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For the New Year: AOPA looks back on its 60 yearsFor the New Year: AOPA looks back on its 60 years

For the New Year: AOPA looks back on its 60 years

AOPA traces its heritage to the very roots of modern general aviation—the fliers of the 1930s who began to use airplanes for recreation, personal travel, and business transportation. As this flying developed, the need for a vigorous, businesslike organization to advance and defend it became evident.

Early in 1938, five influential Philadelphia aviators—John Story Smith, Alfred “Abby” Wolf, Phillip T. and Laurence P. Sharples, and C. Townsend Ludington—began to design that organization with Joseph B. “Doc” Hartranft, Jr., a young aviation activist. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association was officially founded one year later at Wings Field near Philadelphia—the cradle of another famous independence movement.


From the start, AOPA was serious about its purpose, which the founders defined as “To make flying more useful, less expensive, safer, and more fun.” While enjoying the social and “fun flying” aspects of a pilot organization, AOPA was dealing with the grave issues that would restrict or advance general aviation in decades to come.

The future of radio communications and navigation was of great concern, just as it is now. Then, it was the battle among proponents of VOR versus the military’s tactical air navigation (tacan) and even the Decca system from Europe. In recent years, it’s been our rejection of the wildly expensive microwave landing system, our successful advocacy of GPS for civil aviation—and our current insistence on preserving loran C until GPS is fully proved as a sole-source navigation aid.

From the start, AOPA kept members up to date on new ideas and new technology—as in our early advocacy of then-new stall warning systems to defeat that era’s perennial killer.

AOPA also remained vigilant on airport and air traffic issues throughout the modern growth of airline travel, advent of the jet age, and creation of an independent Federal Aviation Agency after the Grand Canyon airliner collision of 1956. This cartoon from the 1940s illustrates AOPA’s opposition to excessive and discriminatory landing fees.

And AOPA is still fighting unfair and discriminatory fees that airlines can pass on to their passengers but which fall heavily on the individual pilot and owner. We’re also engaged in supporting local pilot groups faced with undue noise restrictions, incompatible land development around airports, and similar problems. The AOPA Airport Support Network, established in 1997, has more than 730 member volunteers keeping tabs on their home airports. Their information often enables AOPA to foresee problems before they reach critical mass, so that we can assist local pilot groups to cope.

This is but a small sample of AOPA’s many-faceted work for general aviation during these first 60 years. Early records, images, and examples of our labors, researched from the AOPA archives for the association’s sixtieth anniversary, reaffirm one overarching conclusion: AOPA’s purpose today remains relevant and compelling, because GA’s rights and privileges have to be worked for and won.

And they always will be.

The support and loyalty of AOPA members make it possible.

December 1999

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