The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to general aviation, was incorporated on May 15, 1939.
From the start, AOPA has fought to protect the freedom to fly while keeping general aviation safe, fun, and affordable. Growth in the early years was slow, but by 2010 more than 400,000 individuals were AOPA members.
Today's robust and growing AOPA is a far cry from the earliest years. As part of a deal struck with Ziff-Davis Publishing Company even before incorporation, AOPA would have a special section in each month's Popular Aviation, the predecessor of Flying magazine, to communicate with its members. Ziff-Davis drove a hard bargain, however, with a clause that threatened cancellation of the deal if AOPA membership didn't reach 2,500 in the first year.
Even the name of the Association was "up in the air" until just before incorporation. The five founding fathers met in April 1939, to work out the details, and spent hours wrangling over a proper name for the organization. Founder P.T. Sharples favored "Pilots, Incorporated" to give the group a serious tone indicative of a businesslike approach. Other groups at the time included the Private Fliers Association (PFA), the Sportsman Pilots Association (SPA), the Association for the Advancement of Aeronautics (AAA), The American Pilots League (APL), the Private Pilots Association (PPA), and the United Pilots and Mechanics Association (UPMA).
The debate over what to call the not-yet-incorporated group raged on, well into the night. Finally, founder C. Townsend Ludington yawned — by this time it was about 2:30 in the morning — and announced, "Gentlemen, I am tired, so I'm going to bed. I propose we name it just what it is — the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association." There was unanimous approval.
J.B. "Doc" Hartranft was AOPA's first employee, taking the title executive director and moving the offices from Philadelphia to Chicago, right next to the Ziff-Davis publishing house. From there, Hartranft launched a whirlwind of activity to benefit private flyers.
AOPA's first political activity was to urge passage of a Senate bill that would establish the Civilian Pilot Training Program. This important piece of legislation allowed thousands of people to earn their pilot certificates under a government subsidy. It also stimulated general aviation activity and aircraft sales, and provided a solid aviation education for those who would later serve in the air forces of World War II.
AOPA also secured a reduction in the cost of the medical examination fee (from $10 to $6), urged the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to construct more airports to handle the increased flying activity, and conducted the first study of the various state aviation fuel tax policies. Discussions with the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics (NACA — the predecessor of NASA) centered on design parameters for an easily affordable single-engine airplane. A drive was also started to recognize general aviation's improving safety record, in part to help reduce insurance rates. This ongoing effort did bring reduced rates, but not until several years later.
AOPA's first year ended on an upbeat note, with a membership of 2,000. Just three months later, that figure had doubled, and local pilot groups called "AOPA Units" were being formed around the country.
War was obviously on the way, so in 1940 AOPA formed the "AOPA Air Guard" to introduce civilian pilots to military rules and procedures, and form a manpower base from which the air forces could draw additional pilots. Some 5,000 pilots participated that year, taking three courses of instruction required by the military.
On December 7, 1941, America's entry into World War II brought a drastic change in civil flying. The government sought to ban all civilian flying, but AOPA helped in establishing an identification program that persuaded the CAA and the military to allow properly registered pilots to fly in all airspace, except for border areas now called Air Defense Identification Zones. AOPA offices moved to New York, then — in 1942 — to the Washington, D.C. area.
Prior to the war, AOPA membership rose to about 10,000, but about 3,000 members dropped out to serve in the armed forces. When the war ended, membership once again started up, with about 20,000 active AOPA members by the end of 1946.
The years following World War II were years of explosive growth in aviation, and AOPA staff members worked long hours to help bureaucrats and lawmakers understand the special needs of general aviation pilots. The issue of required equipment surfaced early, when the CAA proposed shortly after the war that communications equipment be required for everyone. AOPA initially opposed this requirement, in part because the tube-laden radios of the day were very heavy and compromised a light airplane's useful load. Ultimately, a compromise required communication radios only in the busiest airspace.
By late 1948, AOPA was helping educate pilots about the new-fangled VHF navigation tool called "VOR" and published manuals on the subject. The association also helped in test programs for VOR and ILS equipment.
The late 1940s were also when AOPA assumed a major role in legislative lobbying. To help members of Congress understand general aviation, Hartranft pushed for formation of the Congressional Flying Club, which still exists. He persuaded manufacturers to donate aircraft and volunteers to teach both ground school and flight.
Also in 1948, Hartranft hired the legendary Max Karant, formerly managing editor of Flying magazine, to serve as assistant general manager of AOPA and editorial director for AOPA Pilot magazine. During the next three decades, the team of Hartranft and Karant would set a leadership style that would quadruple AOPA membership from 50,000 to more than 200,000 by the mid-1970s.
As the 1950s rolled around, AOPA found itself in a leadership role whenever general aviation was threatened. Several midair collisions between airliners and general aviation aircraft led to a vigorous debate over a proposal by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) to ban general aviation from any airport used by air carriers. Partly as a result of this battle, the "party-line" unicom — a term invented by Hartranft and Karant — was brought into being to help pilots know of each other's presence.
AOPA created the AOPA Foundation in 1950, and within 10 years there would be thousands of pilots who took advantage of the "180-degree" rating that provided basic instrument instruction for noninstrument-rated pilots. The AOPA Foundation would later come to be known as the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Today, it’s known as the AOPA Air Safety Institute, the world’s largest and most effective organization devoted solely to general aviation safety.
Offices moved several times in the 1950s, the first move from downtown Washington, D.C., to suburban Bethesda, Maryland.
Major battles fought on behalf of general aviation pilots in the 1950s included reductions in life insurance rates, charting of VOR stations, and retaining highways on sectional aeronautical charts. A military plan to scrap the evolving VOR-DME system in favor of tacan only led to a pitched battle that resulted in a compromise still in use today.
An "experimental" type of airspace that was the forerunner of today's Class B airspace was proposed in the mid-1950s for Washington National Airport. It would have extended 15 nautical miles from the airport in all directions and up to 3,000 feet agl. A full mile of visibility would have been required for VFR operations, as well as a speed limit of 180 miles per hour. AOPA successfully fought to keep Washington National Airport open to general aviation, and it was many years before terminal control areas (also forerunners of Class B airspace) were instituted.
In 1958, AOPA Pilot magazine made its debut as a stand-alone magazine, severing the long-time connection with Ziff-Davis Publishing.
Boom times came to general aviation in the 1960s, with aircraft manufacturers introducing new models left and right and producing an average of 9,000 airplanes a year. With the increased flying activity, communications became more important. AOPA pushed for additional radio frequencies for aviation. A plan to close many flight service stations was muted, and the first AOPA Airports USA airport directory was issued.
The International Council of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association was created in 1962, with the first members including Canada, Australia, and the Union of South Africa.
Various battles were fought over air traffic control, including proposals for mandatory transponders and new types of controlled airspace called "Terminal Area Radar Service." By 1964, the Atlanta airport was offering these services, and the program would soon be expanded nationwide.
Saving general aviation airports would also become a major issue all over the country and continues to this day. On average, the United States still loses one public-use general aviation airport per week.
Two midair collisions in 1967 — one between a TWA DC-9 and a corporate Beech B55 Baron over Urbana, Ohio, and the other between a Piedmont Airlines B-727 and a corporate Cessna 310 over Hendersonville, North Carolina — helped push public opinion about transponders away from voluntary use and towards mandatory use. AOPA recommended creating dedicated climb and descent corridors for high-performance airplanes and put a high priority on development of an effective collision avoidance indicator.
In 1969, however, a collision near Indianapolis between an Allegheny Airlines DC-9 and a Piper Cherokee led to urgent calls for creation of the now famous (or infamous) terminal control areas around busy airports. AOPA worked in each case to maintain access for general aviation pilots and spent much of the 1970s trying to keep aviation safe without grounding many general aviation pilots.
By the end of the 1960s, AOPA membership had climbed to 141,000. "Doc" Hartranft was still exercising bold leadership,
and Max Karant was making pilots aware of the battles yet to come. The years of the 1970s would include some of the most important political battles AOPA had ever fought, including those over TCAs, the Airport and Airways Development Act, fuel crisis fallout, and ever-tightening federal regulations.
Proposals to squeeze more taxes and fees from "fat cat" general aviation pilots were fought back many times during the 1970s. A Nixon proposal to "raid" the aviation trust fund was also stopped.
The 1973 oil embargo took all of AOPA's persuasive power to prevent catastrophic cuts in general aviation activity, as Hartranft pointed out that "while general aviation has 98% of all aircraft, it uses only 8.6% of civil aviation fuels (while) 91.4% is used by the airlines."
In May 1977, Hartranft assumed chairmanship of the AOPA Board of Trustees, and former FAA assistant administrator John L. Baker took over reins of the association. Just two years later, at the end of the decade, more than 245,000 pilots were members of AOPA, and general aviation was a raging bull in the marketplace. More than 18,000 airplanes would be delivered in 1979, but the specter of product liability was on the horizon.
The AOPA Political Action Committee was formed in 1980 for more lobbying effectiveness. It would be needed, as an increasing number of politicians involved themselves in aviation technical matters in the name of aviation safety.
Air traffic controllers went on strike on August 3, 1981, and ATC underwent the most massive changes seen to date. General aviation was singled out for virtual elimination from the ATC system until AOPA helped work out a flow-control method that allowed IFR flights.
In May 1983, AOPA made its last move, from the Bethesda, Maryland, offices to new offices on the Frederick (Maryland) Municipal Airport. It symbolized the growth of the association, which now had 265,000 members and was recognized as one of the most effective voices for any group in Washington.
Additional airspace restrictions — including ARSAs — were proposed, and AOPA fought to keep regulation to the minimum necessary for safety. AOPA urged that the FAA establish an office to monitor traffic in terminal areas, install more ILSs, provide more airport improvement program funds to outlying reliever and potential reliever airports, build more runways at existing airports, and designate more military airports as joint-use facilities.
In the middle of the decade, sad news arrived at AOPA. Alfred L. Wolf, the last surviving founder and one of the original trustees, passed away.
The effects of product liability really kicked general aviation in the 1980s, as airplane production declined rapidly. In 1985, Cessna Chairman Russell W. Meyer Jr., reported that between 20 and 30 percent of the cost of a new airplane represented product liability insurance. AOPA worked to introduce reform measures, galvanizing members to write their elected representatives.
By 1989, AOPA membership was close to the 300,000 mark.
As the 1990s opened, the fight for general aviation airports accelerated. Closings and restrictions threatened many airports around the country, with development pressures and noise complaints heaping work on AOPA's plate.
As part of encouraging favorable attention to general aviation airports, AOPA in 1990 instituted journalism awards named for retired Pilot editor Max Karant. Separate awards are available each year for radio, television/cable and print journalists.
In 1991, another milestone in AOPA history occurred when Phil Boyer, former senior vice president with ABC Television, assumed the reins of the association from John Baker. The next year, he launched AOPA Pilot Town Meetings, bringing AOPA's leaders to the members at meetings throughout the nation.
In 1995, AOPA launched its Web site, AOPA Online.
Surveys conducted by AOPA told us that protection for local airports is one of the greatest concerns among pilots of all experience levels. In the United States, we have for some time been losing public-use airports at a rate of almost one per week. Many of these are privately owned airports, but there has been an alarming increase in efforts to close public facilities. One prominent example is Meigs Field, Chicago's lakefront general aviation reliever only minutes from the downtown business district. Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered the airport closed so that a $28 million park could be constructed on the site. But the airport reopened on February 10, 1997, after a major effort by AOPA, local airport support group Friends of Meigs Field, and the State of Illinois. That battle was not over, however; Daley said that he would again seek to close the airport when an agreement with the state expired in five years.
To further increase effectiveness in local airport issues, in 1997 AOPA launched the Airport Support Network. The goal of this very important program is to identify one volunteer representative at every public-use airport in the country. These individuals serve two primary roles, informing the association of potential threats to the airport and, when necessary, rallying the support of local pilots.
Also in 1997 renters and aircraft owners alike began benefiting from AOPA's FBO Rebate Program. Under the program, MBNA America — the bank that issues AOPA MasterCard and Visa credit cards — rebates to the member a full three percent (later raised to five percent) of any purchase made with an AOPA credit card at any fixed-base operator that sells fuel or rents aircraft in the United States. The rebate was fully funded by MBNA and did not cost FBOs or AOPA a cent. The association's large membership base gave us the strength to negotiate this unique arrangement. Subsequently, in 2006, Bank of America acquired MBNA America. As a result, the AOPA FBO Rebate was replaced with the AOPA WorldPoints Rewards credit card program, offering unlimited points on all purchases and double points on aviation-related purchases. The credit card continues to provide valuable revenue, which AOPA uses to increase advocacy efforts, keep dues low, and continue to offer free services such as weather, flight planning, and a world-class Web site.
AOPA staffers fought hundreds of battles for pilots in the first half of the 1990s, including funding for DUATS and effective opposition for both a "shoot-em-down" proposal from U.S. Customs and a suggestion for costly renewals of pilot certificates.
The biggest "win" for all of general aviation, however, was the 1994 passage of product liability reform legislation, which led directly to an announcement from Cessna that production would resume. AOPA presented the first new Cessna 172 off the production line to Sharon Hauser, February 1, 1997, as the 1995 membership sweepstakes winner.
General aviation showed some very significant growth during 1998. More new aircraft were delivered than in any year since 1984, and the number of student pilot starts was up for the first time in years. Students are completing their training, too — the FAA issued 22 percent more new private pilot certificates than during the previous year. The number of new instrument ratings increased an impressive 36.6 percent. AOPA continued its industry-leading "Platinum Level" support of GA Team 2000, the cooperative program to increase student pilot starts, which was renamed Be A Pilot. We also recognized the need to increase the value of what we have to offer for student pilots, and laid the groundwork for AOPA's purchase of Flight Training magazine, the only magazine dedicated to the student pilot and certificated flight instructor. The purchase was completed in January 1999, and the http://flighttraining.aopa.org Web site was launched.
During 1998, AOPA obtained a change in status from a not-for-profit to a tax-exempt organization, under Section 501(c)4 of the Internal Revenue Code. This change freed more funds that can be spent on important general aviation initiatives. An additional amount was credited to membership equity as a benefit of the change. Other tax-exempt organizations include the American Association of Retired Persons, International Bar Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and National Rifle Association.
AOPA moved as fast as modern communications technology demanded when the national spotlight focused on John F. Kennedy Jr.'s tragic crash off Martha's Vineyard in July. As the world awoke to news of the search for Kennedy's missing airplane, association staff began what would total 150 media interviews in four days. The emphasis was on countering misconceptions and bias against general aviation and small-airplane flying. The unprecedented effort won kudos throughout the aviation industry, including editorials from aviation officials and editors across the nation. Most gratifying was a coveted Aviation Week and Space Technology "Laurel" — essentially an aviation Oscar — awarded to members of the AOPA team.
In late 1999, AOPA launched yet another publication — its weekly email newsletter, ePilot.
AOPA closed the 1990s with 357,644 members.
For more than a decade, AOPA had been working to unlock the aviation trust fund. That effort paid off with passage of the Aviation Investment and Reform Act (AIR-21), which authorized funds for airport and airway modernization. Although AOPA staff personally worked with members of Congress to gain their support, AOPA members' grass-roots efforts to contact elected representatives and senators helped to make the difference. This marked only the third time in the past 10 years AOPA had rallied the membership to write on a national issue. In addition, AOPA waged a public campaign for AIR-21, with press releases, interviews, and a special "advertorial" published in the aviation trade magazines that carried the message to thousands of nonmembers, prompting them to write their legislators in support of this important bill.
The government's aeronautical charts provided AOPA a chance to combine work in both the legislative and regulatory arenas on an important initiative in 2000. For many years these charts were produced and distributed by the National Ocean Service, a unit of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The professionals at NOS did a good job and consistently produced a reliable product. When funding and budget issues led NOS to propose the discontinuation of important charting products, however, AOPA realized that this critical safety function should be an FAA responsibility. As a result, the association secured legislation that transferred aeronautical charting to the FAA's new National Aeronautical Charting Office.
When we awoke on Sept. 11, 2001, none of us expected the world to change so completely and irrevocably as it did that day. Even as we moved through the haze of shock and grief at the tragedy that had befallen our nation — and mourned the fact that aviation was used as a weapon of destruction — AOPA staff got to work, keeping pilots informed, working to lift unnecessary restrictions, and defending the right and privilege to fly.
In the days and weeks immediately following the terrorist attacks, one of the greatest needs of members was for accurate, clear information regarding airspace, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), airport closures, intercept procedures, notams, and more. AOPA was ready with AOPA Online. Not only could members find plain-language translations and graphical depictions of notams and TFRs, they could get answers to their questions about the rapidly changing environment. In September alone, the Web site hosted more than 2 million sessions.
At the same time the AOPA Pilot Information Center was flooded with as many as 1,600 member calls per day and stayed open over two weekends for the first time in the association's history. Staff members volunteered to postpone vacations and other personal activities to keep the phones operating at full capacity.
Accurate information about general aviation and how it operates was also critical to lawmakers, the public, and the media. Information from AOPA Online appeared in such newspapers as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune, as well as on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, and other television and radio news outlets. In addition, AOPA representatives conducted more than 500 media interviews in which they cut through the fear and overreactions to tell the real story of general aviation and how it serves America every day. In interviews with television, radio, and printed news media, as well as in an editorial for USA Today, AOPA explained GA's importance to the national transportation system and argued against unnecessary restrictions.
Just as important as staying informed was getting back in the air and flying safely. AOPA Legislative Affairs, the association's lobbying arm on Capitol Hill, got to work right away, arranging meetings with influential policy makers and telling general aviation's side of the story. Boyer personally met with a number of legislators to provide them with insight as to how GA operates and the enormous economic impact of keeping lightplanes on the ground. As the flood of complex, confusing, and sometimes misleading notams threatened to overwhelm pilots who were allowed to return to the skies, a staff member was stationed at FAA headquarters, where she was able to help clarify these rules, often before they were released. With an on-the-spot advocate for general aviation, AOPA was able to tell the FAA about the realities of operating general aviation aircraft and uncover some of the hidden implications in their proposals. Those efforts also helped stop some of the most onerous proposals from ever becoming reality.
In the weeks following the attacks, as much of aviation returned to some semblance of normalcy, a handful of airports tucked under so-called enhanced Class B airspace and within temporary flight restrictions around Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston remained closed. AOPA worked with policy makers, airport managers, and business owners to come up with proposals that would address security concerns while making it possible to get those businesses back to work. Persistent, determined efforts eventually reopened those fields.
To make sure that the money needed to fund public awareness and educational campaigns is available, AOPA launched the General Aviation Restoration Fund, which had raised some $500,000 by the end of 2001. Plans for 2002 included major newspaper advertisements extolling the positive role GA plays in America and directing readers to a newly designed Web site devoted exclusively to describing all aspects of general aviation, gaservingamerica.org.
Even as AOPA fought to keep restrictions imposed on GA to a minimal, reasonable level, some pilots ran afoul of the complex and rapidly changing rules. Our legal services team was able to work with the FAA to establish no-violations agreements for certain transgressions caused by faulty information passed to pilots through flight service and other official channels.
A return to normalcy is what everyone in aviation has hoped and worked for since the world changed on September 11, 2001. But the truth is that things will never be exactly the same. Today there's a new definition of normal — and it includes new concerns about security, new government agencies, and new threats to the rights and privileges of general aviation pilots. As the definition of what's normal continues to evolve, AOPA is working proactively to make sure that the interests of general aviation are represented at the highest levels.
In times of change it would have been easy to adopt a wait-and-see approach to setting organizational goals, but AOPA elected not to stagnate. Instead, because the association understands that there is strength in numbers, it decided to strive for membership growth. The year 2004 closed with a new record of 404,000 AOPA members, helping to keep AOPA the largest, most influential aviation association in the world.
The ensuing years brought many of the same challenges that AOPA and general aviation had been facing for decades. But there were some significant twists. Additional security rules took the stage as the federal government’s concerns over foreign student pilots increased. At one point, the FAA wanted flight instructors to carry the burden of validating a student’s citizenship. AOPA opposed the proposal, and prevailed.
Another security-related controversy was sparked by a 2006 proposal to require pilots entering or leaving the United States to provide passenger manifests via internet 60 minutes before takeoff or landing. AOPA argued that many foreign locales have no internet access. This procedure remains voluntary for the time being.
A similar proposal, dubbed the Large Aircraft Security Plan, would also require passenger manifests and security checks for passengers flying in general aviation aircraft more than 12,500 pounds maximum takeoff weight. AOPA continues to oppose this plan on the grounds that general aviation pilots know their passengers on a first-name basis, and that security is not an issue.
When the FAA handed the flight service station network over to the private sector in 2006, AOPA was there to demand that Lockheed-Martin, the winner of the flight service contract, must provide services “as good or better” than what existed when flight service stations were under FAA’s direct administration. But this didn’t pan out. By 2007, AOPA gave Lockheed-Martin a failing grade for its new FS-21 (Flight Service 21) system, citing dropped telephone calls, excessive call waiting, lost flight plans, and woefully inexperienced briefers. Because of this oversight, FS-21 has improved in recent months.
Meanwhile, AOPA’s long efforts at promoting the expanded use of GPS navigation—to include instrument approaches with vertical guidance—came to fruition in 2006, when the FAA approved the first GPS/WAAS VNAV approaches. These new procedures, which use corrected GPS signals for greater accuracy, would expand in popularity, bringing more safety to instrument approaches at many airports that never before had them.
In a similar vein, AOPA’s early support of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology for aircraft separation and sequencing continues to pay off as ADS-B trials continue in various locations around the nation.
But of all the many initiatives that attracted AOPA’s advocacy in recent years—preserving access to airports within the Washington, D.C. ADIZ; urging research into lead-free alternatives to 100LL avgas; avoiding costly and unnecessary Airworthiness Directives on Beech Bonanza and Baron spar webs; extending third class medical certificate validity to five years for those under 40; and successfully limiting military use of flares and chaff in military training complexes, among them—none approached the significance of the FAA’s proposal to levy user fees to finance the Next Generation air traffic control system (NextGen, for short) of the future.
The issue raised its head in 2005, with FAA suggestions that fees for filing flight plans, obtaining pilot and medical certificates, landing fees and other schemes would help boost NextGen funding. By 2007 the user fees issue was before Congress—and so was AOPA. Using the government’s own analysis and figures, AOPA discredited claims about current funding mechanisms and demanded clarification about what NextGen would entail and how much it would cost. AOPA leaders testified before Congress many times, and even called on AOPA members to write their Congressmen. The response was overwhelmingly against user fees, and lawmakers got the message. Aviation fuel taxes would continue as a funding method, and temporary authorizations continued to fund the FAA.
However, the back-and-forth over user fees hasn’t gone away. A user fee proposal appeared in President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal but soon disappeared after vigorous objections by AOPA and general aviation’s friends in Congress.
Other momentous events in AOPA history occurred in 2008. That was when the AOPA Foundation was formed—an organization with the goal of raising $58 million to promote initiatives to increase student pilot enrollments, and ensure the future of general aviation. Among the initiatives funded by the AOPA Foundation is Let’s Go Flying, an internet-based program to make general aviation accessible to prospective pilots.
In keeping with its mission, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation expanded its outreach by creating interactive online courses targeting many safety issues in ways as informative as they are entertaining. The Air Safety Foundation has also introduced new ways of learning from the mistakes of others, letting pilots listen to the voices of their peers in “Real Pilot Stories” and posting blogs to open dialog on issues critical to pilot safety. In 2010, after decades of being an independent organization, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation took a new name—the Air Safety Institute—and became part of the AOPA Foundation. The move preserved the expertise and clear focus of this leading safety organization while supporting the broader mission of the AOPA Foundation.
AOPA President Craig Fuller took office in January 2009. Fuller, a former chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, brings a wealth of political savvy to AOPA. Even before he formally took office, Fuller met with Obama administration officials to emphasize the issues of importance to general aviation.
In early 2009, AOPA introduced Aviation eBrief, a daily electronic news service delivering stories of interest to the general aviation community. In keeping with AOPA’s focus on bringing general aviation news to a broader audience, eBrief—an initiative created by Fuller—is free to anyone who signs up, whether they are AOPA members or not.
Also in 2009, Fuller launched the General Aviation Serves America campaign to help educate decision makers, opinion leaders, and the public about the economic, social, and humanitarian value general aviation delivers to all Americans, whether they fly or not. With actor and pilot Harrison Ford as the campaign’s spokesperson, the message was delivered to hundreds of thousands of people and received a strong positive response on Capitol Hill.
Later that year, the House and Senate each created a General Aviation Caucus, a forum for lawmakers to learn about and discuss issues central to general aviation. By the end of the following year, both groups had grown dramatically, with 31 senators taking part and 120 representatives joining, making the organization one of the largest in the House of Representatives.
In late 2009, at AOPA’s first annual Aviation Summit, held in Tampa, Florida, the association launched AOPA Live, an online streaming media channel featuring interviews with the most fascinating and influential figures in aviation as well as new developments in avionics and technology, aircraft, how-to videos, feature stories, and more. Within a year of its launch, AOPA Live videos had been viewed more than 1 million times in more than 160 countries.
All of Fuller’s 2009 efforts were directed at creating a more collaborative environment among general aviation organizations. By working together on the most important issues of the day, GA organizations could do far more to serve their individual members than they could alone. The message was well received, and AOPA soon announced collaborative agreements with numerous aviation organizations, including EAA, NBAA, NATA, WAI, and others.
By 2010, that collaborative approach had gained momentum and AOPA began urging pilots everywhere to take the next step in supporting GA by getting more engaged. The Year of Engagement, as it was dubbed, saw tens of thousands of pilots taking part in outreach events, hosting airport open houses, sharing success stories, making charitable flights, and taking other actions to demonstrate the value of general aviation to their own communities. In addition, some 300 new participants became part of the AOPA Airport Support Network, swelling the ranks of volunteers to more than 2,200—a number that would continue to grow in the coming year.
The general aviation community made it clear in 2010 that user fees were not the best way to fund the nation’s aviation system. Early that year President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2011 showed that those voices were heard—the budget did not propose new aviation user fees, as the 2009 budget language had suggested it might.
“AOPA members stood strong against the proposal, and general aviation organizations worked together to prevent the realization of a policy that could have crippled GA,” Fuller said.
The new budget request did include $1.1 billion for NextGen air transportation system modernization—an increase of almost a third—and $3.5 billion for the Airport Improvement Program, the same as in previous years.
Collaboration also proved valuable as a 20-year effort to find a replacement for leaded avgas gained new urgency as the fuel was scrutinized by the Environmental Protection Agency. AOPA, other aviation associations, and the petroleum industry moved quickly to review existing research and identify key criteria for any replacement fuel. At the same time, AOPA worked diligently to ensure that leaded avgas would remain available until an acceptable alternative could be found.
Late in 2010, that same cooperative approach was at the heart of a new and very different effort to grow the pilot population. Instead of trying to attract more people to flying, the AOPA Flight Training Retention Initiative examined why as many as 70 percent of student pilots dropped out of training before earning a pilot certificate. With support from the AOPA Foundation, AOPA sponsored research into the causes of the high dropout rate and gathered together experts from all segments of the aviation community to seek solutions.
Following the program’s launch at AOPA’s 2010 Aviation Summit in Long Beach, Calif., the effort continued into 2011, with forums and discussion groups taking place nationwide.
The AOPA Foundation’s first ever online auction closed Nov. 13 after raising more than $250,000 that will be used to support the organization’s major initiatives. Foundation President Bruce Landsberg made the announcement at a fundraising dinner aboard the Queen Mary hotel. The former cruise ship is permanently docked in California’s Long Beach Harbor, near where AOPA held its Aviation Summit over the previous three days.
Also at the 2010 Summit, Yorke Brown, a scientific and engineering consultant from Etna, N.H., was named the winner of the 2010 Fun to Fly Sweepstakes Remos GX light sport aircraft. Fuller announced the sweepstakes winner on Nov. 12.
Long Beach also featured “A Night for Flight” dinner and auction. The highest priced of the 96 auction items was a new Classic Aircraft Waco YMF-5D, which Virginia AOPA member Mark Rossi bid up to $330,000. Classic provided the new Waco, which Rossi could spec out from the factory, at cost, allowing the foundation to keep the difference between cost and the winning bid. AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman and photographer Chris Rose flew a Waco from Frederick, Md., to Long Beach to act as a stand-in display for what Rossi was bidding on.
Other items included a lunch and flight with actor/pilot Harrison Ford, which netted $55,000, an experience with celebrity chef/author/pilot Alton Brown, which raised $10,100 and a FlightSafety International training course that brought in more than $15,000.
AOPA Live also expanded to include continuous daily news coverage of the 2010 Summit. That broader coverage, along with year-round coverage from other major aviation events, generated a substantial archive of video material. In 2010 alone, viewers spent some 73,000 hours watching AOPA Live.
The Air Safety Institute’s 2010 Joseph T. Nall Report found slightly fewer accidents despite a modest increase in flight time. The accident rate for noncommercial fixed-wing flights shrank from 6.6 per 100,000 hours in 2009 to 6.3 in 2010, a decrease of almost 5 percent.
In early 2011, as a new Congress settled down to work, the question of user fees arose once again—and was once again drew a chorus of protests from AOPA and the pilot community.
In January, 116 member of the House of Representatives signed a letter opposing user fees, and when President Obama proposed his next budget it did not include those fees. That wasn’t coincidence. AOPA played a significant role in educating members of Congress of the hefty fuel tax that general aviation already pays to support aviation infrastructure, and the detrimental impact that user fees would have on AOPA members. AOPA also worked in 2011 to make sure that no new fees or taxes were imposed on general aviation on either the federal or state level.
At the same time, Congress took up the still-unresolved debate over the future of funding for FAA, a debate that will have a major impact on NextGen modernization, leaded avgas, airport grants, and other key issues.
In the first months of the year economic data began to hint that the nation—and general aviation—had begun a steady slog out of the depths of the worst economic downturn in 77 years. The FAA reported that air traffic control tower activity was up 10 percent between 2009 and 2010, center activity was up 7 percent, and avgas sales increased 1 percent.
“Although we see the economy getting stronger,” Craig Fuller wrote, “we also know that the government is facing massive deficits—not only at the federal level, but in states and local communities, too. And that has made budget cutting one of the dominant political themes this year. When lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce spending, general aviation is very often a convenient target.”
Despite glimmers of hope for a recovery, there were still plenty of sobering general aviation numbers to reverse: The number of pilot certificates issued in 2010 was down 51 percent from the previous year, the number of CFIs dropped 13 percent and new instrument ratings dropped 50 percent.
AOPA continued to press the FAA on a variety of other important issues, including the need to determine a lead-free alternative to 100 LL aviation fuel. It also urged Congress to provide funding for avgas alternatives research. AOPA also used its place on an aviation industry committee to ensure parity within the FAA’s development of the NextGen air traffic control operation system, including the possibility of the FAA providing aircraft owners with low-interest loans to help with avionics modernization to meet NextGen requirements.
N182CX, AOPA’s Cessna 182 Crossover Classic, was awarded during AOPA Summit in Hartford, Conn. The lucky winner was United Airlines First Officer Eric Short, who was given the airplane after his usual 1 a.m. arrival on a trip from San Francisco to Washington Dulles International Airport. With assistance from United, Short’s workday was extended a few minutes so he could be ferried in a van to the terminal. The van diverted instead to a hangar that contained the red and white Crossover Classic, a beautifully updated Cessna 182. Once there, Fuller did the honors and gave Short the keys to his new airplane.
The AOPA Aviation Summit in Hartford, Conn., drew 7,000 members and aviation enthusiasts, despite rainy weather.
“The crowd was enthusiastic and ready to explore all things general aviation,” Fuller said. “We had a tremendous array of aircraft and exhibitors, great speakers for our keynotes and seminars, and lots of fun and camaraderie at social events. And AOPA Live drew in an audience from around the world. In short, it was a wonderful three days for any fan of GA.”
Carrying umbrellas and donning ponchos, Airportfest visitors perused 50 aircraft on display ranging from light sport aircraft, like the Bristell announced at Summit, to turboprops and light jets. Two of the main attractions included the Crossover Classic and the 2012 Tougher-Than-A-Tornado Sweepstakes Aviat Husky.
Attendees participated in more than 60 hours of educational seminars, pulling out their electronic devices or good-old-fashioned pen and paper to take notes. One of the most popular seminars, “iPads in the Cockpit”, gave more than 400 pilots tips for how to use the popular electronic device for flight planning, pulling up charts and approach plates, and more.
The year 2012 began with once again the threat of aviation user fees suggested in a statement made by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Once again, AOPA led the general aviation community’s charge to defeat a fees proposal.
But by March, any notion of user fees began to crumble under heavy Congressional opposition. Sponsors of the bipartisan House letter opposing the fees included aviation subcommittee Ranking Member Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.) and the co-chairs of the House General Aviation Caucus, Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo,) and John Barrow (D-Ga.). Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) , also signed.
“Almost half of the House members signed, and we would have no trouble getting a majority if this proposal were ever to be advanced to the full House—which it won't,” said House aviation subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri (R-Wis.).
On March 20 AOPA and the Experimental Aircraft Association jointly filed a petition asking the FAA to allow pilots to use a driver’s license as proof of physical fitness in lieu of a third class medical certificate.
The petition’s conditions asked that pilots be allowed to operate noncommercial flights under day VFR in single-engine aircraft with 180 horsepower or less, four seats or fewer, fixed gear, and with a maximum of one passenger. The medical standard would be similar to the standard sport pilots have used safely for the previous seven years, but added an annual education course requirement.
If approved by the FAA, the petition held the potential to put back in the air thousands of pilots grounded by minor medical ailments that do not prohibit them driving a vehicle.
Shortly afterward, AOPA launched several programs that were likewise designed to put more pilots back in the left seat by improving the flight training experience and bolstering flying clubs. The Center to Advance the Pilot Community was formed and launched Flight Training Excellence Awards. It also launched a significant research effort to examine best practices at flight schools and methods for bring lapsed or “Rusty” pilots back into flying. The Center, also known as CAPCOM, additionally directed the Flying Club Initiative, aimed at sharing information among the nation’s 600 flying clubs as a means of extending flight training, attracting new pilots and giving aviators an affordable way to fly well-maintained aircraft. By year’s end, more than 400 flying clubs had joined the network.
The 2012 AOPA Summit in Palm Springs featured a Flight Training Awards ceremony, a host of education and vendor displays, and the popular Parade of Planes, featuring 70 aircraft taxiing a one-mile route through city streets from the Palm Springs International Airport to the city’s Convention Center. The summit, which ran from Oct. 10 through 13, drew nearly 10,000 members and aviation enthusiasts. Actor Harrison Ford, an avid pilot and aviation activist, was a keynote speaker.
The year 2013 began as one of challenges and change for AOPA. Immediately the prospect of user fees was again raised by the White House. During his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed reducing a tax depreciation that was designed to boost sales of business aircraft.
“Now, if you’re the type of guy who prefers to fly via private jet to survey your many oil fields, this is most assuredly not good news,” the president said.
The comments drew a storm of protests from general aviation, since few pilots own oil fields or jets. In the end, the president’s words were just bluster; a depreciation on business jets that actually helps sell more jets was sustained thanks to congressional support. Nor did a user fee proposal make the next proposed budget.
On Feb. 28 Fuller told the AOPA Board of Trustees that he intended to resign as soon as his replacement was found. The board launched a search for a successor.
At the same time, the battle over federal spending on aviation was consumed by a budgetary device the White House and Congress had agreed on months earlier: sequestration. These automatic cuts were due to take hold April 1. The White House issued a severe warning that the FAA’s portion—about $600 million in cuts—would mean closed control towers, reduced navigational aid maintenance, snarled airline passenger lounges, and canceled flights.
The FAA announced that it intended to close 149 contract-operated control towers in June 2013. AOPA noted that the contract towers are one of the FAA’s most efficient programs—they operate at a third of the cost of the FAA-run towers that employ unionized controllers.
“The recommended cuts will have unacceptable consequences for the nation and the flying community,” Fuller said in a March 12 letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We urge you to suspend the planned cuts while we, and others, call upon Congress and the Administration’s budget officials to grant you the needed flexibility to make choices that will reduce spending without threatening the safety of our skies or disabling general aviation.”
“It’s about safety and jobs,” said Harrison Ford in a meeting with the House General Aviation Caucus March 19. Well-versed in aviation issues, Ford, a passionate pilot, called on Congress to help the FAA find redistribute its sizable budget to keep the towers open. The FAA has said that many of the towers could close as soon as April 7.
When the agency announced that it would furlough FAA controllers, Congress feared a severe airline travel slowdown and political backlash. It used its newly granted transfer authority to fund the tower program and revive the contract towers before the June deadline.
On a separate front, AOPA objected to a plan by the Federal Communication Commission to prohibit the certification, manufacture, importation, sale, or use of 121.5 MHz emergency locator transmitters ( ELTs). That would force aircraft owners to switch to 406 MHz ELTs, a requirement that AOPA argued would hinder—not improve—aviation safety. It would also conflict with existing law.
AOPA found that eliminating 121.5 MHz ELTs would cost aircraft owners an estimated $1,000 to $2,000 per aircraft to switch to the 406 MHz ELT. The cost to the industry would be an estimated $300 million to $500 million, according to the FAA.
In the wake of the flap over sequestration and air traffic control cuts, AOPA rallied to the side of EAA when the FAA told EAA that it intended to charge it nearly $450,000 for the use of FAA controllers during its annual AirVenture celebration in Oshkosh, Wis., during the summer.
In May the AOPA Foundation announced that it would award $10,000 “Giving Back” grants to organizations that included general aviation in their programs. At the same time, AOPA launched a new, easier to use website.
During the summer general aviation realized an exciting potential benefit when the House of Representatives introduced the Small Aircraft Revitalization Act. The new law would revise Part 23 certification requirements for small airplanes, reducing the cost of certification for manufacturers—and buyers—as well as the certification price and purchase price of advance avionics, many of which offer enhanced safety features. The bill gave the FAA 2015 deadline to adopt the new rules. FAA Administrator Huerta verbally endorsed the changes, and the measure would eventually gain approval from the full Congress and the president’s signature.
In August the AOPA Board of Trustees announced that it had chosen Mark Baker, a successful business executive and avid aviator, as the next and fifth president and CEO of AOPA. A native Minnesotan, Baker earned his pilot certificate in his twenties and has logged more than 7,500 hours of flight time in aircraft ranging from light seaplanes to turbines and helicopters. He holds numerous ratings and certificates, including a commercial pilot certificate, single- and multiengine seaplane ratings, rotorcraft rating, and type ratings in the Cessna Citation 500 and 525s.
Shortly after taking office in September, Baker announced that AOPA would suspend its annual Aviation Summit in 2014 and instead reach more members “where they fly” through six regional Fly-Ins throughout the U.S. Baker also announced that AOPA, celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2014, would bring back the popular Fly-In at its headquarters at the Frederick, Md., Municipal Airport (KFDK).
“One of my biggest priorities is to meet members in venues that truly spark their passion. I want our members to make a personal connection with AOPA, and that is best achieved by meeting them where they fly,” Baker said. “We now have a wonderful opening to visit general aviation airports and engage pilots in a much bigger way that is also more affordable and accessible for members. This decision is about going out to where our members are, maximizing the number of pilots that we reach on an annual basis. And it will also give me a real opportunity to spend quality time with members and seek their honest feedback in a more comfortable and relaxed setting.”
Baker stressed that the 2013 Aviation Summit, planned for Fort Worth, Texas, in October, would go ahead as planned. That Summit in fact drew nearly 9,000 attendees. And while some members lamented the lack of a Summit in 2014, many more embraced the notion of flying to a regional event near them.
Several months later AOPA announced that the 2014 Fly-Ins would be held in San Marcos, Texas; Indianapolis, Ind.; Plymouth, Mass.; Spokane, Wash.; Chino, Calif.; St. Simons, Ga.; and of course the Fly-In at Frederick, Md.
Another immediate priority for Baker was pressing the FAA for a decision on the AOPA-EAA third class medical petition. Baker met with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who suggested that he would consider the petition
In late 2013 AOPA threw its support behind The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act, a bill proposed by Reps. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), and Sam Graves, (R-Mo), and co-sponsored by Reps. Bill Flores (R-Texas), Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), and Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). The new legislation expanded on the petition submitted to the FAA by AOPA and EAA in March 2012. The FAA had failed to act on that joint petition, which drew more than 16,000 comments from pilots and interested parties.
“We have waited far too long for the FAA to act on our petition,” Baker said. “As a result, Representatives Rokita and Graves stepped forward to take decisive action in the best interests of fellow general aviation pilots. We appreciate their outstanding leadership on this issue and look forward to seeing this bill move forward quickly.”
The bill would significantly revise the third class medical by replacing a brief, compulsory medical examination with a requirement that pilots possess a valid driver’s license as proof of health. It would also limit pilots under this standard to flying with no more than five passengers, not above 14,000 feet and at no more than 250 knots, and in aircraft that have a maximum takeoff weight of 6,000 lbs.
AOPA also used its influence within Congress to block the FAA flight surgeon’s intention to mandate screening for sleep apnea in overweight pilots. AOPA noted that there was no proof that sleep apnea was a safety factor in aviation, and that the seemingly arbitrary new regulation would unnecessarily ground some pilots and subject them to expensive treatment that may not be necessary. The FAA eventually suspended the proposal while the House of Representatives introduced legislation that would block it.
AOPA closed 2013 with new leadership, new ideas, and having won a number of vital legislation victories that sustained its core mission to the freedom to fly.