May 1, 2009
By Thomas A. Horne
This month marks the seventieth anniversary of AOPA’s founding, an event that took place after several aviation-minded Philadelphia lawyers had a discussion during a hunting trip. The conversation centered on general aviation’s lack of effective political representation. In fact, at the time general aviation was called “miscellaneous aviation” in government circles. In 1939, several pilot organizations competed for members, but none of them had effective voices at the state or federal level. AOPA founders C. Townsend Ludington, Philip T. and Laurence P. Sharples, J. Story Smith, and Alfred L. Wolf resolved to change that. They got the fledgling AOPA going by hiring its first employee, Joseph B. (“Doc”) Hartranft Jr. Previously, Hartranft was president of the National Intercollegiate Flying Club and headed up a flying club at the University of Pennsylvania.
AOPA earned its voice when it made a deal with the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. The arrangement gave AOPA a section in Ziff-Davis’ monthly Popular Aviation magazine, the forerunner of today’s Flying magazine. Other early initiatives helped create legislation that established the Civilian Pilot Training Program. This allowed thousands to earn their pilot certificates in those tough economic times, stimulated general aviation aircraft sales, and boosted flying activity—all the while preparing pilots with the education that would serve the nation so well in our air forces of World War II.
At the same time, AOPA secured a reduction in pilot medical examination fees (from $10 to $6) and urged the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to build more airports to serve general aviation’s growing needs. In 1940, AOPA formed the “AOPA Air Guard” to introduce civilian pilots to military rules and procedures; some 5,000 pilots took these courses.
During World War II, there was great pressure to ban all civilian flying. But AOPA convinced the CAA and the military to allow properly registered pilots to fly in all airspace—except for the newly established coastal Air Defense Identification Zones. “Keep ’em ALL Flying” said a popular bumper sticker that AOPA handed out in those tumultuous days.
After World War II, general aviation surged in popularity, and AOPA’s membership grew with it. By 1946, AOPA had 20,000 members—double the 1940 level. This trend would continue, with membership reaching 80,000 by 1956. By this time, AOPA had fought a battle against a government proposal to mandate heavy, tube-laden communication radios; a compromise required radios in only the busiest airspace. AOPA was central to the testing and evaluation programs for the then-new VOR and ILS, and in establishing a common frequency for pilots to self-announced their positions. We know it today as the unicom (for “universal communications”) frequency—a term coined by AOPA general manager Max Karant. Karant also served as editor of The AOPA Pilot, the new name of the Flying insert. Karant would go on to serve as AOPA Pilot’s editor for many years, as well in top AOPA executive posts.
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF) was formed in 1950 to advance general aviation safety. Within a few years, ASF was conducting several courses in ground schools across the United States—the most popular being those that taught basic instrument flying skills, and Pinch-Hitter® courses that taught spouses how to land an airplane in an emergency.
Airline traffic was on the increase in the 1950s. There were proposals to prevent general aviation aircraft from flying to or near large airports served by the airlines, but thanks to AOPA, VFR corridors and reductions in airspace volumes were secured. In the interest of minimizing the chance of midair collisions, maximum airspeeds were also established, with AOPA’s guidance. To this day, speed limits live on in Class B, C, and D airspace, as well as below 10,000 feet msl.
In March 1958, AOPA began publishing AOPA Pilot as a standalone monthly publication, independent of Ziff-Davis. AOPA’s annual Airports USA directory of airports would soon follow. In 1962 came another example of AOPA’s growing prominence in general aviation lobbying—that was when the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA) was formed to promote general aviation interests around the world. Today there are 63 nations represented in IAOPA.
Highly publicized midair collisions in the 1960s between general aviation airplanes and airliners brought tremendous pressure to exclude private airplanes from newly created High Density Traffic Zones. Fortunately, AOPA was able to preserve access, and even went on in the 1970s to help design the dimensions of the Terminal Control Areas (TCAs—the precursors of today’s Class B airspace) to be more general-aviation-friendly. By 1969 AOPA had grown to 141,000 members—a number that certainly represented the value of AOPA to U.S. pilots.
AOPA would need the clout of its burgeoning membership—245,000 by 1979—to maintain its pressure on government. The Arab oil embargo of 1973 tempted some in government to propose drastic fuel rationing for general aviation. But AOPA was able to avert disaster by preserving an allocation of fuel equal to 75 percent of the pre-embargo amount. Another big issue of the 1970s was the funding of the nation’s growing airspace system. The Airport and Airway Development and Revenue Act of 1970 was designed to fund airports and improve airway navigation technology. Instead, much of the money in this aviation trust fund was diverted to day-to-day operation of the FAA, or used as a means of offsetting deficits elsewhere in the federal budget. AOPA protested, but the fight dragged on. An atmosphere of antipathy often pervaded relationships between general aviation and the FAA in the 1970s. FAA Administrator Alexander Butterfield, who first proposed fees for written exams and the issuance of pilot certificates, typified this mood in a 1973 opinion on general aviation access to Class B airspace: “If you ride a bicycle, don’t drive on the Beltway.”
AOPA’s Political Action Committee was formed in 1980 to increase lobbying effectiveness, and it would be needed after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union (PATCO) strike of August 1981. The FAA wanted to eliminate all general aviation flying after the strike, but AOPA helped work out a flow-control method that allowed IFR flights. Other successes in the 1980s included preventing the closure of 75 flight service stations, the simplification of TCA boundaries, the imposition of measures that reduced taxes paid into the aviation trust fund whenever expenditures fell below authorized amounts, and preserving access to Boston’s Logan International Airport. AOPA argued that inasmuch as all users pay into the federal funds that Logan uses, the airport must remain open to all. An administrative law judge agreed, setting an important precedent.
The late 1990s brought a repetition of many of the same challenges AOPA had been facing from day one. A spate of airport closures—exemplified by the high-profile closing of Chicago’s Meigs Field—caused AOPA to create the Airport Support Network (ASN), made up of volunteers at airports across the country serving as an early warning system on the lookout for discrimination against general aviation. Trust fund issues again came to the fore, when AOPA rallied members to write their legislators in favor of adequately funding general aviation airports from the modernization money authorized by the Aviation Investment and Reform Act (AIR-21).
Another victory came in 1994 when AOPA’s strong advocacy efforts were rewarded with passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act. This law freed manufacturers of product liability burdens issuing from lawsuits involving aircraft more than 18 years old—and let manufacturers resume building. Manufacturing had come to a virtual halt in the mid-1980s because of the costs of product liability settlements.
In 1995, AOPA launched its Web site, AOPA Online, and began what was to become a tradition of providing high-quality, timely information and services to members via the Internet. In 1999, AOPA furthered this concept with the launch of ePilot, a weekly e-mail newsletter. But this wasn’t the only new publication in the 1990s. In 1998, AOPA purchased Flight Training magazine—an essential vehicle for recruiting new pilots and providing valuable instructional articles for student pilots, instructors, and those seeking aviation careers.
A new century dawned, and with it came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. AOPA responded by doing what it does best: informing pilots, preventing unnecessary restrictions, defending our right and privilege to fly, and educating the public about how GA serves America every day. AOPA was able to reopen many airports located beneath Class B airspace that had been closed in the days after the attacks. To make sure that the resources for these sorts of awareness campaigns are assured, AOPA started the General Aviation Restoration Fund, which raised $500,000 by the end of 2001.
We’d make use of that, and more, to help carry out such campaigns as the one against user fees. In 2007, the Bush administration proposed user fees as a means of financing the Next Generation (NextGen) air traffic control system. Instead of paying via fuel taxes—the traditional method—user fees would levy administrative fees against pilots for such services as accessing the air traffic system and filing flight plans. AOPA held firm to the fuel-tax payment alternative, and after a long and effective campaign that involved testimony before Congress, public education campaigns, and member activism managed to push the decision into the future. However, recently the battle was renewed again.
The AOPA Foundation was launched in 2008 to address key initiatives to ensure the future of general aviation. Almost immediately after its creation, $26 million was pledged toward a goal of $56 million. Part of the AOPA Foundation’s funding was put to work right away—creating AOPA’s Let’s Go Flying program. Let’s Go Flying (www.letsgoflying.org) is designed to boost the ranks of student pilots by making general aviation more accessible. The pilot population has gone from a high of 827,000 to today’s figure of just under 600,000. AOPA is committed to building up those numbers.
Over the past 70 years, many of the challenges faced by general aviation have repeated themselves: rising costs, airport closures, airspace restrictions, and public misinformation. In the next 70 years AOPA will remain at the forefront of general aviation advocacy as the largest and most effective general aviation organization in the world. It’s safe to say that general aviation could not have grown over the years without AOPA’s strength. That strength, symbolized by today’s 416,000 members, still issues from the kind of enthusiasm, commitment, and imagination that created AOPA in the first place.
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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.
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