Nearly 9,400 visitors traveled to Philadelphia last week for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's annual convention and trade show, AOPA Expo 2003. Some 1,550 aircraft flew into Philadelphia International Airport and Philadelphia Northeast Airport for the show. Announcing the final attendance at the closing banquet, AOPA President Phil Boyer said, "That's about 250 more aircraft than we had the last time we were in the Northeast. That's what we call a successful Expo."
In this, the year in which the world marks the 100th anniversary of powered flight, AOPA chose to celebrate its own history by returning to its birthplace. In 1939, five Philadelphia businessmen who saw the clouds of World War II gathering and recognized the threat they posed to general aviation, gathered at Philadelphia's Wings Field to do something about it. What they did was create a membership-owned association that could speak with one voice to defend the interests of GA pilots. After much wrangling over a name, the founders decided simply to call the organization what it was—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Throughout the three-day exposition, looking back went hand-in-hand with looking ahead. Each day's general session began with AOPA President Phil Boyer reading from that date's entry in the Wright brothers' 1903 diary as they worked to get their Flyer ready. A full-scale replica of their 1900 glider, with which the Wrights tested many of their aerodynamic theories, hung over the general session hall. At Friday's general session, three leaders in the avionics industry discussed what's coming for GA cockpits, flanked on the left by banners depicting that first momentous flight on Dec. 17, 1903, and on the right by banners showing a modern-day GA aircraft flying in a wide-open sky.
Members were astounded by the newest member benefit unveiled at Expo 2003— AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner. AOPA worked with Jeppesen to create a "lite" version of Jeppesen's acclaimed flight planning software. Every time a user logs onto Real-Time Flight Planner, it pulls up the most current temporary flight and navaid information available. It allows users to store a pilot profile, two aircraft profiles, and up to five routes. An intuitive flight-planning window automatically chooses a route. The program includes a connection to either DUATS provider and will overlay weather graphics on the en route chart. After that, users can click-and-drag their route line to "rubberband" around weather and or special-use airspace.
The almost universal response from visitors who saw demonstrations at Expo was, "And how much does it cost? Free?! You're kidding!"
"From the beginning, we wanted to give our members a free product that would make it easier to actually see where TFRs are as they plan their flights," said Boyer. "Jeppesen came through with much more than we originally expected."
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey spoke to a packed house of more than 1,200 pilots at the opening general session on Thursday morning, urging support for the FAA reauthorization bill, known as "Vision 100." She said, "The FAA does not support a fee-based system. I don't know how to make it clearer than that."
But at the closing general session on Saturday, Boyer told the members, "The original bill would have made all jobs at all levels of air traffic control government jobs. This current bill leaves all jobs open for privatization. And the two things you members have told us over and over again are your biggest concerns are a privatized ATC system and user fees. This bill makes both possible. And so we don't support it."
At the grand finale banquet, AOPA awarded its two highest honors, the J.B. "Doc" Hartranft Award for the person in government service who has had the greatest positive impact on general aviation during the past year, and the Laurence P. Sharples Perpetual Award, which recognizes the year's greatest, selfless commitment to general aviation by a private citizen.
Michigan State Representative Stephen Ehardt accepted the Hartranft Award. Working closely with AOPA, Ehardt pushed a bill through the state legislature that rescinded Michigan's onerous pilot criminal background check law. Under that law, anyone seeking any type of flight training was required to undergo a criminal background check. Ehardt's bill replaced that requirement with commonsense rules that flight schools must follow to ensure general aviation security. Accepting the award, Ehardt stressed the importance of local involvement in protecting general aviation. "Get to know your elected officials," he said. "I can tell you that constituent calls get the attention of those officials."
The Hartranft Award is named for AOPA's first full-time president, Joseph B. Hartranft.
In New Jersey, AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Martin Christie saw his home airport, Central Jersey Airport, under pressure from encroaching developers. Working with the public-use airport's private owners, Christie campaigned hard for the legislature to allow the state to buy the development rights for threatened airports. The legislature agreed and passed a bill that lets the state pay the private owner of an airport for development rights. In return, the owner agrees to keep the land for use as an airport in perpetuity. For his efforts, AOPA presented Christie with the Sharples Award. "As an AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer, I have been part of a team effort to save an airport," Christie said as he accepted the award. "With AOPA's help, the fight has been fought and the battle won. I like to think I accept this award on behalf of all ASN volunteers."
The Sharples Award is named for one of the five founding members of AOPA.
AOPA also honored members of the general media for helping the cause of general aviation through fair, balanced, and insightful reporting.
Larry K. Randa, a freelance writer from the Chicago area, received the Max Karant Award for print journalism for his series of reports on five suburban airports that are thriving because of support from their local communities.
Kim Green, an independent radio producer from Nashville, Tenn., was awarded the Karant award for her National Public Radio report on efforts to recruit more women into the ranks of America's pilots.
Producer Mark Erskine of Seattle's KING-TV received the Karant Award for television news or short feature. Erskine produced a riveting recreation of a VFR pilot's inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions near Washington's Mt. St. Helens, and air traffic controls efforts to help him find his way safely out.
Belle Adler and Brad White shared the Karant Award in the program-length television category for their work on the Animal Planet documentary, Operation Animal Shield. The program showed the efforts of two aerobatic GA pilots from the United States to help airborne wildlife rangers in Kenya protect that country's amazing animal population from poachers.
The Max Karant Journalism Award is named for the first editor of AOPA Pilot magazine.
More than 500 exhibits covered the huge floor of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Vendors were pleased with the show. One noted that between the AOPA Fly-In and Open House at the association's Frederick, Md., headquarters every June and AOPA Expo's every-other-year appearance on the East Coast provide their only large-scale opportunity to meet with pilots from the Northeast face to face.
A short shuttle bus ride away, at Philadelphia International Airport, some 60 aircraft were on display, some of them sporting the new "glass cockpit" integrated flight decks that have finally come down in price to the point that they make financial sense in a GA single-engine piston aircraft. Vendors at the airport considered the show a success as well. They had approximately a dozen signed contracts before the show was over and a number of other prospects that they termed "solid."
AOPA Expo 2003 concluded with a grand finale banquet, including special entertainment put together specifically for AOPA by Incredible Productions. The song-and-dance production featured a hilarious skit about Phil Boyer wrestling with the prospect of having to turn the AOPA Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes aircraft, the beautifully restored 1940 Waco UPF-7 biplane, over to the winner of the sweepstakes early next year.
Next year, AOPA returns to the West Coast. Plans are already under way for AOPA Expo 2004 in Long Beach, Calif., October 21-23.
"AOPA Expo is a wonderful opportunity for GA to put its best foot forward, and it's a lot of fun for us to meet our members face to face," said Boyer. "We look forward to seeing everyone next year in Long Beach."
The 400,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has been representing the interests of general aviation pilots since 1939. General aviation includes all flying except the scheduled airlines and the military. Nearly two thirds of all U.S. pilots, and three quarters of the GA pilots, are AOPA members.