Interests connect for volunteer at Wisc. air show

A photographer from Columbia also offers Internet access to the event’s attendees.
Sunday, August 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:33 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

Of more than 4,500 volunteers running the country’s biggest air show this weekend, one Columbia man is doing double duty during what he considers a vacation.

Greg Heifner is filling two roles when he travels to Experimental Aircraft Association’s Airventure Oshkosh in Wisconsin. He volunteers as a staff photographer for the EAA and supplies primary Internet connections for the association and a flight management software company.

The duties reflect his dual professions.

“The first half of my life was photography and the second half has been satellite communication,” Heifner said. “So this is like a vacation for me. I bring my family and everyone helps out and has a good time.”

Heifner became interested in photography when he was a yearbook photographer in high school. While attending MU, Heifner began working for the university as a photographer and video producer.

From 1980 through 1984, Heifner was a freelance commercial magazine photographer. His advertising photos appeared in magazines such as High Fidelity, Playboy, People and others. In 2000, Heifner decided to put his photography experience to good use when he visited Oshkosh, Wisc.

“About five years ago, I decided if I was going to keep coming, I needed to volunteer, so I became a photographer for the show,” Heifner said.

Heifner said his favorite time to take pictures at Oshkosh is when the pilots are preparing for their demonstrations in the pit before the air shows.

“I love the shots in those unguarded moments,” he said. “The pictures are not so sterile, and you see the pilots really concentrate, kind of get their head on straight. It’s almost like a ballet when they rehearse every part of their performance in their mind before they go out in front of the audience.”

Heifner became one of the first 12 people in the country to build an earth station for satellite communication in 1980. In 1984, his interest in the field led him to start his own company, Heifner Communications.

The company delivered entertainment programming to large organizations and companies, including hotels, military bases schools and university campuses, he said.

Heifner sold his company in 1999 — at the peak of the Internet boom — and started Orbital Data Network, a similar company that specializes in high-speed data communication.

Now Heifner is trying to build a bigger client base, and he says he is accomplishing this at Oshkosh. Three years ago, Heifner noticed many attendees unsuccessfully trying to set up an Internet connection. He offered Orbital Data Network’s services to the manager of Oshkosh, and now Heifner provides air show attendees with high-speed connections.

“It’s amazing how people seem to go rabid if they don’t have access to their e-mail,” he said. “For those who are from out of the country, it makes a lot more sense to communicate by e-mail then make a $10 phone call.”

Heifner’s satellite communication services are available in the EAA Member Village. He also provides connections for Jeppesen, the flight-management software firm.

Brenda Brady, who is manager of member programs for the EAA, said Heifner’s presence at Oshkosh has given the association more opportunities to satisfy its members.

“He’s fantastic,” Brady said. “He cares about the members and really helped us bring along our membership tent. Because our members are using the Internet so much, we’re able to offer our members better services.”

Don Miles, a professor emeritus of biology at MU, has known Heifner for more than 25 years. The two travel to Oshkosh together regularly, sharing a passion for aviation.

“People come to the show for the airplanes, but they have a need to check their e-mails, too,” Miles said. “They check their planes, then they check their e-mails. By contributing his services, Greg has done something great for the show.”

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