President's Position: Some things never change

March 1, 2008

Phil Boyer serves as publisher of AOPA Pilot magazine.

There are some constants in aviation, things that never really change no matter how much we advance. The laws of aerodynamics haven’t changed since the Wright brothers first started their careful wind tunnel observations. Thrust still has to exceed drag and lift must exceed weight in order for you to take off. Other laws may not be so well grounded in hard science, but are nevertheless just as true. You can fill all of the seats and baggage areas, or you can fill the tanks, but you can’t do both. If you have a headwind going out, you’ll have a headwind on the return trip. A pilot’s reach will always exceed his wallet. And the aviation system is in a crisis.

As I was going through aviation magazines of 50 years ago preparing to write this editorial for our fiftieth anniversary edition of AOPA Pilot, it struck me that while so much about aviation has changed in half a century, in truth, much hasn’t changed at all. Guess what the big issue was back then? Air traffic congestion. Sound familiar?

There was a “crisis in the making,” said Edward P. Curtis in a special report to President Eisenhower, as a result of the inability of the airspace management system to cope with growing congestion. “I believe we are going to be faced with a traffic problem much larger than the Curtis Report,” stated James T. Pyle of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) in an interview in that first edition of The AOPA Pilot magazine. And Eisenhower told Congress that the airspace was, “already overcrowded and that the development of airports, navigation aids, and especially the air traffic control system, was lagging far behind aeronautical developments and the needs of our mobile population.”

The fix recommended was a radical restructuring of the CAA. And of course, the CAA (or its successor) needed a lot more money to fix the problems.

So 1958 actually marks the fiftieth anniversary of two aviation institutions— AOPA Pilot and the Federal Aviation Agency (later to become the Federal Aviation Administration), though AOPA Pilot is slightly older, having been born in March (the FAA didn’t come into existence until August). I’ll leave it to you to judge which institution has aged better.

Other similarities between now and 50 years ago? Well, there was heated discussion about closing busy airports to all but aircraft flown by “highly skilled professionals” (read that as airliners only). Some thought that little airplanes were clogging up the big airports and causing a hazard. This perfectly matches our battle with the airlines in the New York airspace.

The government was contemplating requiring that every aircraft be equipped with DME as the “price of admission” for IFR operations. Nothing else would provide the degree of navigation precision that the military and the CAA thought would be needed for air traffic control. Now it’s abbreviations such as ADS-B and RNP (required navigation performance).

To reduce radio frequency congestion, the CAA thought a lot of air traffic control information should be transmitted automatically on “telemeters,” and ultimately with “data link.” Well, we haven’t gotten there yet, and are still talking about it a half-century later.

The CAA was asking AOPA for help in reminding pilots that they needed to have both their pilot certificates and a government-issued ID card to be legal to fly.

Of course, AOPA was in the thick of all of these issues and more. The association was fighting all attempts to close off airports and airspace to general aviation. It argued that the DME requirement was unnecessary and unworkable, particularly since at that time there was no DME equipment available for light aircraft.

A quick look at a few of the other things AOPA was involved with at the time: The association was working with the government Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) to investigate the faults and problems with the then relatively new “omni” navigation system (today more commonly called VOR). Today, I serve as the chairman of RTCA.

The AOPA Foundation (which later changed its name to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation) had been created eight years earlier, in 1950. And the association and the foundation were actively educating all pilots. By the late 1950s, the foundation was sending AOPA Pilot Safety Service Bulletins to all aviators, regardless if they were AOPA members. “We believe that anything done for the betterment of GA as a whole benefits our membership,” said AOPA’s first president, J.B. “Doc” Hartranft.

AOPA’s 24-hour watch was selling like crazy. The 17-jewel water-resistant Elgin watch sold for $49.50. Today the AOPA watch from Sporty’s goes for $99.95. In today’s dollars, that Elgin would cost $358.

And when AOPA Pilot magazine was born, AOPA dues were $10 a year. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $72 today. Makes your $39 annual dues look like a real bargain, doesn’t it?

So while times have changed, the look of AOPA Pilot has changed, and the Web has come to augment our print publications—in a sense, much has stayed the same. But, AOPA continues with the same mission that has served us well since our founding in 1939: information, education, and advocacy. The half-century of AOPA Pilot magazine has been our primary and most effective way to fulfill the “information” goal.