Paul Poberezny (Credit: EAA)

Paul Poberezny (Credit: EAA)

CHICAGO (CBS) – Paul Poberezny, founder of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which hosts one of the world’s largest annual air shows, died Thursday after a battle with cancer.

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The aviation legend spent much of his 91-years of life in the air but those who knew and loved him said he could not have been more down to earth.

“He really truly loved people and embraced trying to make sure people could come together as a community around aviation,” says EAA Chairman Jack Pelton. “This is a sad day but Paul lived a very long and full life and we’re taking comfort in that.”

Poberezny founded EAA in 1953 in the basement of his home in suburban Wisconsin and built the organization into one of the world’s largest and most-respected aviation organizations. EAA has nearly 176,000 members in 100 countries and hosts AirVenture, the group’s annual, weeklong convention which includes the Oshkosh Air Show.

The air show, which began in Rockford before moving to Wisconsin, is aviation’s premiere event and features thousands of aircraft varieties, from the homebuilt to the high-tech. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each from around the globe. Poberezny made sure the event always included the top planes and their pilots while providing attendees up close and personal access with both.

“Air vehicles that people would never have access to from the Concorde to Spaceship One to the 7-87,” says Pelton. “A little bit of everything that the public would never have had the opportunity to get close to and understand. Not only did the aircraft arrive but he did a nice job of ensuring that the story was told and that the people associated with the airplanes were there and provided the platform and stage for them to tell their unique stories.”

Poberezny began flying at age 15 or 16, served as an aviator during World War II, and the Korean War.

Paul Poberezny (Credit: EAA)

Paul Poberezny (Credit: EAA)

During his flying career, he flew hundreds of aircraft and logged 30,000 flight hours. His pursuit of aviation began when a high school teacher gave him an old glider to restore.

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“It was something that at that point in his life not only grabbed him, it became such a compelling part of what he wanted to do and be part of,” says Pelton. “Very rarely do you find someone who can have that type of connection so early in life and then have it be such a part of their life at the same magnitude or greater all the way up to age 91. It’s just an unbelievable story in how someone could be so entrenched in aviation and at the same time make such an impact on the lives of so many people over his lifetime.”

According to Pelton, Poberezny championed amateur aircraft building and helped convince the federal government to give 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, according to EAA. Poberezny built nearly a half dozen of his own airplanes and designed others while serving as EAA president. He retired from EAA in 1989 but kept active at the airfield in Oshkosh and was in attendance at this year’s show just a few weeks ago.

Poberezny’s achievements and awards include the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal and the Charles A. Lindbergh Award for lifetime contributions to aviation. In 1999, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame where his portrait hangs with the likes of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Buzz Aldrin.

“He really is an aviation legend,” says Pelton who adds that EAA members and leaders will ensure Poberezny’s legacy endures.

“A lot of people have impacts on aviation over time but those impacts are felt during the timeframe of their aircraft design or a company that they may have run. I think what’s really profound about Paul is going back to the 50’s and starting this association and having a legacy that’s going to go on for generations to come. It’s truly unique and puts him in a class of his own.”

“My job is to continue to fuel and inspire and encourage and take the vision of our founder Paul and continue to build on it while not ever straying from the values and the vision and inclusiveness that Paul thought was important for EAA, that what Paul started continues to go for the next generation of aviators including my grandkids.”

In an oral history recorded by EAA back in July, Poberezny described his life as one well-lived – both on the ground and in the air.

“You can feel your age but your spirit will always be there. Having a good family and having all those friends and still fly. Can’t ask for anything better. Having the privilege of enjoying what I’ve loved since I was five, six-years old. So, I guess there is a great blessing in being able to see that and live that.”

Those close to him say Poberezny never sought fame or fortune but he often bragged to air show attendees about his riches.

“Audrey and I became millionaires as a result of EAA but we have a million friends and money cannot buy that. I will take the million friends.”

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Pelton says there has already been an outpouring of sadness and condolences have come from around the world. He says the 2014 AirVenture will no doubt include a fitting tribute to its founder and lifelong ambassador.