Petaluma resident wins surprise airplane giveaway

Petaluma resident Alex Browne was shocked to discover that his interview with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) on July 15 was a ruse to surprise him with a new airplane — the AOPA Sweepstakes Grumman Tiger.

When Browne headed to the Petaluma Airport to meet the AOPA, he believed it was for an interview about back-country flying and about his finishing a five-year restoration of his first airplane.

“I finished it just last year and put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it,” Browne said. “So when they called and said they’d heard the story about my plane, it was very believable in my mind.”

In preparation, he spent several days cleaning his hangar and aircraft for the interview, excited to show off his hard work.

“I don’t know how to describe the kind of whiplash effect of, ‘Wait, I thought we were doing an article? There’s no article, but I won a plane? This is amazing.’”

AOPA President Mark Baker delivered the news himself. Minutes into the “interview,” Baker appeared holding an aluminum panel with the plane’s registration number.

“I guess you could say I’m a fan of his, and all he has done for aviation,” Browne said. “So to see him in Petaluma, in front of my plane, carrying a sign indicating, ‘You won!’ It was very surreal and I’m still speechless.”

The 33-year-old pilot began flying at age 15, joined the AOPA at 16 and was licensed at 17. He describes flying as a third dimension that adds a whole different element to travel and the way you see things.

“[It’s] an adventure to go somewhere and see small airports and communities you might not get to appreciate if you were on the I-5, the 101 or any highway,” he said. Browne said he enjoys flying to Santa Barbara, his hometown, which is where he learned to fly.

“[AOPA] is just a really great organization. They’re kind of on the forefront of being the most powerful advocate for pilots and general aviation,” Browne said. “So I’ve been a huge supporter of theirs and an avid member.”

The Petaluma pilot has kept up with the sweepstakes in the past but never thought he’d be lucky enough to win.

“I’m in a position where I currently have an aircraft and I see this as an opportunity to potentially give back to the aviation community,” Browne said. “If anyone is interested in aviation there’s a great non-profit based in Petaluma called Petaluma Area Pilots Association (PAPA).”

His goal is to get more people into aviation and he sees a possible partnership with PAPA in the future. Teaching aviation is likely on the horizon for Browne too, as he has two interested parties, his wife and father-in-law.

The Petaluma Airport Commissioner, Tom McGaw, was also there to witness the surprise on July 15. McGaw was excited to see yet another AOPA sweepstakes win in the area, recalling back to 2006 when a Novato resident, Coast Guard Cmdr. Rocky S. Lee, won an aircraft.

Browne headed to the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in convention in Oshkosh, WI Tuesday night, where he’ll be publicly awarded with the Grumman Tiger. According to McGaw, around 50,000 pilots attend the event.

Browne’s new airplane will be displayed next month at the Petaluma Airport Display Day. The event is hosted and sponsored by PAPA, the non-profit organization that also works with young adults interested in aviation, by awarding scholarships and offering support.

The 33-year-old pilot is grateful for the win, for the AOPA and for all they do.

“I have a close bond with my [Cessna 185 Skywagon],” Browne said. “But I’m really looking forward to being able to get behind the controls of the Grumman and see all the upgrades they’ve done.”

Emma Molloy is an intern for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at

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