to fly and it was reviled the horn man owned a flight school. The next day the drummer took a demo flight and met a flying machine that would totally change his whole future. I was the drummer and the “bone man” was Maynard Crosby.

In the following two weeks I soloed in an AA-1A “Trainer”, N9310L, and then had to leave the area for the next engagement of the group in Spokane, WA. The trio, “The Center Line”, consisted of my Wife, Jan as featured vocalist, a Keyboard player named Bob, and myself, Ken Blackman. We took a week vacation while traveling North and beginning our next booking in Spokane. It was Wednesday before I made it out to the local airport and found a flight school to continue my new passion. They only had Pipers and, since the plane I started in was low wing, I chose that school over the Cessna school on Felts Field and jumped in on a quest to leave there with a PPL in my pocket. I succeeded in doing it in 2 ½ weeks. I was a PILOT! (so I thought…..)

Now, fast forward two years to April of 1974. In two years from my starting flying, I had bought a Cessna 310D for lease-back to a flight school at Paine Field, tacked on my Multi-Engine Land rating, picked up a Single Engine Seaplane rating and achieved my Commercial Pilot Certificate. The school I was using my VA benefits at had 3 Yankees, 2 MK-21 Mooneys, and my 310. I was flying them all but really was hooked on the little Yankee as just a fun little plane and close to the plane I had started in. For many reasons Jan and I were seriously contemplating leaving the lifestyle of the itinerant traveling entertainment business and events happened to bring this story to the end of 1974. The Flight School I had attended, and who had busted my 310, folded and 4 of us “orphaned Yankee Drivers” purchased N5792L and began forming a little flying club around it.

We met a couple of other Yankee owners and would meet on Sunday mornings at the Harvey Field restaurant in Snohomish, WA for coffee and pie and then fly out to other airports in the area. One morning we spotted two guys with jackets that had “Stinson Club” plastered on them and one of us commented we should “form a Yankee Driver’s Club”. (A seed was then planted that would eventually grow into a vary large and complex organization.) The American Yankee Association was thus conceived.

In January, ’75 our lives did change, dramatically, with dissolving the group and getting “real jobs”. I was designing and selling houses and Jan attended Community College to study accounting. She soon became a bank teller and I was doing pretty good at the sales job. We flew the Yankee to the annual Merced fly in where I found my old friend, Maynard, who had a brand new Tiger on display. I went for a flight in it with him and it blew me away. It was as fast as the 180 HP Mooneys I had been flying and a whole lot more comfortable and I could see out of the damned thing. This lit my fire to apply my meager FBO experience (from helping keep the place going in order to get paid for my leased back Twin Cessna) and the selling of time to others in our Yankee. I thought I could do the flying club and keep on selling houses while building a business that would qualify for a Grumman Dealership in a couple of years. In the Fall of ’75 the Cheetah was introduced and I got excited all over again. I had helped sell a couple of planes for a dealer in Eugene, OR (where I had bought my 310) while the band was playing in clubs there and the Dealership owner had told his Grumman Regional Rep. (Giff Hamilton) he should get me on-board to be a dealer or rep for the company.

I was at my desk at Armstrong Homes and got a call from Giff. He wanted to know if I could meet with him and discuss the possibilities. We set a time, a month or so later, to meet at Paine Field’s Jet Deck Restaurant. I had been talking to the person who held the lease on the old Paine Aviation office about officially getting a business opened for the flying club. In November of 1975 we met and discussed my ideas and looked at the facility I was planning to rent. It wasn’t much but had been a very active little flight school and was a good location. I thought the meeting had gone well and that I could pretty easily get a dealership. I went ahead with the plans and leased the building, brought in my airplane partners and a couple of former instructors from the old place. I was able to lease a ’73 trainer, IFR equipped, and I bought a ’74 AA-1B for a primary trainer. WE WERE A FLIGHT SCHOOL!

I had kept in contact with Maynard and he was interested in helping me get airplanes until I was officially made a Grumman American Dealer. Around the end of January, after quitting my sales job and going full time at the airport, I was told Grumman would not consider me for a dealership until I had survived a couple of years. NOT IN THE PLAN! I called Maynard and he said we should have a “sit down” and see what we could build together. I made a trip to San Jose and we came to the decision to merge my Washington Corporation for Skytrek Aviation and his proprietorship of Western Aero and Hillview Aero and join forces with the two locations. We did it and I quickly sold a new Tiger on a lease-back. There were a couple of “repos” (’75 traveler and ’75 TR2) available a couple of hundred miles away so we bought the AA-5 and consigned the -1B. We soon sold both and I retained the Traveler on lease-back. I also sold 4 Yankees and had them all on lease-back which brought our total fleet to the 9 aircraft that all flew to Merced the first weekend of June, 1976.

One very important person that lent advice while we were first starting the operation was Dicey Miller. She had operated a large flight school using primarily Yankees on our field and at Boeing Field in Seattle. Pacific Skyways was not a dealer but supplied lease back opportunities to Jet Air who was the American Aviation dealer on Paine field. Dicey had instructed in the Yankees in Atlanta, GA and Huntsville, AL before moving to Everett, Washington with her husband. Dicey, having a long background in flight training and education, had authored the first training curriculum for American Aviation, Corp.

We discussed the idea of a “Yankee Club” with her and she was on-board immediately. We got a mailing list for Grumman American owners and she put out a mailing to all of them in the US and Canada we could find. It was discovered that a small group in Texas was meeting and flying together and, in California, Maynard and his group with the Aero Club had been conducting “fly’outs” for 3 or 4 years including one to a resort in the Northern California hills at Ruth Ranch. People from all around the country came out the woodwork who were interested in helping develop the organization. The name selected, for this organization, was “The American Yankee Association”. The primary “mission” for the group was to bring together owners and pilots of the Yankee for common interests in operating and maintaining the planes and interacting socially with others of like mind. It was decided that the “descendants” of the AA-1 would be welcomed to the group but only as “Associate Members”, a stipulation that was very quickly changed including ALL models of American and Grumman American aircraft as full members.

Back to the weekend following Memorial Day of 1976, a total of 16 planes and 18 people placed their names and addresses on the back of a Merced Fly-In poster, during a meeting on the small lawn in front of the little terminal building at Merced Airport. This was the official beginning of the AYA and all those attending were listed as “Charter Members”. Dicey Miller volunteered to head up the organization during its formation and time to follow until such time as it was deemed ready to have elected officers and what all that would involve. It was not incorporated or was any kind of “legal” entity for the first few years. Dicey was given the title of “Executive Secretary” and I assumed the position and title of “Organizational Chairman”. Jean Williams assumed the role of Secretary and Jan Blackman, the Treasurer. Dicey took on, also, the chore of putting out the “Newsletter” and continued contacting and corresponding with people across the US ands Canada who showed interest in taking an active roll in promoting the organization in their areas. Liz Lane was the first one in Canada to really do anything and she was a strong force in the Eastern part of the country and later, after moving to Vancouver, created a real strong Western Canada Region. She had left Eastern Canada in the hands of a member named Glenn Hadley. The AYA began to grow with a Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest regions developing and then we added a Central and Mid South region (if I remember correctly) and the group had reached around 100 members by the end of the first year. Notice that there were no paid positions as everyone was volunteering their services and resources. Sky Trek Aviation was growing fast at both locations and Western Aero Sales was selling a lot of flying aluminum called Grumman Americans. Our fleet at Paine Field had reached about 20 aircraft with a similar number on the line at San Jose. The AYA was strongly promoted at both ends and all new students got an AYA application included with their “kit”. The “office” of the AYA was located in the corner or the classroom at Sky Trek “North” and Jean Williams, who was my secretary, and Jan Blackman, who was our Bookkeeper shared duties with the AYA during break time and after work. Dicey would bring over her typed newsletter (if she didn’t run copies on a Boeing copy machine) and we would spend long evenings printing the thing on our old copy machine (which was as big as a large desk and pumped out a blazing 10 copies per minute. We would have all the volunteers we could rope in to help collate, staple, fold, and stuff the newsletters into envelopes.

We had all the members names and addresses typed out for copying on Avery Labels and stuck them all on envelopes then mailed the newsletter. I forget what the initial dues were for the organization but it was pretty small and it all went to pay for the copy costs, postage, and promotional expenses. Any overage was left in the bank account for a cushion. We did some commercial advertising and made lots of “long distance phone calls”. (Remember how much they cost with “Ma Bell”in the days before discount long distance companies came along?)

Moving forward…… The 2nd annual convention was also held at Merced, CA during the annual Fly-In. It was a fairly good turnout with a somewhat larger collection of airplanes than the year before. We were getting some notice from the big organization, AOPA and had been mentioned in a couple of major magazine articles on the airplanes. We gave out trophies for chosen winners in different categories for aircraft and individual achievement during the EAA Awards Banquet at the closing night of the fly-in. (They had reluctantly given the AYA the time but did apologize after they saw what we were about.)

The next year, having reached about 150 or so members and a couple even from Europe, it was decided to move the convention to coincide with Oshkosh. It was held at Appleton, WI during the middle of the EAA event. Lisa Harper did the organizing of this convention (and would also do the following one) and agreed to take over the job of Newsletter Editor relieving Dicey. It was also decided to open the association up to “electing officers” so a President and Vice President were elected. The Secretary and Treasurer positions were to remain “appointed” and volunteer as was the Editor. We had gained the “stamp of approval” from Grumman American and they sent representatives to our 3rd annual convention. We had more than 30 aircraft and about 50 attendees at that convention and it was a very well done event. The timeline was July of 1978.

The following year was quite pivotal as the Grumman American Aviation Corp. was purchased by American Jet Industries and renamed Gulfstream American. Though much “hoopla” was made by the new owner, it was all a smokescreen as he had no intention of continuing the piston engine product line (quoting Alan Paulson from an Air Progress interview) and he announced the line was for sale early in 1979. He ”shelved” the line at the end of the year and we entered a 9 year period of dormancy during a time that all General Aviation became nearly comatose. Through the natural “misery loves company” tenancy of people with a common problem, owners of our airplanes sought refuge and fellowship in the AYA and the association grew rapidly. During the time from the 1979 convention through 1984, although the AYA had its officers elected and appointed, it was still all volunteer and much of the “titles” worn by different members really did little to coincide with where the actual effort was exerted and by whom. The few of us who had nursed the AYA into existence pretty much continued to handle about everything that was done. Lisa Harper had resigned as Editor at the end of the convention in ’79 at Appleton (2) and I volunteered to take over. Jean had given the Secretary position over to Bobby Terry and Jan continued as Treasurer. In 1980 I planned and chaired the convention moving it away from Oshkosh to Lake Ozark, MO. Bev Hanson was elected President and Van Swofford, VP. The organization continued to grow and in 1981 the first big upheaval was experienced when its Secretary nearly destroyed all the records and, in the shear nick of time, the President arrived at her home and prevented her from throwing it all in the fireplace. New members, Dale and April Gavey, were “drafted” to take over the position and many long nights followed in the Sky Trek Classroom getting all the records in order and up to date. For simple efficiency I planned the following 4 conventions, all at Lake Lawn Lodge, Delavan, WI. 1982 saw membership reach 200.

In 1983 the first attempt at incorporating the organization was made with help of a member from Albuquerque, Attorney Jim Blackmer. The first “computerization” of the records was developed by Kevin McKinzey, then the NW Regional Director. The Newsletter had been re-named The American Star when Robert Londo volunteered to take over from me as Editor. He was a publisher by profession and transformed the STAR from a “copy machine printed” loose leaf newsletter to a “magazine format”. Unfortunately he was diagnosed with Liver Cancer soon after publishing his first issue and only did 3 more before handing it back to me and passing away soon thereafter. I had a friend (and customer) who published promotional literature and allowed me to learn to use his equipment to typeset the pages. This was shortly before “desktop publishing” came along. I had another friend and customer that owned a Direct Marketing Studio full of equipment and he had many years experience in what I needed to do. He was kind enough to teach me, allow me to, and help me lay out the pages of the STAR on large hard boards, wax the photos and “galley strips” of type, and prepare the boards for photographing and fed to the machine that turned them into the pages of the American Star. Once printed and assembled, the whole pile of them went to a mailing service that would sort and prep the bundles of STARs to be taken to the Post Office for bulk mailing on the AYA’s permit. Still basically a volunteer position, I was given a fixed budget for publishing the STAR and mailing it. If It cost less than the budget allowed I was allowed to keep the difference, however if it went the other way, I had to “kick in” the difference. I remember it took approximately 300 hours per bi-monthly issue. This included a lot of hours Jan spent helping type in articles sent in by others (which were usually hand written and in serious need of editing, if we could actually read the handwriting).

Sometime in the 1982, 1983 period it was voted by the AYA Board of Directors to combine the Secretary and Treasurer positions and actually compensate the Sec / Treas. with a small salary (a couple of hundred bucks a month amounting to only pennies per hour) as the job had become a very time consuming thing. This was the first break away in the “all volunteer” basis of the original concept. This was not the only change that occurred in the AYA, during this period of time, although not vary visible at first.

People began saying and doing things that, at first, were not really recognized as the beginning of internal problems for the organization, and were passed off (by me) as nothing worth worrying about. I had my hands full with trying to run a struggling business and do battle with a group of stockholders over what direction should be pursued while having to spend more and more time with the duties I had assumed with the AYA. I was planning the conventions(s), publishing the STAR, and planning and / or attending and speaking at many regional events in the NW US and Western Canada. Jan was working full time as a bookkeeper for a glass mfg. company, while doing the Sec./Treas. duties for the AYA and helping me with the STAR. Although different individuals held elected and appointed offices, I still called lots of the shots from what I felt was “just part of the job” and the AYA was growing rapidly and gaining prestige in the Aviation World. Around the end of 1984 things seemed to happen that concerned me more and more but it wasn’t until the last convention of the total of six I ran, in 1985, that I was absolutely blindsided by the new President when he was handed the gavel during the annual meeting. What transpired in the next year and a half was unimaginable only months earlier. People I thought were good friends were stabbing and Jan I in the back and, at a time in our personal lives that was very devastating in many ways, we were just about pushed to the breaking point.

The reasons behind this had partially been promoted by one of the stockholders of my company [Ameromod Corp.] which came apart at the seams in 1985 and I, with a partner, broke away and started Air Mods N.W.. The company problems had caused much “blood letting” and this person knew of the growing thoughts within the AYA that Jan and I “had too much power” and should be “reined in”. He “fanned the flames” and spread absolute lies about us through the ranks of the organization. In 1986 Jan and I resigned our positions and put our attentions toward rebuilding our personal and professional lives. The AYA had some struggles replacing our efforts but did survive. The whole focus of the association had swung away from the original model and reasons for which it was founded. The “all volunteer management” concept was pretty well all gone with growing salaries being paid to the main working positions. Through the following 2 + decades more incidents occurred that insulted and attacked dedicated members who tried to get things done that “stepped on toes” or threatened some of the “powers that be” and either “dropped out” or were literally “kicked out” of the AYA. Many members did not renew citing “internal politics” as the reason and less being done to support the aircraft and their owners. Many more were being offended by comments of people, in what they felt to be prominent AYA positions, posted on internet forums (not directly part of the AYA but thought to be by many).

As the economy struggled after 9/11, then really hit the skids 6 years later, membership took some really hard hits to the point salaries were reduced a little and it was researched (to no avail) to learn the reason for the membership dropping by over half in a 8 year period. (Some problems were identified but nothing serious was done.) One attempt to make some serious changes, to reduce some of the organizations expenses, resulted in an unbelievable personal attack on the two very dedicated member’s integrity.

Several years earlier one well respected maintenance expert was badly insulted by a key officer and asked to leave a convention he had been specifically encouraged to attend for he was to be given a prestigious award. He left and soon developed his own website on maintenance and proposed the idea of a “parallel organization” specifically aimed at maintenance and support of the aircraft. About the same time another recognized maintenance expert was also doing a similar kind of thing, in another area, for the same reasons. Other members who had been “run off” for one reason or another, or just had had it up to the eyebrows with infighting and petty crap rather than what the organization should be concentrating on, were thinking along these lines and it all kind of came down to collective thinking of many that it was time to “do this thing” and action began happening after the latest upheaval mentioned above.

The result was the formation of the Grumman Pilots Association in late 2013. With some initial struggles over who was going to do what, it finally got off the ground and now is quickly climbing to altitude reaching more than 700 members. It is much easier to do things with little or no cost these days than 40 years ago when the AYA was founded. The result is it’s possible to operate a good and strong organization without the necessity of charging fixed dues with volunteer management. Long distance phone calls are not an issue as most people have unlimited LD service in their cell phones and land lines. Little postage is needed with e-mail and internet and, due to the knowledge of the primary managing member, the website is really a great and capable tool that costs very little to maintain. Accepting donations covers the legal costs of incorporation and maintenance of same plus some of the other minor costs incurred. The GPA has maintenance tools and apparel for sale on the website store which generate a small profit to help with expenses. Being focused on maintenance support, regional maintenance seminars are being held around the country for owners and mechanics to learn the finite details of maintaining our aircraft. These are free to attend as the presenters are all volunteers. Only a donation to the “food kitty” is requested as there are on-site meals and morning refreshments provided. The GPA is a 501-C3 Corporation and donations are deductible.

As a co-founder of the AYA, and a lifetime member, I still hold allegiance to that organization and probably always will. No matter how hard it has kicked me, or how much it has hurt Jan and myself, I have refrained from turning my back on it. Now as a “founder” of the GPA as well, I am delighted to see what is happening. Many stories are being passed around about how those of us who are in the business of maintaining the Grumman American and AG fleet have found parts for people in urgent need by calling among ourselves to locate what is keeping them grounded. Now, that’s what I call “support” even if it doesn’t ring everyone’s cash register. We have put people together to buy and sell aircraft and found others help in getting information they need. The website offers free access to all maintenance and most operational publications for our planes. Several maintenance shops and pilot training facilities have joined the GPA because they know they can get the information they need, either from the website or verbally from other members.

It’s working and growing. This years National Gathering (or convention) in Bowling Green, KY should be well attended and will give us better insight to what is needed in the future to make the GPA a very strong and large group which has no political agenda to argue over. It doesn’t have any scholarship fund, or an aircraft insurance program (yet) and is less focused on the “social agenda” side of things that is found in the AYA. It is “different” in scope and composition and, for good reason, may never do all the things the AYA does, and has done. When asked my opinion, I suggest owners may want to belong to both. They will pay dues to the AYA, plus an initiation fee, but it still offers a “free trial membership” for 6 months so check it out. The GPA costs you nothing to join or belong to, and you don’t even have to join to access the website and most of its functions. So, what the heck? Check it out and “hook up”. Also give the AYA at shot for that free 6 months. After you have seen what both organizations have to offer, you may choose which one to stay with, if not both. What more could you ask?

Ken Blackman