CAMAS — While reviewing some rules at a Camas-Washougal Aviation Association meeting inside a hangar in May, Kent Mehrer, the club’s president, gave members a stern reminder not to drive on the runway of Grove Field, the general aviation airport north of Camas where the club is based. He couldn’t however, stop one of the attendees — a toddler — from darting toward the empty airstrip a few moments later.
“Well, now we have a kid on the runway,” Mehrer joked.
Longtime association members instinctively strive to pass their love of flying to a new generation, even those who aren’t sprinting toward runways soon after learning to walk. That sense of responsibility has grown stronger in recent weeks after two members died in a plane crash.
Milo Luther Kays, 73, of Camas, and Dennis R. Kozacek, 70, of Ridgefield, died April 29 when a Vans RV-6 constructed from a kit crashed in a shallow pond southeast of La Center. Kays was in the pilot’s seat of his small, two-seater airplane and Kozacek was his passenger, conducting a biennial flight review. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.
Both men had hangars at Grove Field, where their flight originated. Kays was an experienced, conscientious pilot, his fellow aviation association members said. He was a member of the association for more than 40 years and had owned and flown several home-built airplanes.
“Great man, and everybody knew him,” Bob Martilla said.
Kozacek, a former Navy pilot who later flew for FedEx, volunteered as an instructor with the Cascadia Technical Academy aviation program. He also was known as an eager aide to anyone at Grove Field who had a question about flying.
“He was an integral part of what we like to call, jokingly, the aviation mafia,” Martilla said.
For young people entering into aviation careers, a typical path may start at a youth camp at a neighborhood airport like Grove Field, followed by a high school program, college or the military, and then into a commercial job before retirement and continuing to fly recreationally.
“It’s really kind of funny. Where do you end up at? Right back at the neighborhood airport,” Martilla said. “Then it’s your job, at that point, to mentor the kids that are going to be going back up. So it’s kind of an endless cycle.”
Chris Lehner, who still flies for FedEx, met Kozacek on the job in 2000. Lehner’s eldest son, Bennett Lehner, 22, was one of Kozacek’s pupils.
Chris Lehner grew up in Indiana, where he spent time at a neighborhood airport similar to Grove Field. Like others in the association, Lehner said he appreciates getting to know other pilots through social events — scheduled or otherwise — inside a hangar or while prepping planes for flight.
“It’s always fun getting together with other pilots and their airplanes and their projects and seeing what they’re doing with those various projects,” Lehner said. “It’s just the camaraderie piece of it.”
The association has a few dozen members. So when a pilot, or two pilots, are lost, the effects are visceral.
“What you’d expect — sadness and a sense of loss to the community, because we have a wonderful flying community here,” Steve Catalano said. “It’s, you know, affected everybody just like any other loss in any other community. Whether it’s bicycles or cars, you lose somebody that’s part of the community, it leaves a hole in one’s heart.”
The pilots said they are aware of the inherent dangers of their passion. They also, however, point to several different reasons that the benefits outweigh the risks.
For Lehner, it’s aviation history and the ability to restore decades-old planes. For Catalano, it’s the blend of art and science that flying entails. For Mehrer, it’s the local sights that are accessible in a short period of time, including the Columbia River Gorge, the coast and Pacific Ocean, the Puget Sound and several mountains.
“It’s good to teach people an appreciation about it and show that it’s not as scary as they think it is,” said Mehrer, who often has friends and acquaintances accompany him on flights. “It’s showing the advantages of aviation and some of the experiences you can have. It’s a great hobby.”
After Kozacek’s funeral, pilots returned to Grove Field for an impromptu gathering in a hangar. In a more official commemoration, the association has renamed its scholarship grant after Kays and Kozacek. The fund, which currently has $25,000, is aimed at college-bound students from Camas and Washougal seeking aviation careers.
The association is also working with the Port of Camas-Washougal, which owns the airport, to create a memorial play area in the pilots’ honor, Mehrer said. The idea of the play area is to let children gaze at planes taking off and landing.
Someday, a few of them might fly out of the airport themselves. They might even provide others the opportunity to do the same.