Paul Poberezny, founder of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which draws tens of thousands of pilots to Wisconsin each year for a convention that includes one of the nation's largest air shows, died Thursday after a fight with cancer. He was 91.
Poberezny died in the morning at a retirement home in Oshkosh, where EAA has been based since 1983. The organization announced his death on behalf of his son, Tom Poberezny.
EAA started as a club for those who built and restored their own aircraft in 1953, when Poberezny gathered a group of recreational aviation enthusiasts in Milwaukee. Working from an office in his basement in the Milwaukee suburb of Hales Corners, he grew the club into an association with more than 180,000 members.
EAA moved in 1983 to Oshkosh, where it had been hosting AirVenture, an annual pilots' convention and air show, since 1970. The event draws 10,000 planes and tens of thousands of participants each summer.
"As Paul often said, he considers himself a millionaire because through aviation he made a million friends. He leaves an unmatched legacy in aviation and can be best remembered by all the people who discovered aviation through his inspiration to create EAA," his family said in a statement issued by the association.
Poberezny championed amateur aircraft building, working with federal officials to get regular people the right to design, build and fly their own planes. As a result, more than 30,000 amateur-built aircraft are on the FAA registry, the EAA said.
Ron Scott, an 81-year-old pilot from East Troy, Wis., met Poberezny when Poberezny flew a homebuilt airplane into the airport where Scott kept his plane. They had a cup of coffee, and Poberezny told Scott about EAA. Scott joined the group and began designing a plane that he finished in 1969 and flew for more than 40 years.
"As far as I'm concerned he's the father of sport aviation, that's why I used to call him dad all the time," Scott said and then laughed.
The great attraction to EAA was the camaraderie that began with Paul, Scott said. He remembered a board member once worrying that the group was getting too big.
"Paul says, 'What are you going to do, put a sign out there that says we can only let 5,000 people in?' Well, you can't do that, so it just grew," Scott said.
Born Sept. 14, 1921 in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Poberezny moved as a child to Milwaukee, where he grew up in near poverty. He got his start in aviation when a high school teacher gave him an old glider on the condition Poberezny restore it to airworthiness. He rebuilt the glider and taught himself to fly it at age 15.
Poberezny served in the military during World War II, teaching flying in several types of aircraft. After the war, he served in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1973.
Scott said Poberezny built five or six airplanes during his life, and his designs for a couple aerobatic planes with double wings are still being sold. Poberezny had no engineering training but was self-taught, his friend said.
"He's always been an airplane nut, kind of like the rest of us old guys," Scott said.
Poberezny served for decades as the volunteer president of EAA. He retired from day-to-day involvement in 1989 but served as board chairman until 2009, EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said. Even after that, he continued to participate in association activities and events.
Along with his son, who lives in Brookfield, Poberezny is survived by his wife, Audrey, and daughter Bonnie Parnall, of Oshkosh.