Waypoints: Look who's 50

March 1, 2008

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines joined the AOPA Pilot staff in April 1988.

Losing track of your organization’s mission is a sure way to derail an operation. Royal Typewriter Company, founded in 1906, made excellent typewriters. The company, bought and sold several times over the past 100 years, still exists—making a variety of office equipment, but it’s not exactly a household name as it was through much of the last century. Imagine if the company’s mission statement had been strong enough and flexible enough to allow it to move into and dominate the world of “communications devices” instead of just typewriters. Today, we might be typing away on Royal personal computers and talking and texting on Royal smartphones and PDAs. Royal might be the Dell, Sony, Samsung, or Apple of the twenty-first century.

While not exactly a mission statement in the form that today’s high-priced strategic consultant might help a company craft, the mission for this magazine 50 years ago was clear—delivered in the first editorial: “You are holding a copy of the first issue of what we hope and intend will be the leading monthly magazine in general aviation. We fully intend that The AOPA Pilot will be the most informative, most vigorous, most dedicated publication of its kind in the world.”

Hey, why not shoot for the moon? Think big. But crafting a successful aviation magazine was no small challenge then (or now). The aviation magazine market was highly competitive back in those days—as it still is. Flying magazine dominated the market in 1958 as it had under various names for decades. As you’ll read in “ AOPA’s Big Idea,” (page 72), The AOPA Pilot started out as a section and later an insert in Flying. Meanwhile, another publication started in 1958, Business and Commercial Aviation. It still exists today as a McGraw-Hill title. Also popular in those days was Leighton Collins’ Air Facts magazine. His son, Richard, was for a short time editor in chief of this magazine and continues today as editor at large at Flying. Meanwhile, Pilot’s first editor was a former editor at Flying. It was a small community then and continues that way today.

Other magazines have come and gone, refocused their content onto only a segment of GA or broadened it to all of aviation, yet Pilot has soldiered on—and grown continually—by sticking with the mandate in that first issue. We are still “dedicated solely and exclusively to serving AOPA members. We believe AOPA members are primarily interested in matters pertaining to general civil aviation, and we intend to confine ourselves to that concept. We will leave articles on guided missiles to the many publications currently dealing in such matters.”

Of course the general aviation of today is a much broader field than it was in 1958. Back then, the GA world consisted of piston singles and twins, with turboprops and business jets just starting to become a reality. Today, GA runs the gamut from light sport aircraft through mainstream four-seat singles to single-engine and twin turboprops to very light jets and up through business jets costing $50 million and more. The homebuilt market was also in its infancy in 1958. Today’s aircraft registry boasts tens of thousands of homebuilts—from plan’s-built simple single-seaters to sophisticated, pressurized turboprops, and even a few jets.

You’ll see all of those types of aircraft profiled on these pages, with the amount of coverage weighted toward what readers and our readership surveys tell us is most important to the largest segments of the audience. Occasionally when we profile a turbine airplane, especially if it’s a cover story, I hear from members who complain that AOPA has lost its way—that we’ve abandoned the “grass roots” of GA. Sorry, guys, but GA is changing. Turbine airplanes are becoming a larger part of the market. New lighter turbine engines have allowed the prices of very light jets to be competitive with single-engine turboprops and even high-end piston airplanes. They are of interest to a surprising number of pilots—even those who know they will never own one. The capabilities of everything from new-generation piston singles to turbines have attracted the attention of a new breed of pilots who relish the transportation capabilities of GA. We would be doing a disservice to readers by ignoring these changes in the market.

Similarly, we occasionally hear from pilots who believe that light sport aircraft and sport pilots shouldn’t be welcomed into the GA fold. Apparently some believe that these small, yet highly capable, light airplanes will somehow detract from the rest of the market or increase the accident rate. Some pilots suggest that the sport pilot curriculum is less rigorous than the private pilot curriculum. In fact, earning a sport pilot certificate is probably more demanding and more complex than earning a private pilot certificate in the late 1970s when I learned to fly. Certainly, the airspace and regulations are more complex—even for sport pilots—than what we had to know when Jimmy Carter called the White House home.

The more things change...

While the products we write about—whether airframes or avionics—have changed dramatically over the years, some story categories remain the same. In that first issue, the editors outlined the types of subjects they would cover: “We will concern ourselves with new developments in civil aircraft and their accessories, safety devices and practices, flight techniques, rules and regulations; interesting people, interesting flights, airports, and their operators.”

That’s a rich list—and we draw from it every month. The stories on our sweepstakes project airplanes frequently detail accessories and safety devices that can improve used airplanes. Our monthly avionics reports distill the complex information surrounding today’s highly capable guidance and communications gear. Every month we feature at least one technique or proficiency article.

The founders of this magazine also wrote that the publication would carry articles “on navigation, flight planning, meteorology, aircraft flight characteristics and radio techniques.” We’re still there. Regular features today include “Wx Watch,” a monthly article dedicated to helping pilots understand the nuances of aviation weather. “Airframe and Powerplant” offers advice on how to keep your favorite ride healthy. Regulations? See John Yodice’s “Pilot Counsel” column each month for the latest interpretations out of FAA headquarters. Bruce Landsberg’s “Safety Pilot” column and “Landmark Accident” features provide thought-provoking guidance, as do the popular “Never Again” submissions from pilots everywhere.

Of course, GA is not all about gear, gadgets, and what will get you. We learn about those subjects so that we can enjoy the challenges of piloting airplanes to fun and interesting destinations, and meeting some incredible people. We don’t short shrift there, either. Especially in this issue, you’ll meet some remarkable people who are in one way or another connected to the first issue. Our “America’s Airports” series is not just about airports—although you regularly tell us how much you love your airports. Instead the stories, including the one this month on 50-year-old South Lake Tahoe Airport, are about the people who make up this extraordinary GA community.

Finally, the founders understood the importance of speaking to GA pilots of all capabilities. “We will concern ourselves with both the beginner and the more advanced pilot....” For the more advanced pilot, we offer “Turbine Pilot.” In this era of a declining pilot population and increasingly complex flying environment, we give extra attention to student pilots and flight instructors, those important people who usher new pilots into GA. Recognizing how important this audience is, in 1998, AOPA purchased Flight Training magazine to address the needs of this unique audience. Today, the magazine flourishes with a circulation of well more than 100,000 a month.

The founding editors left the door wide open for us to adapt to a changing technology world. Today’s magazine content lives on AOPA Online, often with additional unique electronic content, such as video, animation, or audio. This issue, along with the original 1958 issue, are both in digital format online.

As the founders hoped, we’ve grown to be the leading monthly magazine in GA. I hope you will agree that we met all of those lofty goals from 1958. And, as they wrote in that first issue: “Subsequent issues will be improved or changed as circumstances dictate.” The first editorial ended with a question: “Now—what do you think of our first issue?” I’ll ask you: “Now—what do you think of our 601st issue and what can we do to make the next one even better?”

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

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.