Pilot to Pilot: A Pilot First

An introduction to Craig L. Fuller, only AOPA's fourth president in 70 years.

January 1, 2009

Although he has had a fascinating career in public policy, Craig Fuller’s passion is flying. As with so many other AOPA members, the new AOPA president seems to work to support his flying endeavors. He gravitates to the pilots in the room, steering the conversation back to his latest aviation experience and seeking input on new and interesting places to fly. “It’s been part of my life for 40 years,” he says of aviation.

Fuller’s father was an instructor in the Army Air Corps during World War II, based in Coffeyville, Kansas. Fuller was born and grew up in California. At 16 he struck a deal with his father outlining how each would pay for half of his flight training. The younger Fuller funded his half as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool and by giving swimming lessons. Flying out of Concord’s Buchanan Field in a Cessna 150, he earned his private pilot certificate at 17 and quickly set about earning additional money by taking air-to-ground photographs for real estate developers and others. “I’ve always thought that being able to fly gives you a perspective on this planet that is just different if you’re always stuck on the ground.” From the beginning he wanted to share his aviation experiences with others. “I took my parents flying, my brother flying, anyone who would go with me.”

Fuller later earned an instrument rating at Van Nuys Airport flying his new 1980 Cessna 172RG Cutlass. He used that airplane for business trips throughout the West in support of his consulting business.

In 1981, he flew the airplane to Washington, D.C., to join the Reagan White House, where he served as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs. In 1985, he was appointed chief of staff for Vice President George H.W. Bush. After leaving politics in 1989, he served as president and vice chairman of various leading public affairs firms. He serves on the board of directors for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and has served as the president and chief executive officer of an association representing drugstore chains. In that role he faced industry challenges around health care reform.

The jobs have changed over the years, but the one constant in his life has been aviation. While working for Vice President Bush, Fuller visited every state multiple times—and 60 countries. “Usually you’d find me in the jump seat for the landings and takeoffs in the [Boeing] 707,” he said. “But I worked to stay current in the Cutlass and keep my flying going.”

A longtime aircraft owner, Fuller and his wife, Karen, now fly their 2003 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 more than 200 hours a year on personal and business trips. “Karen and I met when we both worked at the White House and I had an airplane, so I didn’t have to introduce this into a relationship. The airplane came first in my case,” Fuller said with a laugh. “Karen took to it right away. I think sometimes she enjoys the places we go. I enjoy getting there more than she does. The fact is, she’s very good in the airplane. She has taken the Air Safety Foundation Pinch-Hitter Course. She’s an excellent navigator and knows where all the traffic is, based on just listening to the radio.”

Fuller, an AOPA member since 1973, remembers hearing in 1991 about Phil Boyer becoming only the third president of AOPA. “I thought, What a wonderful opportunity that must be for Phil Boyer, whom I did not know at that time. And I thought of all the jobs I was aware of in the association world—how great it would be, to hold one that would allow you to utilize your flying and be an advocate for GA. It would be a great opportunity. And, then I went about my business for the next 18 years.”

Like any other member, Fuller continued his flying and followed the progress of the organization until a friend from an executive search firm called and said that there was a search to replace Boyer, who was retiring. Fuller went through several rounds of interviews with the search firm and the AOPA board of trustees. “I feel very grateful to have been selected and look forward to stepping into this role.”

In his various roles at the White House, Fuller interacted with all branches of the government. Later in association leadership, he worked with the heads of large companies and with congressional staffers at all levels. “I think I’m comfortable with the ways of Washington,” he commented. “I’m certainly interested in speaking on behalf of general aviation to groups around the country. People do need to better understand the contribution that general aviation makes. And that means going out and telling the story.”

Although he’s been an AOPA member for 35 years, Fuller had no idea the breadth of services available to members until he spent time working with the staff during the transition. “I have participated in the PAC. I’ve participated in the credit card program. I learned about the network of advocates around the country and the AOPA regional representatives working on issues around the country. Yes, I knew that someone was looking at the problems of my old airport, Santa Monica, but I didn’t really realized that this network existed addressing those kinds of concerns. So there’s a lot of new context I’ve picked up. It’s clearly a strong organization with professional leaders at all levels. I hope I can help take some of the things I’ve discovered to more of our members.”

Although the organization is strong, Fuller sees numerous challenges ahead. One of his top priorities will be an outreach campaign to educate influencers about general aviation. “The broad issue is that I don’t believe that policy makers and opinion leaders fully understand the value of GA today. I say that as somebody who was in government and a private pilot and was always surprised that people in public office, many of whom use GA a lot, didn’t really see it as something that was occurring every day—thousands and thousands of aircraft and pilots utilizing GA for business or pleasure or medical emergencies. So, I think because we’re not as well understood as we could be, we become more vulnerable to some of the issues like closing of airports and slapping on user fees to disproportionably impose a cost on general aviation for air traffic control services.”

One tool already in place to help turn that around is The AOPA Foundation, announced at AOPA Expo 2008 (see “Building the Pillars,” page 26). One of the new foundation’s goals is to raise funds that will allow AOPA to educate influencers and the public about the value of GA. “The advocacy work that the association does is probably job one in the sense of when members are asked what they care about here,” said Fuller. “A very close second and, in my mind, equally important is our communications and publication activity. When you look beyond the horizon, you have to be educating people about GA and you have to be doing the work that will bring people into GA, and the foundation will allow us to do that.”

Another broad concern is the declining pilot population. “I think finding ways to encourage people to become active again or to encourage people of all ages to get involved in aviation for the first time is a very important role for us.” In part to broaden the exposure of general aviation and to stimulate interest in flying among the public, AOPA launched the Let’s Go Flying program last fall (see “Why Do You Look Skyward?” page 28).

No discussion of the next year would be complete without an acknowledgment of the potential impact of the current economic situation on GA and the transition to a new U.S. president. “The Obama administration is going to be faced with getting the economy going. That’s probably job one,” Fuller said. Some of the solutions presented to President Obama may be the same ones presented to President Bush, such as implementing user fees as a means for reducing the costs of the air traffic control system. “We’re going to have to be vigilant in making sure that they don’t attempt to reduce the federal expenditures on the backs of general aviation.”

Fuller’s high stature in Washington will serve AOPA well. In 35 years he has made many friends and acquaintances in all branches of government and in both parties. He is personal friends with several members of Obama’s transition team. He worked with Obama’s new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, on the NAFTA issue during the Clinton administration.

Fuller met with the Obama transition team members representing transportation issues in late November to share the concerns of GA and to lay the foundation for a good working relationship. “My approach is not a partisan approach. There’s nothing partisan about GA. There’s nothing partisan about air safety. We’ll work effectively with the leadership in Congress as well as the administration.”

On stage at AOPA Expo, Phil Boyer handed over to Fuller a flight bag stuffed with issues to be dealt with in the future—a symbolic passing of the torch to the new leader. Fuller accepted the responsibility and is enthusiastic about moving forward, but does so with a tip of the hat to the Boyer legacy. “I will
say as a member and certainly as the incoming president, we are in very good shape,” said Fuller. “And the work that he has engaged in over the past 18 years is a big part of that and for that I am certainly very grateful.” Unlike a lot of associations in Washington, AOPA is a membership of individuals, not a trade organization. “His reminder that you need to make sure that we’re building the membership every year and renewing memberships every year is something that I’ve really taken to heart. I want to spend time with members and make sure I understand what their thinking is and be communicating with them as effectively as I can. I think his focus on membership is something that will stay with me throughout my tenure here.”

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.