February 20, 2015

Catholic Aviation Association seeks to build, evangelize world of aviation

Tom Beckenbauer, middle, discusses the model plane built by Spencer Leonard, holding the model, during a Catholic Aviation Association Cupertino Club meeting at St. Theodore Guérin High School in Noblesville, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese on Nov. 6, 2014. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Tom Beckenbauer, middle, discusses the model plane built by Spencer Leonard, holding the model, during a Catholic Aviation Association Cupertino Club meeting at St. Theodore Guérin High School in Noblesville, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese on Nov. 6, 2014. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

NOBLESVILLE, IND.—In the dark of night over the sea, the F-4 fighter jet was having problems.

“We didn’t know if we could get the aircraft back to the carrier,” recalled Thomas “Wulf” Beckenbauer, who was riding in the backseat as the radio intercept officer.

“The pilot called back to me, ‘OK, Wulf, you need to start praying for us because I’m having a lot of trouble up here.’

“So I’m in the back praying for him to have the wisdom and the skill to land. We finally landed, and he said, ‘OK, God, I can take it from here.’

“We knew it was only by God’s grace that we were able to get back and land.”

Faith and aviation have formed the fabric of most of Tom Beckenbauer’s life.

He and his wife, Joy, now hope to evangelize and build the aviation community through their recently launched non-profit, Catholic Aviation Association (CAA).

The chapter-based organization, which holds an Indianapolis address, provides a way for those interested in learning to fly to do so in a more economical way. (Related: Public is invited to CAA meeting on Feb. 28 at Lions Club in Carmel)

But unlike other aviation-based organizations, CAA includes a faith focus, encouraging members to grow closer to God and live Christ-centered lives.

For Beckenbauer, the organization is the latest chapter in a life that he calls “a very wandering trail.” The journey eventually led him to his wife, his Catholic faith, and the creation of CAA.

‘To find the truth’

Tom, a member of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Westfield, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese, admits he wasn’t always faith-filled.

“But once I decided to turn my life over to God and make him my number one priority, I went in search of the best way to do that, to find the truth,” he says.

His search for the truth led to an unexpected destination—marriage.

While taking a class on the Old Testament at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1990, he struck up a conversation with Joy, the assistant director of admissions.

“It started out with just casual conversations, but I could soon tell this was a woman who loved God and was committed to his will,” Tom recalls.

As for Joy, the reaction was more immediate.

“I knew from the minute I saw him that God had a place for him in my life,” she says.

Tom and Joy married in 1992.

Beckenbauer retired from the Navy in 1995 at the level of commanding officer. He taught and worked with the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) at a high school in California, then worked for 10 years as flight operations manager for Federal Express.

Meanwhile, he and Joy continued searching for “the truth” of God.

One night, at a time when the Beckenbauers were members of the Episcopal church, Joy happened to watch “The Journey Home” on the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network.

“They happened to have an Episcopal priest talking about his journey to the Catholic faith,” she said.

“I sat up in bed and said, ‘Oh, no, Lord! You’re not calling us to be Catholic, are you?’ ”

Several years later, in 2005, the Beckenbauers were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

By this time, the couple had moved to Indianapolis for Tom’s job with Federal Express. He was given the task of laying off an entire division—then was laid off himself.

“I basically came to Indianapolis to put myself out of a job,” says Tom, who was 59 at the time.

He started praying about his next step in life, and his desire to combine his faith life with his love for aviation.

‘Faith, Flying and Fellowship’

“I had two things going on in my mind,” Tom recalls. “One is, I’d like to do a career in flying, and the second is I want to teach young people, because I had experience teaching the ROTC program.

“I was praying in the adoration chapel. I looked up, and I saw an airplane go by, and I heard the Lord say, ‘Well why don’t you do both? Use aviation to teach people about life and life’s lessons.’

“That was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me.”

The idea made even more sense to Tom as he considered a troublesome trend in aviation.

“It’s gotten so expensive to fly,” he explains. “And the pilot population ... is all hitting retirement.

“So there’s a huge shortage of pilots and not enough young people getting into it. If you go to college to get a degree in aviation, you’ll spend $100,000—that’s just to fly. Then there’s another $50,000 for your education.

“So you’ve got significant debt. The way the airline pay structure is, it’s just not really possible to support yourself and a family.”

The solution, says Tom, is to make learning how to fly more economical.

The structure he and Joy developed for Catholic Aviation Association involves chapters and flying clubs comprising people experienced or interested in aviation.

“The leadership, headquarters, clubs and chapters will be Catholic, that’s a requirement,” Tom says. “However, it’s open to all people of faith.”

The goal of the chapters is for members to support each other spiritually through prayer and faith discussions at each meeting, grow in faith and aviation knowledge, and participate in social activities—fulfilling CAA’s motto of “Faith, Flying and Fellowship.”

“Out of those chapters, we hope to get people who want to develop flying clubs—let’s get an airplane and let’s fly,” says Tom.

He envisions CAA headquarters purchasing planes and leasing them to these “Cupertino Clubs,” named for St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was known for levitating while in prayer or at Mass.

‘Connections between flying and God’

The first Cupertino Club started last fall at St. Theodore Guérin High School in Noblesville, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

Once a week, 17 students gather for prayer and to learn about flying—and its correlation to faith—from Tom and other CAA leaders.

There are a number of such lessons he hopes to impress upon the students.

“You’ve got natural law that affects how you fly an airplane; you’ve got God’s law that affects how you live your life,” Tom explains.

Federal Aviation Association (FAA) regulations must be abided by for safety reasons. Likewise, he says, “If you get outside of God’s guidelines and laws, including the magisterium and catechism, you can make bad choices that hurt your life.”

Just as the FAA is the authority in the world of aviation, he continues, so God should be the authority in the lives of Christians.

And just as any good pilot goes through a checklist before taking flight, so should each Christian begin their day in prayer. The CAA website, www.catholicaviation.org, offers prayer resources, including “Daily Pre-flight” and “Daily Post-flight” checklists.

Tom, Joy and other members involved in starting up the Catholic Aviation Association also seek to teach the Cupertino Club youths.

At each weekly meeting, the students learn about various aspects of aviation. They recently practiced with remote controlled planes. By late spring, Tom hopes to provide glider flight instruction for the students.

“A glider is a great way to learn to fly because you learn all the basics” without having the other components of engine-propelled craft, says Tom.

Matt Farrell, a freshman at Guérin High School and a member of the school’s Cupertino Club, learned about gliders last summer at a two-day camp that Tom led.

“That was my first time in a glider ever,” says Matt. “It was really cool seeing the world from a bird’s eye view. I liked the thrill of it.”

He has enjoyed the weekly club meetings, and not just from an aviation point of view.

“I like the Catholic aspect, too,” he says. “It’s neat seeing connections between flying and God.”

The Cupertino Club started at the right time and place for Brigid Clarey, also a freshman at the school.

“I had an interest in being a pilot, so when I heard about this club, I wanted to join,” she says, paging through an Aviation for Women magazine during one of the club’s sessions.

Guérin High School sophomore Spencer Leonard has his eye on the engineering side of aviation.

“I really like aircraft. That’s my glider up there,” he says, pointing to a model hanging from the ceiling of the physics classroom where the Cupertino Club meets. “I like the idea of engineering. There are a lot of connections between aviation and engineering.”

Michael Green, whose son is a member of the club, is a maintenance test pilot for United Airlines.

“I think [CAA] is great,” he says. “I think it’s beautiful that these kids can integrate faith and a career, their vocation, and ask our Lord, ‘Is this what you want me to do?’ ”

‘A journey of discovery’

With their first chapter and Cupertino Club in place, Catholic Aviation Association is looking to expand—a lot.

“The vision I had for [CAA] was so big it scared Tom for a while,” admits Joy, who has extensive computer and organizational experience. “My thought was to go international with this eventually.”

She says running the organization has become almost a full-time job for her and Tom. So to accomplish their goal of expanding and eventually purchasing planes for Cupertino clubs to rent, they are launching a “3-3-3” campaign.

“We’re trying to raise $3,000 to help the Guerin Cupertino Club effort,” Tom explains. “We’re looking to get $30,000 to hire a part-time assistant and support six month’s of headquarter operations [which include administration, accounting, training, safety oversight and more], and another $300,000 to cover another year of operating costs and establish the first Cupertino club with an airplane.”

With a plane to lease to flying clubs, says Tom, CAA will be better able to keep existing pilots flying, bring young people into aviation and rebuild the pilot population.

As CAA literature notes, this allows for “affordable flying [while] affirming values.”

The launching of Catholic Aviation Association has been a nine-year journey.

“CAA is a lot of little strands that God has only revealed to us over time as internal spiritual development was happening in me and Joy,” says Tom.

He likens the journey to a lesson he’s learned through flying.

“In aviation, you’re always making different trips,” he says. “We’re on a journey of discovery.”

(For more information on Catholic Aviation Association, including how to start a chapter, Cupertino Club or to make a donation, log on to www.catholicaviation.org.)

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