July 18, 2001
New Jersey student pilot Robbert van der Bijl ( AOPA 3706945) became AOPA's "Five Million Dollar Man" in March when his AOPA Visa statement included the five millionth dollar returned to AOPA members as part of the AOPA 5% FBO Rebate program.
"I've only been an AOPA member for nine months, but in just 20-some flight hours I've saved more than twice my $39 membership," exclaimed the 27-year-old software engineer from Bridgewater, New Jersey, who is learning to fly at Millstone Valley Flight School on the Central Jersey Regional Airport. "What's not to love?"
The $5 million AOPA 5% FBO Rebate milestone was reached as part of a $7.38 credit on van der Bijl's March AOPA Visa statement. The rebate was for flying lessons taken in February.
AOPA and partner MBNA America Bank launched the AOPA FBO Rebate program in August 1997. It returns a 5-percent credit on any purchase (up to $5,000 per year) made with an AOPA Mastercard or Visa at any FBO that sells fuel or rents aircraft and is listed in AOPA's Airport Directory. Rebates come solely from MBNA, with no contribution from AOPA membership dues, AOPA, or the FBO.
Nearly 130,000 AOPA members now carry an AOPA Mastercard or Visa.
At a July 8 photo opportunity celebrating the milestone, van der Bijl was presented with a plush AOPA-logo sweater and a tote bag filled with AOPA logo items, including a T-shirt, pen, coffee mug, and airplane windshield Sun Tamers. He posed for photos in front of the well-kept Cessna 172 in which he has been taking his flight training and told attendees that he'd been dreaming of being a pilot since he was just 10 years old.
Van der Bijl's fascination with aviation started in his native Netherlands, when his father brought home one of the earliest versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. He spent hours practicing simulated takeoffs and landings and dreamed of climbing behind the yoke of a real airplane. "I always figured, some day, maybe," he said. "But in the Netherlands, it just costs too much."
"A flight lesson that is about $100 here is the equivalent of maybe $200 or $300 in the Netherlands," he said. "And unlike here, there really isn't any uncontrolled airspace to learn in. Outside the U.S., learning to fly is just for the rich and famous." He added that it wasn't until he emigrated to the United States in early 2000 to be with his longtime American fiancée, Michelle Kagel, that his life-long dream became possible, thanks in part to economic advocacy by AOPA that has kept in check excessive government regulation and costs of GA flying in the United States.
Not long after van der Bijl moved here, he and Michelle were enjoying a drive in the country when they passed Central Jersey Airport. In front of the airport was a green-and-white "Learn To Fly Here" sign, one of 1,600 that were sent free to flight schools by AOPA and Sporty's Pilot Shop as part of the industry-wide Be A Pilot program in 1998. (The two are distributing an additional 2,000 signs this year.)
"Maybe we should get some information," he told Michelle. A persuasive flight instructor at Millstone Valley Flight School offered van der Bijl the inexpensive Be A Pilot first flight, and the new student pilot was hooked. Michelle, less than enthusiastic, nonetheless told him "well, you gotta do what you gotta do."
He joined AOPA on the advice of his first flight instructor, who pointed out the association's advocacy for general aviation pilots, intensive efforts to save small airports such as the embattled Central Jersey Regional at which van der Bijl is learning to fly, AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training magazines, and—of course—the 5% FBO Rebate program.
By June 2001, van der Bijl had logged just over 20 hours, many with CFI Karen Kaplan, whom he called "the greatest CFI I've ever known," and was about ready to solo. He was on a business trip, however, when an MBNA representative called to tell him of his status as AOPA's "Five Million Dollar Man."
Michelle took the call but was a little hazy on the details, so she asked the caller to leave a voice-mail message. When van der Bijl checked in that evening, Michelle somewhat uncertainly told him of the call. "It was the credit card company," she told the incredulous student pilot. "Something about you and $5 million dollars."
"I wish I had won $5 million," he laughed. "That would have really helped our honeymoon." The student pilot and his fiancée were wed on July 14 in New Jersey.
"In most of the rest of the world, it's nearly impossible for a man or woman of ordinary means to learn to fly," he said. "In many ways, it's thanks to AOPA that I can now pursue my dreams. The AOPA 5% FBO Rebate program is the main reason I joined, but having all the other resources—the magazines, Web information, toll-free Pilot Information Center, pilot-friendly insurance—is almost worth $5 million!"
AOPA, founded in 1939, through the years has turned back costly and unnecessary government regulation and airline industry proposals that would have banned light aircraft from airline-served airports and limited personal aviation to the wealthy, as is the case in most other countries of the world today.
Now the largest and most influential aviation organization in the world with some 370,000 members, AOPA's sights remain firmly on the future—and the technology, regulation, and promotion that will guarantee general aviation's future growth and stability. But its aims remain the same as those announced in 1939: "To make flying more useful, less expensive, safer, and more fun."
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