Super Cubs and Thunderbirds

Oshkosh—Aviation’s family reunion

Imagine a set of twins separated at birth. They go through life pursuing their own interests, honing their skills with dedication and discipline until each rises to the top of his chosen field. This earns them each an invitation to a banquet, where, as if by destiny, the two brothers finally meet.

Nobody, myself included, would’ve pegged Ben and Bobby as brothers. They couldn’t have looked more different Sunday morning when they met at Oshkosh’s ultralight field. Bobby wore frayed shorts, a wrinkled polo shirt, and a baseball cap. Ben dressed in a pressed and tightly tucked Air Force uniform with freshly polished boots.

Oshkosh is unique in that it’s one of the few places such diversity can co-exist so naturally. These two represent complete opposite worlds — or so it appeared.

Ben is one of the finest examples of USAF excellence, his posture perfect, muscles toned, and hair freshly trimmed. Bobby is what you’d expect of a college kid — one who summers in Alaska flying Super Cubs to and from glaciers, that is. Despite their differences, watching them was like watching two brothers meet for the first time.

At the age of 20, Bobby Breeden is the bush class champ of the Valdez STOL competition. He can take off and land a Super Cub in mere feet. In May, he won his third consecutive bush class championship with a 61-foot takeoff and 55-foot landing.

Ben Ayivorh, 25, is the dedicated crew chief for Thunderbird 5.

Both had fathers who took them flying before they could see over the panel. They had heard stories about Oshkosh, but this summer was their first time experiencing the celebration themselves. They also were both bringing two “firsts” to Oshkosh — Bobby coming to showcase STOL flying and Ben coming with the USAF Thunderbirds.


BOBBY

Bobby has flown a Super Cub to and from Alaska likely more times than anyone his age. He actually learned to fly on one of those trips.

“Dad put me in the front seat. I started (from Alaska) knowing only that the stick moved the ailerons, but by the time we arrived in Virginia, I knew how to fly,” Bobby said.

Bobby is now enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University studying unmanned aircraft systems, but still summers in Alaska where he explores remote areas accessible only to bush planes with big tires.

This summer he flew to Oshkosh in the same Super Cub he learned to fly in, a PA-18 his dad bought the year he was born. The aircraft wears Bobby’s birthday and initials as an N number.

Bobby brought a friend along for the four-day journey, who is a pilot because Bobby introduced him to aviation a few years ago. They flew 10 feet over the beach for a couple hundred miles, landed next to glaciers, then decided to follow “the trench” through Canada the rest of the way.

“The tailwinds looked good,” he said, which matter a great deal when your top cruise speed is 88 mph.

Thirty-four flight hours later, they arrived to Oshkosh and were cleared to land on Runway 36’s yellow dot. It was just a normal landing for Bobby, but those watching from the flightline gave him a standing ovation. His landing was so short he could’ve been cleared to land in the dot.

Bobby flew in the afternoon air show a couple days, but spent most of the week standing next to his Super Cub answering questions. He said he enjoyed showing “what normal people can do in a normal Super Cub.”

“I enjoy sharing what I do with others,” Bobby said, a characteristic he shares with Ben Ayivorh.


BEN

Staff Sgt. Ben Ayivorh flew to Oshkosh in the back of a C-17 Globemaster — the largest aircraft arriving to Oshkosh this summer.

As crew chief, Ben’s name is on the right side of Thunderbird 5, an F-16 that pulls -3/+9g’s and flies Mach 2+ (but stays under 0.92 Mach at air shows to avoid breaking the sound barrier). Ben takes pride in making sure his aircraft is prepped and ready for every flight.

He said the most common question asked of Thunderbirds is, “Are you a pilot?”

“The pilots get to say yes; the maintenance crew usually say no. My answer is a little different…Yes I’m a pilot, but no I’m not a Thunderbird pilot. I like to fly general aviation on the side,” he said. Ben flies a DA40 back home when he’s not traveling with the Thunderbirds. And most times, he has a friend in the right seat.

“The thing I enjoy most about flying is taking other people,” he said. “There is something really unique about having the freedom to go to the airport whenever you want, hop in the plane, and go and do whatever you want.”

When Ben stepped out of the C-17 and saw the full airfield for the first time, he had one word: “Wow!”

“There were literally 10 planes overhead; two planes landing side by side,” he said. “I knew this was going to be big — but, wow! And I was only seeing the north ramp.”

Before reporting for duty the next three mornings, Ben was up before dawn to explore and see Oshkosh. And since he likes to share his passion, each morning he brought fellow Thunderbird crew members with him.

“As a Thunderbird, nothing is more rewarding than showing people who we are, what we do,” he said. “Oshkosh was one of the most positive receptions we’ve had this year.” Walking around the grounds, Ben was regularly stopped and thanked by guests. Even when “off duty,” he never declined an autograph, conversation, or photo with a fan.

“I was among those who totally get me,” Ben said. “The community, it was like going home.”

Ben said he enjoyed introducing his fellow Thunderbirds to general aviation as well and said his colleagues were especially interested in the kit planes. “Since we work with our hands, seeing the homebuilt area was fascinating. It’s an entry point into aviation,” he said.

Ben said he expects he’ll likely be giving a few more introductory flights this year. “A place like Oshkosh gives you an itch,” he said. One of the Thunderbird pilots even commented about wanting his own aircraft after being at Oshkosh. “It’s that kind of atmosphere. It makes you want to get involved in some shape or form.”


SUNDAY MORNING

On the last day of the show Ben was on his morning tour of the grounds and found his way up to the ultralight field.

Bobby was hopping rides in his Super Cub and offered to take Ben and his teammate, Francisco, around the patch.

Francisco had never been in a small aircraft, so Ben offered to let him go first. Francisco was already halfway to the plane before Ben finished asking.

After a couple trips around the pattern, Francisco was pumping his fist with excitement from the back seat.

Ben flew next, and while they were up, a young fan came up to Francisco for an autograph. “Now that is flying,” Francisco said pointing to the Super Cub. “You can see everything up there. No matter what you fly, just fly,” he told the child.

Francisco now has flown in two tandem-seat aircraft — an F-16 and a Super Cub, and I couldn’t tell which he was more excited about.

Bobby said he could hear Ben laughing from the back seat after takeoff. Ben was shocked to see the airspeed indicator read zero while still comfortably making turns in the air. Landing with the brakes locked also had to have been a new experience for Ben.

“He’s obviously a much better pilot than I am,” Ben said. “You can tell he’s going places.”

Sometime during their flight, Ben and Bobby discovered they had grown up in neighboring counties in Virginia. They had flown out of the same airports as kids. Now 20 years later, they had come to Oshkosh to represent complete opposite ends of aviation.

Ben climbed into the Super Cub a stranger but climbed out a friend.

That afternoon Ben invited Bobby behind the scenes to watch the ground crew launch the F-16s for the afternoon show. For anybody who hasn’t seen a launch, the Thunderbird ground show is as impressive as their flying.

“I came to Oshkosh expecting to showcase a new side of flying for others, but I left inspired myself,” Bobby said. “My eyes were opened.”

Ben posted a photo to Instagram that included the hashtag #BobbyBreedenIsMyHero. That’s when I knew Oshkosh had accomplished what it does best — it brings people together. The fastest in awe of the slowest, and vice versa.

“Everyone comes to be a part of the family, everyone who has a love for aviation, all different kinds of aviation, all in one place,” Bobby said.

“I can’t think of a better place for this to happen — it’s where aviation comes together,” Ben added.

The way these two talk, you’d think they were brothers.


Brady Lane is a private pilot and multimedia journalist for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Article originally published in Sport Aviation magazine.

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