AOPA's Big Idea

How the number one aviation magazine was born

March 1, 2008

Although AOPA Pilot’s first issue may have come out in March 1958, it’s informative and entertaining to look at the history behind the decision to make the magazine a standalone, independent publication. That decision, made in the closing months of 1956, was a long time coming.

Early days

Ever since its founding days in 1939, AOPA had a monthly publication. But back then the association was small, underfunded, and competing with a number of other pilot associations. It couldn’t finance a magazine startup on its own; it needed to strike up an agreement with a large-circulation publisher. So a deal was struck in March 1939 between AOPA’s founders—Laurence P. and Philip T. Sharples, C. Townsend Ludington, Alfred L. Wolf, and J. Story Smith—and The Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. At the time, Ziff-Davis published Popular Aviation—the most successful of the many aviation publications of the day. Ziff-Davis loaned AOPA $500, then $1,000 in monthly cash payments for the purpose of building AOPA’s membership base. It also gave AOPA a few pages of free editorial space in each issue of Popular Aviation, a page of free advertising per month, and even threw in editorial assistance and office space at Ziff’s Chicago headquarters. Once AOPA got on a better financial footing, it would pay a minimal fee to continue publishing in the magazine. What a deal!

In return, AOPA made Popular Aviation its official publication, and agreed to repay the loans. Oh, and the association had to obtain 2,500 members by the end of 1939. Which it did.

Thus was born AOPA’s first efforts at magazine work. “AOPA News” first appeared in the September 1939 issue of Popular Aviation, and then was expanded to a four-page insert called the “AOPA Section” in November 1939. By March 1940 this grew to nine pages, and included full-page photographs by renowned aviation photographer Hans Groenhoff. Gill Robb Wilson—AOPA’s first member—who was then the director of New Jersey’s state aeronautics commission wrote “AOPA News.” AOPA’s first employee, Joseph B. “Doc” Hartranft, wrote the “AOPA Section,” with Wilson serving as editorial director.

Post-war expansion

By the end of World War II, AOPA’s success was evident. In 1946 membership was 20,000 and climbing—this was twice the pre-war level. Ziff-Davis’ fortunes were also looking good, as its page count climbed on the popularity of stories featuring military aircraft. In August 1940, Popular Aviation was changed to Flying and Popular Aviation; in January 1943 its name was changed to Flying, the name it retains to this day.

AOPA’s editorial representation in Flying grew as well. In April 1943 the last “AOPA Section” was run, and was replaced in May with “The AOPA Pilot.” This was the first use of the title.

“The AOPA Pilot” featured a number of safety campaigns in its editorial content. One of the most extensive was a 1946 series on low-altitude stalls and spins caused by buzzing (sound familiar?), which included entire pages devoted to photos of crashed airplanes. In the 1947 editions of “The AOPA Pilot” the association argued for mandatory shoulder harnesses—a rarity in those days. There were also articles that could be considered the forerunners of today’s Malfunction and Defect Reports. After AOPA formed a marketing agreement with Safe Flight Instrument Corp., “The AOPA Pilot” promoted the installation of Safe Flight’s new stall warning indicator—and sold it to members at a discounted price of $37.50.

A sea change

By 1948, it was clear that AOPA was on a roll. Membership hit the 50,000 mark and kept rising, which meant that more and more issues of Flying had to carry “The AOPA Pilot,” that each of those issues had to bear the special AOPA cover stamp, and that those issues had to be mailed to a separate list consisting only of AOPA members. And all the while, the size of “The AOPA Pilot” in Flying kept increasing. To Ziff-Davis, this additional overhead must have been burdensome.

Meanwhile, to keep up with the extra editorial duties, Hartranft hired the colorful and outspoken Max Karant to be both editorial director of “The AOPA Pilot” and AOPA’s assistant general manager. Previously, Karant was Flying’s managing editor. In a musical chairs move, Wilson then left AOPA to become Flying’s new editor in chief. By all these developments described so far, it’s easy to see how Flying, AOPA, and “The AOPA Pilot” were intertwined in both business and interpersonal relationships.

According to what little remains of AOPA’s historical records, these relationships were to become tense. An encapsulated summary of the issues leading to AOPA’s decision to self-publish The AOPA Pilot appears in an August 28, 1956, memorandum of a meeting between Ziff-Davis’ Benjamin G. Davis and AOPA’s Charles P. Miller (who would soon serve as The AOPA Pilot’s managing editor.) At this time discussion centered on the 10-year publishing contract between Ziff-Davis and “The AOPA Pilot,” which was up for renewal in October 1957. Both parties said they wanted to continue the business arrangement, but the memo makes it clear that their interests were diverging.

Miller recounts Davis as saying that Flying was facing a postal rate increase, and that increases in the cost of producing the magazine meant that any increase in the size of “The AOPA Pilot” was “definitely out unless we [AOPA] would bear the cost.” Moreover, Davis said that AOPA was “at the end of the period where they could expect a ‘bargain’ rate for their magazine.” Rather, Davis argued, AOPA should pay more for Ziff-Davis to publish “The AOPA Pilot.” To keep up with costs, Davis said that AOPA should increase the cost of membership, establish new, non-pilot classes of membership, and end AOPA’s free services to members.

For its part, AOPA wanted to sell its own advertising, something that Ziff-Davis definitely didn’t favor one bit. In the memo, Miller recalls Davis saying, “The only commercial value to the Ziff-Davis organization, which our relationship held, was that of advertising.” Then Miller quotes Davis as making a comment suggesting that the idea of AOPA’s breaking away had already come up in earlier conversations. “If advertisers who run ads in Flying magazine were able to reach the AOPA membership in any other manner except through Flying, i.e., through publications of our [AOPA’s] own, it would completely nullify the advertising advantage that Ziff-Davis has,” Davis reportedly said. “And there would be absolutely no value in continuation of the AOPA-Ziff-Davis affiliation.” Davis went on to say that he wouldn’t have “any great trouble in maintaining subscriptions among pilots by going directly to AOPA members and getting the full subscription rate.”

Davis also reportedly said that, “AOPA would never attempt to publish their own magazine if they were in their right mind.”

After this meeting, AOPA leaders made up their minds. There would be no more arrangement with Ziff-Davis. The 17-year relationship that helped found and fund AOPA, solicit its first members, and give voice to the association, was over. AOPA would publish its own version of The AOPA Pilot, and do it with production values, a format, and an editorial style that would put it in direct competition with its former business partner—which stood to suddenly lose 63,000 AOPA subscriber-members.

The new AOPA Pilot

Now the ball was in AOPA’s court, and decisions had to be made—quickly. Hartranft (by then AOPA’s first president), Karant, and Miller planned to put out the first issue of The AOPA Pilot (the magazine used the title The AOPA Pilot until 1979) in November 1957. A printer had to be selected, staff hired, story lineups decided, advertising representatives commissioned, advertising rates set, and production values determined.

Initially, the idea was to put out a 48-page, standard-size, glossy magazine with black-and-white contents (with some spot color here and there), and color front and back covers. A September 28, 1956, internal memo argued against going with a pocket-sized format, which some favored. This smaller format was envisioned as having 96 pages. But Miller felt that a small-format magazine would seem too much like an imitation of Air Facts magazine, another very popular monthly general aviation magazine published by Leighton Collins. Moreover, Miller said that after members had been receiving a full-size Flying for so many years, they might feel cheated if they received a smaller magazine in its place. Eventually, the full-size magazine argument won out.

The advertising rates of the day seem laughable now. You could buy a full-page, one-time advertisement in the first issue of The AOPA Pilot for $425 (it’s $22,305 today), or buy the back cover for $850 (it now goes for $27,370). But then again, everything cost less 50 years ago. For example, AOPA membership was $10 per year, and the first staff writer for The AOPA Pilot earned $6,000 a year.

Speaking of staff, a crew of a mere four editorial workers put out the first issues of The AOPA Pilot. The editor was Max Karant, the editorial assistant was Helen Haslam, Miller was the managing editor, and Hyman Speigel was the art director. Arthur H. Frisch and Fred A. Hamlin served as advertising directors, coordinating the sales brought in by advertising representatives John Ring (based in New York City), Ren Averill (Pasadena, California), and Fred Gettys (New Cumberland, Pennsylvania).

The editorial staff had offices at AOPA headquarters, then at 4644 East-West Highway in Bethesda, Maryland. But freelance writers—or AOPA members—wrote most of the 1958 magazine content. Some of the stories were unsolicited, came in “over the transom,” and needed a lot of editorial help before publication.

The rewriting and other tasks took the staff by surprise. Unaccustomed to the heavy demands of starting up a brand-new magazine, it took several months for the team to get its act together. Karant and Miller did most of the editorial work, and they were swamped. Bottom line: that first issue’s publication date kept being pushed back.

That’s why The AOPA Pilot debuted with a cover date of March 1958—four months later than its target date. It mailed one month later than that.

“Additional editorial help is a must if we wish to continue publishing the sort of magazine we’re trying to put out,” said a March 27, 1958, memo from Miller to Karant. “We cannot operate as we have during the past three months. It has been a hand-to-mouth proposition during the past two months. This method of operation has resulted in expensive alterations, missed deadlines, and a book that doesn’t quite meet our desires or capabilities. Of course, I am not including an important personal item—an exhausted staff. We have a total of two people to do the work being done by six persons, plus clerical assistance, on Flying magazine. I have had a total of five free days since January 1.” Hartranft balked at hiring another editor, but finally relented just days before the magazine went to press. Sue Timberlake was hired as the magazine’s first associate editor, and soon began generating articles for upcoming issues.

Once the staff got its sea legs, the production of subsequent magazines went much smoother. Editorial content improved steadily and, as expected, the magazine’s advertising revenue grew with each issue and contributed substantially to AOPA’s income. The AOPA Pilot also served as a great vehicle for recruiting new members. By the end of 1958, AOPA rose to 80,000 members—a 17,000-member increase over the previous two years. AOPA and The AOPA Pilot were off and running, and there was no turning back.

Was the decision to start our own magazine a good one? The numbers speak for themselves. Today, AOPA Pilot has a circulation made up of 414,000 AOPA members, plus a few thousand other copies sent to libraries and educational institutions. It is, by far, the world’s largest-circulation general aviation magazine, staffed by award-winning writers, contributors, graphic artists, and photographers, and consistently bearing the best design and photography in the business. It may have gotten off to a shaky start in 1956, but those days are long gone. And AOPA Pilot’s brightest days lie ahead.

E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.

Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.