Aircraft group loans plane for display at Western Nebraska Regional Airport

Jeff Robbins, at right, and David Kiraly, are members of the local Chapter 608 of the Experimental Aircraft Association. This Rutan Long EZ single-passenger plane is on loan for a display at Western Nebraska Regional Airport. It was built by local businessman Joe Ostry in his basement and garage.

Western Nebraska Regional Airport has a new static display in the main terminal, a homemade airplane from local Chapter 608 of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA).

Jeff Robbins, an EAA member and member of the airport’s authority board, gave some background on the plane and the association for his fellow board members during their monthly meeting.

“Our organization started in 1953 in Wisconsin to expand and grow the fun in flying,” Robbins said. “Today, members are still building aircraft and restoring old aircraft. Just as the county fairs promote the fun in agriculture, we do the same for flying.”

Every June, the local EAA chapter helps stage Airport Appreciation Day, which includes a fly-in from pilots around the Panhandle, static displays of aircraft of all sizes, to other demonstrations.

“Our Appreciation Day is geared toward getting people out here to see what the airport offers the community,” Robbins said. “We want people to get up close and personal with flying.”

During the Appreciation Day, the local EAA chapter also offers Young Eagle flights. The free program gives kids age 17 or younger their first experience at flight.

The goal of the Young Eagles program is to get young people interested in aviation as a career while pushing the fun side of the industry.

COVID-19 shook up the local group’s schedule for this year. This year’s Airport Appreciation Day had to be postponed and will take place, hopefully, on Saturday, Sept. 12.

Robbins said the aviation industry had been undergoing strong growth for the past 10 years. That led to a shortage of trained pilots for commercial flights as experienced pilots were picked up by the larger airlines.

“The pilot shortage was getting pretty rough but we were doing what we could to promote aviation,” Robbins told the board. “The whole COVID-19 thing changed all that and no one saw it coming. But it seems that every 10 years or so, something happens to shake things up.”

Members of the local EAA Chapter 608 include Robbins and also fellow airport board member Neal Smith.

For about the last year, the chapter has been working on a project to set up a static display of a homebuilt airplane in the airport terminal — the kind chapter members still build.

Robbins said the group wanted to use some of its funds to help promote aviation.

The plane now on display is on loan from EAA member Joe Ostry. In 1975, he started with plans to build a Rutan Long EZ single-passenger plane in his basement. He finished it in his one-car garage with the final assembly work done at the airport. The plane’s first flight was in November 1982.

The Long EZ was designed with the ability to fly around the world nonstop. A two-hour flight to Lincoln with a cruising speed of 144 mph burns about $30 of gas.

“The Long EZ was a very popular kit-built plane in the 1970s and ‘80s.” Robbins said. “The designer, Burt Rutan, is still drawing plans, but now it’s for spacecraft.”

Robbins received the board’s approval to investigate a potential permanent display for the plane at some point in the future — perhaps suspended from the terminal ceiling.

In the meantime, the plane is on display on the terminal floor. Robbins said whenever he’s in the terminal building, there’s usually at least one person checking it out.

As the information card next to the plane reads, “We hope that it will inspire others to pursue their dreams in aviation.”

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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