Magazine Milestones

Stories you won't soon forget

March 1, 2008

Throughout its long history, AOPA Pilot’s editorial focus has been to communicate issues of political importance, educate members about new developments, urge them to action when necessary, and inspire its readers through uplifting and entertaining stories. For its first few years, the magazine’s tagline—“The Voice of General Aviation”—said it all. And this motto is still in effect. If there’s any single thread that runs through each and every issue, it’s the constant reporting on AOPA’s many political initiatives at the congressional, federal, state and local government levels. But there’s another constant thread. That’s AOPA Pilot’s tradition of groundbreaking special reporting. Over the years, AOPA Pilot has consistently published seminal articles and special inserts that have distinguished it from other general aviation magazines. Whenever a restrictive government initiative cropped up, whenever a new trend was identified, and whenever AOPA Pilot’s editors saw fit to emphasize a subject with extra articles or photography, the magazine never hesitated. It’s this unique combination of attributes that has made AOPA Pilot what it is: A magazine that’s politically responsible to its constituency—member and non-member alike, it must be emphasized—as well as aviation’s most commercially, editorially, and artistically successful publication.

A review of AOPA Pilot’s best articles over 50 years is a daunting task. For this researcher, it was extremely difficult to make the selections—because there was always the temptation to get sidetracked by so many other interesting and valuable articles. But what follows is a fair sampling of editorial content that “hit it out of the park.”


“AOPA Winds Up Inspection Tour” was an April 1961 article that aimed to grade the quality and honesty of repair work. The author, Don Downie, visited 70 repair shops around the nation. At each stop he complained of engine or other mechanical problems, just to see how honest the shops were. The author would loosen a spark plug, or disconnect a wire, to see if mechanics would make a fair assessment of the situation. By and large, the article reported, the treatment was fair.

In October 1961, “DME: A Boon to Navigation” was published. It gave a summary of this new technology, and how Narco’s DME could help pilots of the future. The November 1961 issue contained an insert of the AOPA Foundation’s (the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s predecessor) “AOPA 360-degree Rating” course. The course was designed to help non-instrument rated pilots understand basic attitude instrument flying techniques. Others—the Instrument Nav/Com, Pinch-Hitter, Instrument En route, and Instrument Approach Procedure courses—were published over the following five years. Today, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation routinely releases new interactive online courses on AOPA Online.

An April 1962 Pilot special feature titled “AOPA Gives FAA its Views on Beacon Report” addressed the proposed new transponder and airspace requirements advanced by the FAA. One comment, which the FAA acted on, was AOPA’s insistence that all high performance aircraft should be segregated from other aircraft in the terminal area.

A March 1964 article, “Cut in FSS Program Draws Protest,” objected to the proposed cutting of 42 flight service stations; subsequently, the stations were kept open. In September, an editorial argued against a plan to keep general aviation airplanes out of the La Guardia and John F. Kennedy International airports in New York. Again, AOPA prevailed.

By 1965 AOPA membership topped 111,000, and more articles addressed an ongoing effort to cut the National Weather Service’s aviation weather budget. A February article, “User Charge Pressure Stepped Up,” by Robert Monroe, presaged the future. The FAA wanted to charge fees for pilot certificates, aircraft registrations, and airway use, and AOPA lead the charge to repeal the initiative.

An August 1966 article is representative of AOPA Pilot’s increased coverage of advances in cockpit instrumentation. “Analyzing Your Engine’s Health,” by Alcor Aviation’s Al Hundere, held forth on a radically new way of monitoring engine performance and condition—by using Alcor’s newly introduced exhaust gas temperature gauge.

The late 1960s and the 1970s can be called the years of the midair, because several disastrous midairs between general aviation airplanes and airliners took place in that time frame. Each time, the general aviation airplanes were held to blame. And each time, AOPA was there to point out just the opposite. A DC–9 ran down a Baron in a 1967 Urbana, Ohio, midair; “AOPA Holds Baron Pilot Blameless in Urbana Midair Collision” read a December 1967 article. AOPA established the DC–9’s pilots were going faster than the 250-knot speed limit below 10,000 feet, and were not maintaining an adequate visual lookout. Similar articles would take the same tone with regard to the September 1978 midair collision near San Diego, California, between a Pacific Southwest Boeing 727 and a Cessna 172.

A March 1968 issue’s major policy statement, “The Truth About General Aviation,” was an unprecedented, wide-ranging document that gave a complete factual rundown of what the public should know about general aviation pilots, airports, safety, and economics. It was a turning point in the education of not just the public, but also Congress and other governmental agencies. It gave ammunition to other aviation organizations with an interest in general aviation, and pointed out discriminatory provisions in airspace and air traffic control rules.

By May 1969, AOPA membership reached the 150,000 mark, and an article in that month’s AOPA Pilot, “AOPA Files Suit to Block High Density Traffic Airports Rule,” argued against yet another discriminatory government initiative to deny general aviation aircraft the right to “first-come, first-served” priority for landing clearances at towered airports.


A special tribute to Piper Aircraft Corporation’s William T. Piper was featured in the February 1970 magazine, along with a portrait on the cover. The same issue had an article “AOPA Seeks Uniform Traffic Patterns” that argued for all airports to adhere to an 800-foot agl pattern altitude for low performance airplanes, and a 1,500-foot agl pattern for high performance airplanes. The May 1970 issue featured “IFR’s Biggest Bonus”—a primer on the newest navigation technology of the day—area navigation, or RNAV.

Another hint of the future was an April 1972 article on the emerging collision avoidance technology. “First Public CAS Trial Conducted” discussed a McDonnell-Douglas device called the EROS II. It gave commands to dive, climb, or hold altitude when other aircraft ventured dangerously near.

As if to prove that no bad idea ever dies, an April 1975 article titled “Pay as You Go: Not the Way to Fly,” outlined AOPA’s arguments against yet another round of FAA proposals to levy general aviation pilots landing and departure fees at towered airports. Once again, the proposal died thanks to AOPA’s efforts.

“Single-Lever Power Control for Bonanzas,” was a February 1977 article that also presaged the future. Although short-lived, the Bonanza tests captured the imagination of a future generation of engineers who would finally introduce the concept—albeit significantly altered—as full authority digital engine control (FADEC)—in the early 2000s.

In the May 1977 issue, AOPA Pilot readers were treated to two articles written by Charles A. Lindbergh. Both involved Lindbergh bailing out of his mail plane at night, over an undercast of fog. “Leap Fog at Night” was the first article; “He Does It Again” was the second.

With 1977 bringing in John L. Baker as AOPA’s new president, the magazine ushered in a new era for AOPA Pilot in the 1980s. With a new look and feel, more special features became the rule. But the same recurring issues still guided the magazine’s core content. The May and June issues of the magazine featured stories proposing airspace redesigns for San Diego and Phoenix terminal airspace. This, in the face of the FAA’s restrictive proposals after the San Diego midair mentioned earlier.


“Bonanza Besieged,” by long-time contributor Barry Schiff, was a February 1981 feature. At the time, Beech Aircraft Corp. had ceased production of its V-tail Bonanza after a spate of inflight breakups. Schiff’s article debunked the notion that V-tailed airplanes were inherently unsafe. July 1981’s “How to Avoid Thunderstorms Although Radar Equipped,” by AOPA Air Safety Foundation president (and radar expert) Archie Trammell kicked off a three-part series on radar technology and in-flight use.

“Satellites Instead,” a July 1982 article by Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill advanced a GPS-based method of collision avoidance and navigation. It was a prescient article that envisioned today’s GPS system. Similarly, January 1983’s “Turbine Singles” feature anticipated the turbine single market by several years.

As product liability concerns helped precipitate a radical industry slowdown in the mid-1980s, July 1984’s “Caseload,” by J. Jefferson Miller outlined the dimensions of the problem, and included a “Cases and Principles” sidebar of infamous product liability cases and their rulings. Another major feature by Miller, “General Aviation and Congress,” addressed this central aspect of AOPA activism in the April 1986 issue.

Of course, one of the top favorite issues was the July 1986 issue of AOPA Pilot. This was the issue devoted entirely to the Piper Cub, and even featured the Cub logo on the front cover.

Barry Schiff’s “Leading the Way” article of December 1986 was a significant milestone in that it proposed a series of VFR arrival and departure corridors for the Los Angeles airspace. The idea was to separate VFR traffic from known inbound and outbound airline routes, and thus help avoid midair collisions. By the following year, Schiff’s proposals were adopted by the FAA, and published on terminal area charts for Los Angeles and other high-density terminal areas.

October 1989’s special issue celebrated the association’s fiftieth anniversary with a mixture of historical articles arranged by decade, and the matching popular airplanes of the day. It was a mix of history and nostalgia, all graced by high-concept art and photography.


The 1990s continued the expansion of AOPA Pilot’s content material, and brought in a new era of upscale design and artwork. Many articles would now have renowned aviation photographer Mike Fizer’s work as central components of many layouts in what would become an ever more sophisticated look and feel to the magazine. But at the same time we never forgot the nuts and bolts work that was, is, and always will be the mandate of the entire AOPA team.

A March 1990 article, “A Turning Point: The Airport and Airway Trust Fund Reauthorization Battle Begins,” brought this point home. AOPA’s argument in this piece was to make full use of all trust fund monies, and not shuffle aviation funds elsewhere in the federal budget. The article also contained an argument for the use of space-based navigation methods, versus the FAA’s ideas to expand the existing ground-based network of navaids.

The early 1990s also marked a time when AOPA began outreach programs to draw in more student and re-entering pilots, as well as the growing number of pilots flying turbine-powered airplanes. Thus the debut of the quarterly “Turbine Pilot” and “New Pilot” sections of the magazine in March and August 1992, respectively.

More special features—all of them rich in Fizer’s studio and air-to-air photography—were to follow. May 1993’s “Enginuity: Today’s Powerplants” was a review of current engine technology, and a look at what the future might hold.

Beginning in April 1994, with the advent of AOPA’s Project Pilot program, the magazine featured an “AOPA Project Pilot” section, complete with cover photo, to promote the new program. Project Pilot’s goal is to increase the number of pilots by appealing to prospective student pilots, or lapsed certificated pilots, through a network of pilot mentors supported by AOPA. Part of this support is the AOPA Project Pilot page in each magazine. For more information, visit the Web site.

As GPS became more mainstream in the mid-1990s, AOPA Pilot was there to drive home the basics of GPS procedures. June 1994’s “Flying GPS Approaches,” by Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines was one of the first-ever articles to detail the operation of the first IFR-certified GPS receiver, Garmin’s GPS 155.

Haines went on to feature a “Pilot to Pilot” interview with The New Piper Aircraft Corp.’s Chuck Suma in the February 1996 issue in which Suma discussed how he lead the “old” Piper out of bankruptcy. Then in March 1996 Haines headed up yet another ambitious package of articles dealing with every aspect of buying an aircraft: the “Buying In” special feature.

A July 1996 special feature, “GPS Handheld Moving Maps,” took an in-depth look at this fastest-growing segment of the avionics market, and included all the players at the time, along with frank evaluations of each.

By 1997, the Internet was quickly coming into its own, and AOPA was at the head of the pack with its new Web site. April 1997’s “AOPA On The ’Net” delved into the many segments and services available on the AOPA Web site, and included expanded information on each under separate subheadings.


“Measure of Skill,” the first of a series of yearlong installments on pilot education and technique also began in 1997. Subsequent annual series’ included 1998’s “Instrument Insights,” 1999’s “In-flight Emergencies,” 2000’s “Future Flight,” 2001’s “Ounce of Prevention,” and 2002’s “Out of the Pattern.”

Another huge special feature appeared in the March 1999 issue: “The Sweet Smell of New.” It was all about every aspect of buying a new aircraft, from financing to insurance to type of aircraft, plus much more. And while new airplanes are alluring, it’s important to remember that AOPA Pilot has never forgotten more affordable aircraft. That’s why we continue our “Budget Buys” series, which began in July 2001 by featuring the Piper Tomahawk.

September 2000’s AOPA Pilot featured the first in the “Landmark Accidents” series written by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s executive director, Bruce Landsberg. This particular installment covered the fatal accident involving John F. Kennedy Jr.’s flight to Martha’s Vineyard.

“California Flying,” an ongoing series of articles on flying in that state—delivered to California members—also began in 2000.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their implications for GA, were the subjects of November 2001’s “America Under Siege” grouping of articles. This somber section also included AOPA Pilot staffers’ experiences on the day of the attacks. Some were in the air at the time, and had to land immediately.

High-quality, in-depth special features continued their annual tradition through the rest of the decade. In 2004, it was March’s “Datalink Roundup,” covering Avidyne’s EX500, Honeywell Bendix-King’s Airman weather services, WSI’s Inflight weather, ADS-B and Traffic Information Service technologies, and XM WX datalink weather. The popular “Build Me An Airplane” series debuted in 2004, beginning with a look at how Cessna builds airplanes in the August 2004 issue.

“On Autopilot” in February 2005 gave an in-depth look at the ins and outs of autopilots and flight control systems, but another special feature in June 2005, “The State of General Aviation,” was even more all encompassing. Everything from piston to turbine-powered aircraft, avionics, engines, the Sport Pilot movement, airports, infrastructure issues, and much more was included. In an interview, then-FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told Editor in Chief Haines that there was a “gap between the FAA’s costs and trust fund revenue.”

December 2005 featured a large section devoted to the seventieth anniversary of the Douglas DC–3. “Together We Fly” and “A New Life,” by Julie K. Boatman described the history of this classic airplane, how the author earned her DC–3 type rating, and a recent turboprop modification to the airplane.

AOPA’s Project Pilot program received more special coverage in July 2006 with “Ten Steps to Making a Pilot” and “AOPA Project Pilot: Giving Back” features, reminding us all that mentors can be a big help in motivating prospective pilots to take up flying.

The August 2006 issue brought perhaps the most far-reaching and ambitious of all the special features yet published. In “40 Top Technologies: The Future You Fly Today,” the staff tackled 40 technologies that were identified as strong contenders for mainstream status in the near future. Topics included everything from touchscreen displays to FADEC to enhanced vision systems. The report was accompanied by an online component, which AOPA Pilot uses to refer readers to AOPA’s increasing number of online resources and for more in-depth looks at the subject matter.

The year 2007 was dominated by AOPA’s battle against the Bush administration’s proposal to raise revenue by imposing user fees and higher fuel taxes on general aviation operations. A yearlong series of articles on the user-fees issue ensued, which detailed the workings of Congress, the European example of a fee-based aviation system, congressional hearings, and member feedback on the issue. Like many other articles, the user-fee series also had links to AOPA online for videos and late-breaking information.

An inspirational masterpiece came in the August 2007 issue when AOPA Pilot published a staff report called “A Day In The Life of America’s Airports.” Staffers at 11 different airports around the United States reported on just what happened on May 19, 2007. And once again, online videos accompanied the magazine stories.

Which brings us more or less to the present, inasmuch as it’s March 2008—and the magazine’s fiftieth anniversary. It’s been a long and glorious history, with a proud record of achievement. We’re looking forward to adding more examples of writing excellence, online features, and service to members in the years to come.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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.