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AOPA founders' general aviation initiative paves the way to attaining 400,000 membershipAOPA founders' general aviation initiative paves the way to attaining 400,000 membership

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AOPA staff celebrates
400,000th member, July 29, 2003.

Five Philadelphia businessmen laid the foundation for an "Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association" in the early spring of 1939 to establish a collective voice for general aviation. By early winter that year, 2,000 pilots had joined the new association. By the middle of summer in 2003, AOPA total membership topped 400,000. AOPA continues to be the largest civil aviation organization in the world. Sixty-four years of growth can be keyed to significant events that shaped general aviation and AOPA.

"Miscellaneous aviation" was a term used more often than "general aviation" in the late 1930s. Philadelphians Alfred L. Wolf, John Story Smith, Philip T. Sharples, Laurence P. Sharples, and C. Townsend Ludington wanted to focus on personal flying to the benefit of all pilots. "Someone must set out to prove the relationship between...the type of flying we are going to represent and the national economy, the national defense, etc.," Wolf said in April 1939. AOPA was incorporated in May and immediately set about expressing itself and starting to grow.

AOPA pushed for more airports, safer airplanes, standard design of cockpit instruments, installation of stall-warning indicators, and inclusion of maintenance manuals in the aircraft. An AOPA section in Popular Aviation magazine, which was eventually renamed Flying, helped spread the word about AOPA, which had 4,000 members by March 1940.

A decade of war

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war, the government tried to ground all civilian flying. AOPA successfully fought the grounding, resulting in specially registered pilots flying essentially anywhere except the coastlines and northern borderline.

Even though prewar membership of about 10,000 dipped while pilots served in World War II, the ranks swelled in 1946 to about 20,000 after the war. Peacetime initiatives by AOPA included teaching pilots about evolving electronic radio navigation aids, pushing for shoulder harnesses, and emphasizing the importance of stall and spin prevention. Membership was 35,000 at the end of 1949.

AOPA Pilot magazine's history of AOPA at 50 said "in the 1950s, the implementation and standardization of the VOR (very-high-frequency omnidirectional range) network provided AOPA with its biggest challenge of the decade." AOPA forced the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to back off a plan to eliminate the antiquated low-frequency range navigational stations all at once, instead gradually phasing them out.

AOPA's safety emphasis brought about the AOPA Air Safety Foundation in 1950. ASF has grown to become the world's largest nonprofit organization devoted to GA safety. Informal and unofficial AOPA fly-ins that started in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, formally became an annual national convention in 1956 first known as a "Plantation Party," today known as AOPA Expo. Membership more than doubled in the decade, from 35,000 to more than 72,000 in 1959.

Save general aviation

In the 1960s, AOPA fully supported the transition from the CAA to the new Federal Aviation Administration. Among the many changes were the formal creation of flight service stations (prior to that, weather reporting was only one of the duties of Airway Communications System operators), flight-following services for cross-country VFR pilots, and weather reports broadcast on navigational frequencies. Since that time, AOPA has consistently fought to ensure that GA pilots have easy, direct, free access to flight planning information from flight service stations.

A rash of midair collisions and airport congestion brought attempts at tighter control of air traffic aimed at general aviation: special traffic regulations at very busy airports, more demands for transponders, and GA reservations at selected airports. AOPA in turn created its Save America's General Aviation (SAGA) campaign to fight the proposed restrictions, and in a few days corporate and member donations totaled $8,000.

Perhaps spurred by all the technological advances and bureaucratic attempts to manage the so-called "crowded skies," the decade of the 1960s brought significant milestones for AOPA. Membership topped 100,000 in early 1964, and by December 1969, membership was close to 149,000, essentially doubling again in a 10-year period.

TCAs, TV, and a trust fund

If any single issue galvanized general aviation pilots in the 1970s, airspace restrictions, such as terminal control areas, certainly roused their ire. AOPA fought for a flight corridor in each TCA so pilots could safely transit the airspace. The "upside-down wedding cakes" of strictly controlled airspace are today part of extensive airspace classifications.

Correctly forecasting an intense interest in weather matters, AOPA's Air Safety Foundation helped fund Public TV's weekly Aviation Weather in 1972. It became the daily A.M. Weather, which lasted until the commercialized Weather Channel evolved on cable TV. John L. Baker was appointed assistant administrator for the FAA's Office of General Aviation Affairs. Baker said treatment of general aviation "as 'second-class citizens'...has just got to come to a screeching halt." He left the FAA three years later and eventually joined AOPA in 1977. Baker became the second president of the association late that year.

AOPA's flash point in the 1970s was the Airport and Airway Development and Revenue Act of 1970. A trust fund financed by various aviation taxes was supposed to finance improvements in the air traffic system to expand airports and air traffic services. When the FAA wanted to use the funds for daily expenses, AOPA and others protested and prevented such a move.

Total membership roared past 200,000 in 1977, rising 93,000 from January 1970 to December 1979 to finish the decade at 243,000. And 1979 remains the industry's most successful year on record when 18,000 general aviation aircraft were delivered, which averages out to 50 aircraft each day.

Product liability stills production lines

Skies darkened for general aviation in the 1980s when product liability severely crippled the industry, and aircraft deliveries plummeted. Cessna Aircraft Co. said about one fourth to one third of the cost for an aircraft was product liability insurance. Production lines would eventually be stilled. AOPA members were rallied to write their elected representatives to protest liability issues.

AOPA's toll-free Pilot Information Center opened in the middle 1980s with four operators to serve the membership. Today 40 people provide aviation information, including medical-certification assistance, and membership assistance both on the phone and via e-mail.

AOPA membership reached 300,000 in 1989, totaling more than 301,000 that December, an increase of 58,000 for the decade.

Phil Boyer became AOPA's third president in 1991. His popular Pilot Town Meetings started in 1992 and have crisscrossed the United States from coast to coast and reached Alaska and Hawaii. He is set to log a grand total of 312 visits by the end of 2003. Average attendance for each meeting is more than 200.

Under Boyer's leadership, AOPA played a major role in the long struggle to bring balance and reason into the unbridled tort law process that nearly killed the piston-engine aircraft industry in the 1980s. Liability suits targeted manufacturers—presumably the deepest pockets—on flimsy evidence, driving many out of business. The lack of new aircraft and dwindling supplies of parts to maintain the aging fleet made survival of the industry as important to pilots and aircraft owners as to the manufacturers themselves. Hence AOPA's strong advocacy, which proved vital to congressional passage, in 1994, of the General Aviation Revitalization Act. The act's 18-year statute of limitations and other provisions served to reinvigorate general aviation.

Enactment of legislation that reformed product liability was a huge victory for general aviation in 1994. It prompted Cessna to start building airplanes again, and the first Skyhawk off the production line went to the winner of AOPA's membership sweepstakes. The family of AOPA publications grew with acquisition of Flight Training magazine in early 1999 and creation of the ePilot e-mail newsletter in late 1999.

Phil Boyer's vision and leadership placed AOPA at the forefront of another long but successful campaign, in persuading the Federal Aviation Administration that the Global Positioning System—satellite-based navigation—should be endorsed, developed, and certified for use in general aviation flight operations. As a result of persistent advocacy by AOPA, GPS is now a principal element in advanced air navigation. The rapid spread of GPS use in general aviation airplanes inspired its adoption into many other fields—mapping, surveying, exploration of uncharted areas, construction site location, and others, including GPS map guidance in the family automobile.

AOPA's electronic presence on several different computer services culminated in a permanent presence on the Web with the premier of AOPA Online ( in 1995. Membership rolls from January 1990 through December 1999 grew by 57,000 to 358,000. This set the stage for AOPA's response to unexpected and unprecedented demands in the new millennium.

Successes bolster significant challenges

A decade-long effort to help free up money in the aviation trust fund finally paid off in 2000 as AOPA cheered final enactment of the Aviation Investment and Reform Act (AIR-21), which would fund airport and airway modernization. Strengthened by the membership's congressional letter-writing campaign, AOPA marshaled a public campaign of press releases and interviews to complement one-on-one contact with members of congress urging passage of the legislation.

Little did founders Wolf, Smith, Sharples, Sharples, and Ludington realize the importance of their efforts 62 years later when world attention focused on aviation in the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11. Coupled with the nation's grief, the unexpected shock of prohibited flying gave way to mushrooming temporary flight restrictions, airport closures, military intercepts, and the like. AOPA funneled the crush of information affecting general aviation into its Web site, which hosted more than two million sessions in September when pilots sought help. As many as 1,600 member phone calls a day came to the AOPA Pilot Information Center, which remained active for two consecutive weekends to serve pilots.

AOPA rose to the occasion and launched the General Aviation Serving America campaign to educate the public about the overwhelming benefits of general aviation and the fact that a small aircraft could not pose the same security threat as an airliner. From January 2000 through July 2003, AOPA membership would push ever higher, solidifying its place as the largest civil aviation association in the world with 400,000 members.


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