Yesterday brought the somber news that Steve Bennett, the man behind Great Plains VW engines, has passed from this earth. It is 4:30 am now, and I have spent the last few hours sipping beer and thinking of how I could explain to someone who joined the EAA in the last few years how extraordinary Steve was, what kind of a person we have lost. I keep coming back to the conclusion that it can’t be done, that the scope and depth of his influence is too great, but maybe a few points might be an acceptable start.
Steve was contrary to everything people who work in experimental aviation are unfortunately known for: In a field of salesmen without expertise, Steve was the world’s leading expert on VW flight engines; In a field of egos, Steve was a very modest guy; In a field where people bring too much emotion, Steve as always stoic and calm. In a field were everyone chases the money, Steve pursued affordable products so working people would have options other than being a spectator. In a field full of males, Steve always had Linda present as a partner, confidant and best friend.
In all the hours of all the years I spent with him, Steve never reminded me of anyone else. Thirty years in the homebuilt industry did not erode nor tarnish the qualities of character he had. He always had a clear head, and a good take on any issue or event; I never saw him change course because of flattery nor praise, he only responded to logical cause. He was always like this, and he remained so to the last time I saw him. He had something most do not, a steady hand on the helm of his own life.
To balance that image, let me share the first time I spoke with him. We were at a KR gathering, he was an established legend and I was transitioning from ‘nobody’ to ‘Johnny come lately’ status. In the general form, I guy I had never met stood up and said he has been a VW guy and he had liked Steve, but he now knew VW’s were bad, and he was going to be a Corvair guy now. I was mortified, and at the end I went over to explain to “Mr Bennett” that I didn’t know that guy at all. Steve saw me, but patiently answered every builders question first. When he was done, he walked over and cracked a smile and put his arm on my shoulder and said “Congratulations sport, he is all yours now. This year you are his hero, but next year, if you have any luck, he will hate you and announce he is moving on to Subarus.”
It was the start of a long friendship with Steve and Linda. Even though I was very small potatoes for many years, They always treated Grace and myself as friends and colleagues. Steve went out of his way to share with me things he had painstakingly learned about builders, the media and our industry. Time proved his counsel was 100% correct. I freely admit that many of the approaches to Corvair I use are directly patterned after things Steve did with VW’s first. I often told Steve that, but he always shrugged it off with a bit of embarrassment. I am guessing he was most comfortable being himself, and didn’t like even the idea of being anyone else’s role model. He could like it or not, it didn’t change the fact that in this industry, he was mine.
Steve retired a few years ago. When he was done, he had set a record. No other alternative engine guy had continuously been in business, serving builders for longer. I kidded him saying it was about time, because no matter when he stopped, I still had to work 8 more years to match his record. Tonight is the first time I realize just how much his thoughts mattered to me, because if I am able match his record, all I really wanted was to have him there to say ” Good Job”. The opinion of no other person in our industry would matter to me nearly as much.
Let me offer one more voice of thanks to the thousands of others over the years, offering my gratitude for the contribution Steve made to homebuilding, contributions that live on in the skills and understanding he gave to others, that they would be able to follow their dreams. As much as I will miss him, I remain grateful for every hour spent in his company.
Steve, May you have only blue skies and tailwinds.
From our Oshkosh 2015 coverage, the last time I saw Steve:
“Above, I stand with Steve Bennett, The acknowledged master of the flying VW engine, the man who ran Great plains VW for three decades. He is now retired, enjoying some very well deserved time off, just walking around Oshkosh visiting friends. Over the years, Steve and his wife were very good to both Grace and I, always being genuinely warm and friendly people with the sagely advise of experience.
More than any other person, Steve’s work serving working class builders with proven systems and parts, and his legendary stoic demeanor, was the model I used in my own work with Corvairs. While print magazines of our industry tend to cover investment grade rip offs like the Cessna Skycatcher and the Icon A-5, The real goals of the EAA, the motto “Learn Build and Fly”, are actually served by people willing to teach and provide products to working Americans. For decades, Steve Bennett provided affordable access to flight for working people, his respect for rank and file homebuilders evident in the fact he always treated them as aviators, not spectators. His work provided an entry into the Arena for literarily thousands of homebuilders, an accomplishment which has earned the respect of any real homebuilder.”
7 Replies to “Steve Bennett, master of VW flight, passes from this Earth.”
The meaningful impact upon our lives that are made by those who we deeply admire will live on, long after the person is gone.
Thanks for sharing this, and other stuff, William. You have a way with words that expresses what a lot of us feel, but we don’t know how to say.
I am saddened by the loss of Steve. I have known him since he started business in the Chicago area; migrating later out west. Steve was an unselfish and kind individual and he remained committed to the rank and file budget conscious homebuilder. He will be truly missed. I can only hope the GPAS soldiers on with his passing.
Much love and respect to a great man…. I hope there will be young men to start walking the same way… we need more fine people to respect.
Oh God! So very sorry to hear about Steve’s passing. Just came out of my shop, putting together a BK1.3 and just had to check on the latest news floating around…and now this! Depressing to say the very least. My heartfelt condolences to Linda. Nice man, good business sense, always available to offer advice. RIP Steve.
I have known Steve and Linda since 1983. He helped me get my KR-2 and my Minimax flight worthy and ready. We flew together a few times when he had his Piper Colt. He will be missed in the Aviation community. And by me!
Very well-expressed elegy/homage to someone I knew well. Thanks for taking the time to write something so nice.
He was a role model to me, and later a friend also. The best kind of guy.