Safety Pilot: Revised flight plan

August 2, 2010

Flight planning is one of those necessarily boring things requiring process and discipline to get where we’re going, taking into account weather, terrain, airspace, and airports. The results of poor planning are often the topic of this column, but even with the best of intentions weather moves in and the headwinds are stronger than anticipated. Fools press on while smart pilot make changes. So, we’ll discuss a strategic topic that is every bit as essential to safety and preserving general aviation as our usual dissection of mishaps. Stick with me, this is important.

The original plan: More than 60 years ago AOPA created an organization that would deal with aviation safety because accidents and mishaps were bad for business, aircraft sales, and AOPA membership renewals. The AOPA Foundation was formed in 1950 to help pilots fly more safely. It became the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF) in 1967 to focus more specifically on pilot education. Most of the bad things that beset our industry and limit our freedom to fly stem from accidents. Complex regulation, extensive litigation, and poor public perception dissuade many people from ever boarding a light aircraft and set them against airports. This results in brutally high costs for aircraft, parts, insurance, and virtually everything that touches aviation because of the extremely small numbers of pilots, and public pressure for strong safety measures.

In 2007 the AOPA Foundation was resurrected, parallel to ASF, to address some of the strategic problems that are facing GA. These include improving public perception; helping to preserve airports, which have been disappearing at the rate of about one every other week for several decades; and addressing a declining pilot population that also has been in continual shrinkage. The new foundation was to fund ASF and help AOPA defray rising costs in those specific areas. Demands were, and are, heavier than ever, and since membership dues had remained unchanged for more than 18 years, additional funding was needed for these essential activities. Both foundations—The AOPA Foundation and ASF—were to be funded by tax-deductible contributions, separate from AOPA member dues, and to be used for charitable purposes.

A new plan: The economic environment turned stormy in 2008 and there was confusion about having multiple foundations. Time to reevaluate. This spring we decided to combine the AOPA Foundation and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation to streamline the organizations while maintaining all of the ASF programs that have received such great recognition, support, and utilization. The merger will also enable us to do more in other areas, as members have been requesting. Monies already donated for safety will remain for safety projects, and pilots can direct funding to the initiative of their choice.

Where are we headed on this flight and how will we get there? Here is an early look. Airport issues can often be handled more efficiently at the local level—hence the creation of the Airport Support Network more than 10 years ago. AOPA is almost halfway to our goal of having a volunteer at every one of the 5,200 public-use airports, but it takes infrastructure and tools to support them.

Airport Watch was developed to improve GA airport security after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to forestall a blunt and heavy-handed government approach. Common sense and proportional response to real risks have helped reduce, if not eliminate, unnecessary security mandates. Without this program, the application of airline-style screening and security could become an unfortunate reality at many GA airports. It needs support as well.

Finally, we could just hope that public perception of GA would miraculously improve and more people would suddenly decide that flying would be an uplifting experience. Fat chance. These two areas are tough to influence. We could spend a lot with only a little to show by scattershot efforts. AOPA Live, our new video channel, is one, and only one, area to direct some image dollars, but there is much more to be done. The pilot population efforts are still in the planning stages as I write this—more to come. There has been too much focus on student starts and not nearly enough on completions. Let me again emphasize that safety education remains core to our efforts in all areas.

You’ll be able to see our progress online. We’ll explain the what, the how, the how much—and, perhaps most important, what success looks like.

You know about free lunches—there aren’t any! Likewise, free online safety courses, seminars, or appropriate airport security and local support are anything but free. Some pilots think, “But I just want to fly and don’t really care about all this peripheral foolishness.” If we collectively ignore these “peripheral” issues and don’t participate, your costs will increase and our privilege to fly will decrease—guaranteed! I just came back from the international AOPA meeting overseas, where I saw greatly restricted freedom that many countries inflict on GA. The numbers of pilots are significantly smaller, so they have a much tougher time generating critical mass and message on any given issue. Guess where the United States is headed?

Will the new foundation be able to address all these difficulties simultaneously? No, but a flight of 500 miles begins at takeoff. We’re airborne and hope you’ll come along. Together we can get there.

Bruce Landsberg is president of the AOPA Foundation and leads the Air Safety Foundation.