Man on a mission

The many successes of AOPA's third president

December 1, 2008

When AOPA President Phil Boyer headed to his office on the morning of September 11, 2001, little did he know that the organization he had spent 10 years crafting would play such a pivotal role in protecting the rights of general aviation pilots during a time of national crisis. Like a suit of armor, the parts of the organization honed and fine-tuned for a decade coalesced that day to protect GA from those seeking to ground it permanently or demanding severe restrictions indefinitely on flying.

From his first editorial in the January 1991 issue of AOPA Pilot, Boyer mapped out a plan to use technology: “satellites, cable TV, videotape, computers, interactive telephone—whatever it takes to converse with you more often.” In the dynamic days following the terrorists attacks in 2001, AOPA’s communications resources were stretched to the max—but not the breaking point—helping members understand what was happening in the national airspace system; assuring the media that GA was not a threat; and protecting flying from overzealous and reactionary forces in state, local, and federal agencies. Boyer’s support of technology in the form of GPS and moving maps—and, later ADS-B and WAAS—meant that GA was equipped to fly more precisely and with more awareness of new airspace restrictions. Finally, long-honed relationships at the highest levels of government were leveraged for information and influence.

The organization’s effectiveness in those tumultuous days didn’t happen by luck. Boyer has made such readiness a priority during his 18-year administration. In June of this year, he announced that he was ready to turn over the organization to a new leader so that he can “get my life back.” The AOPA Board of Trustees has chosen Craig Fuller to replace Boyer, effective January 1, 2009.

Boyer, who turns 68 in December, has no specific plans for his retirement, aside from catching up on the myriad personal projects put on hold while he devoted his life to AOPA over the past 18 years. However, you can bet that aviation will continue to play an important role for him—as it has since he learned to fly in the mid-1960s.

As with many AOPA members, Boyer was fascinated with airplanes as a child. At age 25 his fledgling broadcasting career took him to Sacramento, California, where he not only started a family but also attended Sacramento State University full-time while working full-time. Once he had graduated with a degree in communications, life slowed down enough that he found time to act on his passion for aviation. He maxed out his credit cards at a small flight school, learning to fly in a Cessna 150, earning his private pilot certificate in 1967.

To build time, he flew the station’s news crews all over the coverage area, allowing them to get a leg up on the competition. He also volunteered to fly the sister radio station’s Cessna Cardinal for traffic reports—in exchange for personal flight time. That free time allowed him to expose his young family to the benefits of general aviation travel.

His activism in organizing an Aviation Explorer post and serving as president of the Sacramento Valley Pilots Association would serve him well later at AOPA as he sought to understand methods to reach nonpilots and protect airports.

Boyer rose rapidly through the management ranks at several different TV stations, and he moved up in aircraft as well, becoming a part-owner of a Bonanza while heading the programming department at KNBC Burbank. He soon left the West Coast to become an ABC network executive, eventually serving a stint in the 1970s as head of WLS-TV, the ABC-owned station in Chicago.

He continued advancing up the ABC corporate ladder and moved to the network’s New York headquarters, managing the ABC flagship television station, WABC-TV. In 1981, Boyer bought a new Beech Baron and flew throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. And it was in the Baron that Boyer had what he considers one of his proudest aviation accomplishments. He was on an instrument flight from Chicago to downstate Illinois when a student pilot in a Cessna 172 became trapped above the clouds and was running low on fuel. Offering to help the student, Boyer’s search for a VFR hole was unsuccessful, but he found the cloud deck was the thinnest over Indiana, and there was about a 2,000-foot ceiling beneath it, right above a small airport. He led the student to the spot, briefed him on an instrument let-down through the clouds, and then watched him safely land. The airport was too small for the Baron, so Boyer continued on to his destination. The FAA awarded Boyer a letter of commendation.

By the late 1980s, he was in charge of ABC Video Enterprises’ new product development. And one of the new products he brought to market was “ABC’s Wide World of Flying,” a video magazine devoted to general aviation pilots and aviation enthusiasts. The mix of product reviews, flying tips, pilot profiles, and travel destinations drew a devoted audience. It introduced a new face to the aviation world—Boyer himself, who hosted each episode and sometimes demonstrated products.

And “ABC’s Wide World of Flying” foreshadowed a relationship that was destined to change the course of general aviation. For every edition of the video magazine included safety tips and other vital flying information from AOPA.

Boyer continued to rise in the ABC organization, becoming one of the corporation’s key executives. But despite the pressures and long work hours, he remained an active pilot and devoted to aviation. By 1988 he had traded in the Baron for a pressurized, twin-engine Cessna 340, which took Boyer and his wife, Lois, on what he considers his greatest aviation adventure—a flight across the Atlantic and a four-week flying tour of Europe. Of course, Boyer documented it all for the “Wide World of Flying” audience.

By the end of the 1980s, the legendary John Baker had decided to retire as AOPA president, and the AOPA Board of Trustees needed to find someone who could follow in the wake that the former fighter pilot had cut through Washington and the aviation industry. A search firm selected Boyer as the top candidate for AOPA president. Board members were skeptical; they didn’t believe that Boyer would even consider the job. The headhunter insisted that they push for a meeting.

Boyer wasn’t particularly interested, either. After all, he was a top network executive in New York, with a corner office one floor below the CEO’s. His executive status meant that he could possibly retire very comfortably from ABC in a few short years, with plenty of money to support his airplane habit. He almost didn’t make the trip to Philadelphia to meet with the AOPA trustees.

The trustees persisted. They convinced Boyer that he could make a difference in something he cared about passionately: flying. To the surprise of broadcasting colleagues, Boyer gave up the New York life and broadcasting career, and moved to Frederick, Maryland. He officially took the left seat of AOPA on January 1, 1991.

He stepped into the biggest problem confronting general aviation in more than a generation—product liability. GA aircraft production had plummeted 95 percent since 1978. Cessna had stopped building single-engine aircraft. Piper was in bankruptcy. Much of the blame was placed on frivolous lawsuits that were bleeding the GA industry dry. But the conventional wisdom was that tort reform really wasn’t AOPA’s issue; it was a battle the manufacturers had to fight.

However, rank-and-file AOPA members believed that product liability was destroying the activity that they cared about so passionately. They wanted something done, and they expected their association to do it. Boyer listened. That was to be one of the hallmarks of Boyer’s tenure at the head of AOPA: listening to the pilot members, and above all else, serving their needs.

“I can’t make the point often enough about how important members are to this association. And if anything, all I did was to translate as well as I could their concerns into actionable items for the organization. This pervades anything we do,” said Boyer.

Boyer listened to cries for help from AOPA members who could no longer get parts for older airplanes and who had virtually no new airplanes from which to choose. So, admittedly naïve about how things worked in Washington, he pushed forward, in the end partnering with manufacturers to spearhead an effort to write and facilitate the passage of reform legislation. The legislation, signed by President Clinton in August 1994—with Boyer looking on at the signing ceremony—granted GA manufacturers an 18-year statute of repose, stemming the tide of lawsuits against older, proven aircraft designs.

As a result of this pioneering tort reform legislation, Cessna reentered the piston aircraft market, Piper emerged from bankruptcy, and newcomers Cirrus and Columbia (nee Lancair) brought new-generation airplanes to pilots. None of it would have come about without AOPA clearly hearing member concerns and then encouraging members to contact legislators at critical times during the process.

Protecting airports is another issue near and dear to members. Here again, Boyer leaned on members for their input and support. “Pilots are passionate about their home airport,” he reminds. “Just let anyone try to close it, put a curfew on it, or do anything—and that came through loud and clear.” Too often, though, AOPA found out about airport issues too late to effectively react. To counter that, Boyer led an initiative that culminated in the creation of the AOPA Airport Support Network. Now, 12 years later, the association has volunteers at nearly 2,000 airports, acting as the local eyes and ears for airport issues. “The Airport Support Network was a bold move for us. There was no way we could keep track—even with the Internet emerging—of every little airport issue. It’s been wonderful to see it grow. It’s had its growing pains, but it’s a tremendous success. I would say as I leave, one of my greatest regrets is we haven’t met the challenge to the degree I wanted to.” But even for that, Boyer is ready to offer solutions to the new president going forward.

Funding costly initiatives such as the Airport Support Network, AOPA’s Airport Watch program designed to improve security at GA airports, the raging user fee battle, and many other projects in support of general aviation takes far more than the dues paid by members. In fact, the $39 dues have not increased at all during Boyer’s tenure. While the organization’s membership has soared under his leadership, climbing nearly 40 percent from 300,000 members in 1991 to more than 414,000 today, even those extra dollars are not enough to sustain the broad range of services and resources that AOPA offers. The membership growth occurred while the pilot population declined by nearly 15 percent. Today more than 70 percent of all U.S. pilots belong to AOPA.

To support the burgeoning member services, Boyer implemented a number of tactics to grow revenue without increasing dues. “We turned to non-dues revenue. An amazing amount of growth has occurred in this area since 1990. Remember, AOPA brought me in not because I was a great lobbyist, I’m a businessman,” he said. In fact, the association’s budgets have grown from $23.6 million to more than $54 million in the last 18 years. Under his leadership, the amount of advertising revenue has tripled. AOPA had no insurance program when Boyer arrived. Rather than endorse a product line, as associations typically do, AOPA founded an aircraft insurance brokerage with a partner. The brokerage has grown to be the largest of its kind, returning revenue to the association as well as building equity for the future.

Other important sources of non-dues revenues include the AOPA Legal Services Plan and the affinity credit card program with Bank of America. Operating more efficiently has also reduced costs. For example, the automatic annual renewal program, where members provide their credit card numbers to AOPA, saves the association many dollars and assures a continuing stream of revenue.

As president of AOPA, Boyer is head of a multifaceted organization. He is in charge not of just the membership organization most think of, but also the AOPA Political Action Committee, the AOPA Foundation fundraising organization, the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations, and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

In keeping with his original promise to keep an open dialogue with the membership, Boyer has invested heavily in communications. In addition to the award-winning AOPA Pilot magazine, which is now the largest aviation magazine in the world, the association purchased AOPA Flight Training magazine in 1998 to support Boyer’s vision of stemming the decline in the pilot population by providing students and flight instructors with quality information. The purchase of Flight Training is really the cornerstone of Boyer’s longstanding commitment to student pilots. As early as 1993 he began work on the idea of using AOPA’s membership of active pilots to mentor prospective pilots. The resulting Project Pilot program, launched in 1994, has helped thousands of pilots navigate the challenging path to a certificate. Knowing AOPA couldn’t change the industry all alone, he led a campaign to engage aviation companies to participate in a coalition to increase the number of student starts and to help students be more successful in completing their training. The result was the Team 2000 project that later became Be-A-Pilot. Last month AOPA launched the next chapter—the Let’s Go Flying initiative to help educate the public about the benefits of GA.

To allow members 24/7 access to AOPA resources and information, the association launched AOPA Online in 1995, which has become the largest aviation Web site. In October 1999, AOPA ePilot debuted, providing members with a weekly e-mail newsletter conveying the association’s advocacy positions and industry news. A Flight Training edition of the newsletter soon followed.

All of these communications investments have paid huge dividends in everyday communications and especially in times of crisis. When John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his Piper Saratoga, not only did the media rely on expert and calm commentary from Boyer, but they also turned to AOPA’s Web site for factual information about the GA safety record. When terrorists used airliners to attack Washington and New York City, all of aviation and much of the media swamped AOPA’s online resources looking for clarity. Even the FAA referred to AOPA’s site for the latest information.

As he wraps up his term as only the third president in AOPA’s 70-year history, Boyer can look back proudly on the organization’s many achievements and strong growth. Almost any pilot would agree that without Boyer’s leadership at AOPA, general aviation as we know it might not exist at all. And for that, every one of us who enjoys the freedom of flight available only in this country should be grateful to Boyer for his service and unwavering determination to improve general aviation.

Warren Morningstar, AOPA director of communications, contributed to this report.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

To our members,

In 1991 there were approximately 700,000 pilots in the United States, avgas cost less than $2 per gallon, and, with 300,000 members, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association looked to be in a pretty good place.

Flash-forward to 2008. Almost 18 years have gone by since Phil Boyer left a bright career at ABC/Cap Cities to take the controls of AOPA. During those 18 years so much has happened—an attack on our homeland greater than Pearl Harbor, a grounded GA fleet, an energy crisis that left avgas at $6 per gallon, and an ever-shrinking pilot population, now at fewer than 600,000. Add a federal government bent on instituting costly user fees, throw in a credit crisis, a national anti-general aviation campaign by the airlines, and tragic aircraft accidents including those of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Cory Lidle—the list goes on, but the challenges are clear. One would expect these sorts of events to constrain most organizations.

Not for Phil Boyer and AOPA. His legacy includes 415,000 members, product liability reform, FSS reform, and saving airports from coast to coast. He created The AOPA Foundation, the Airport Support Network, the award-winning Air Safety Foundation online safety courses, Airport Watch, and many, many more initiatives.

When it comes to leadership, Phil Boyer defines it. In the private sector, market conditions like these would have caused excuses at best, bankruptcy at worst. Phil Boyer provided the members with a return rivaling the best in corporate America. Phil works harder and smarter than anyone I have ever known. He is passionate about GA. He has won the admiration of so many including the aviation industry as a whole, all who live and breathe GA, our members, and this board. He has won the admiration of AOPA’s employees and the respect of government officials at all levels. There are few words that can adequately describe Phil Boyer; I choose “superb.”

Piloting AOPA is like flying a taildragger on a gusty day—you simply cannot stop flying until the wings are tied down and the wheels are chocked. Phil Boyer, thank you for this magnificent flight; as your passengers and controllers, we have watched in awe as you flew with style, skill, and grace. The mission was fraught with violent weather, enemy fire, mechanical difficulties, and uncharted territory. As you enter the base to final, the sky is VFR and you have left plenty of fuel in the tanks. We now clear you for landing—you deserve it. If you look down you can see another pilot suiting up, ready to jump aboard; he has your trusted team at his side, ready to hold the wings while you climb out, for there is no time to tie the airplane down. Thank you, thank you, Phil Boyer, you are one of a kind.

On behalf of the AOPA Board of Trustees,

Bill Trimble, Chairman