Local pilot receives Wright Brothers Award

Al Roggen with his decoration of 50 years of flight

Caledonia, NY – If we could rewind to August 21, 1966, we would have seen Caledonia resident Al Roggen complete his first solo flight after six hours of training at Bickford Airfield, now called LeRoy Airport. 

The Wright Brothers Award is the Federal Aviation Administration’s highest award given to a civilian.  The FAA is the governing body of all aircraft in the United States. The Wright Brothers Award is very prestigious and is earned by exhibiting professionalism, skill, and aviation expertise for at least
50 years while piloting aircraft. Al Roggen officially received this award in November 2017.

The Director of the Rochester Flight Services District Office presents Al Roggen with the Wright Brothers Award

Roggen was first bitten by the aviation bug when he and his new bride Patricia took a ride on their honeymoon in Pennsylvania in 1953. Roggen says he has always had an interest in flying since he was a boy. He listened to them on their radio’s, calculated how high they were when flying over their home and of course building those balsa toy gliders that “never quite flew just right” says Roggen. 

In 1953 he had just graduated from the University of Rochester and was about to be drafted for the Korean War. He thought the air force would be a good fit for him, but a treaty had been drawn and they no longer needed pilots. He ended up in the infantry of the US Army.

He and his wife started a family in Caledonia and had been hired by the Eastman Kodak Company as a Senior Quality Assurance Engineer for the Government Systems Division until he retired in 1997. Roggen noted that when he first started working and growing a family, money is usually tight. He convinced his wife that he would only take lessons until he could solo. After that, he flew for an additional 45 hours over the next two years as time and money allowed to get his “ticket”. A “ticket” is pilot speak for your license. 

Al Roggen and his wife Patricia at the FAA in Rochester

Roggen says he couldn’t stop there. He needed and wanted to continue his education in flying and went on to earn his commercial, instrument, instructor, instrument instructor, multiengine, Civil Air Patrol check pilot, and float plane ratings. 

In 1978 he joined the Airdale Flying Club that owned three aircraft and had about 40 members until it collapsed. Roggen was the club’s primary instructor for more than 30 years. His first student was Lester Foley, who later became the president of the club became fast friends. Together they owned several aircraft until Foley was forced to retire from flying due to medical conditions. 

Roggen was also a flight instructor and good friend to Bill Law who owned a flight school out of Rochester until Law’s untimely death in a plane crash. 

On July 31, 1973, Roggen and four other pilots took a mission to fly five brand new Cessna 150’s back from North Carolina. They flew mostly at night and stopped for fuel in Philidelphia. When they arrived in LeRoy, it was raining, and only three runway lights in working order and Roggen had only 103 hours logged!

The largest airshow in the world occurs each summer in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual event at Wittman Field. That air traffic control tower is the busiest in the world for ten days. Roggen has made a dozen flights to this mecca of aviation, the last time being in 2016. 

Roggen has flown internationally (to see his daughter in Canada), flown 32 different makes and models of aircraft and now has over 3600 hours of flight time logged in his book. His longest flight was from southern Florida back to Western New York. He has had a few mishaps over the years including landing with a flat tire, a single sided brake failure, and an engine valve problem. He tells these stories as if they were no big deal. Roggen says that what training is for. Training for the worst is the best thing you can do so as not to panic. 

Roggen now owns two aircraft; a 1952 Piper Tripacer and a 1950 Navion. When asked about what he sees in the future of general aviation he responded that he hopes and thinks it will grow, although there are several caveats to this thought. It is more and more difficult to enter aviation. There are more avionic advances which make flying safer, but these are expensive and technically complex. Even sport flying is expensive. The number of pilots is way down and the number of new student starts is way down. There is an effort by the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Aircraft Owners Association, the Civil Air Patrol, and others, to interest young people in aviation.

At 84, Roggen has no plans to give up aviation or instructing. He says he has no favorite moment in flying, although receiving this award is the “highlight of my 50+ years of flying”. Like any good pilot, he could go on and on in “hangar flying” – telling stories. Always learning and teaching. 

Although Roggen is a humble man, he was delighted to accept this award. On the way into the FAA building at the Rochester Airport, one of his daughters and son in law asked if they will do a flyover for him. His reply was “of course, there will
be a jet fighter fly by afterward”. The timing was impeccable As they left the FAA a military jet screamed overhead and swung around to land on runway 22 putting the icing on the cake for this incredible aviator.