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AOPA Expo 2000 celebrates 50th anniversary of the Air Safety FoundationAOPA Expo 2000 celebrates 50th anniversary of the Air Safety Foundation

AOPA Expo 2000 celebrates 50th anniversary of the Air Safety Foundation

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AOPA used cartoons early on to graphically highlight air safety issues. Here, the effect of low flying was dramatized.
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One of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's first research grants was a feasibility study on shoulder harnesses for light aircraft by the famed Crash Injury Research Program, part of Cornell University Medical Center, under legendary safety scientist Hugh DeHaven.
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A legion of Air Safety Foundation ground and flight instructors deplane from FAA 727 in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1968 as FAA and ASF teamed up to attack Alaska air safety.
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AOPA Air Safety Foundation seminars today host more than 30,000 each year for continuing pilot education.
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AOPA ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. The milestone will be celebrated at AOPA Expo 2000 in Long Beach, California, in special exhibit hall displays and the Friday, October 20, morning general session titled "50 Years in General Aviation Safety."

"The AOPA Board of Trustees wisely established the foundation in 1950 to save lives and improve general aviation's reputation as a safe activity and mode of transportation," noted AOPA President Phil Boyer.

"While today's vastly improved safety record is due to many factors, this truth remains: There is no other such organization as productive, prolific, or dedicated solely to continuing pilot education and safety improvement in everyday general aviation."

Before the foundation was established in November 1950, the general aviation accident rate was as much as five times worse than today (in fatal accidents) and 10 times worse in total accidents. At worst during the post-war flying boom, every 100,000 flying hours yielded 77 accidents including seven fatal crashes. Today, the same flying results in seven total accidents with about one fatal accident.

General aviation crashes were indeed an everyday drumbeat in the late 1940s, totaling 9,253 accidents in 1947 alone despite far fewer aircraft in use. Recently, all accidents—from "aviation fender-benders to fatal"—have totaled 1,700 to 1,900 a year.

In this context, the founding of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation in 1950 was indeed compelling, even if the right way to attack the problem was not immediately apparent.

The early years

The Air Safety Foundation was originally just the "AOPA Foundation," and its first years were marked by debate regarding its role. It did its early work through grants for research projects specifically targeted toward general aviation.

Correspondence in the AOPA archives reveals much discussion between AOPA top management and the AOPA trustees on what projects to undertake.

One of the first, a grant to the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, Inc. of Buffalo, New York, was to develop strobe lights to replace flares carried aboard aircraft for nighttime emergency landings. The 25-pound, battery-powered system could dimly illuminate a football field-size area. But researchers found that the slow-flashing "Strobalume" also caused disorientation and vertigo near clouds and fog. They had discovered the problem that anti-collision strobes are placarded against today.

The next year, a grant started study of a lateral stability augmentation device for light aircraft, the possible cure for stall/spin and loss of control accidents.

In 1953, ASF funded a study of shoulder harnesses for light aircraft at the famed Crash Injury Research Program. The Cornell University Medical College program was home to the legendary Hugh DeHaven, pioneer of the secondary collision concept (that occupant injuries come from hitting the vehicle interior) and father of the automobile seat belt. That same year, the foundation began to study accident statistics by aircraft type.

Also at issue early on was the role of the foundation vis-à-vis the existing Flight Safety Foundation. An early sore point was the transfer of some Guggenheim-Cornell Aeronautical Lab research data, partially funded by the Air Safety Foundation, to the Flight Safety Foundation for its exclusive use and ownership.

Much later came controversy over an FSF proposal to conduct an investigation into and remedial safety program for private flying. The AOPA Foundation claimed this area of specialization and objected to FSF study premises. Exacerbating the problem was FSF's top man at the time, a retired Air Force general lacking much feeling—or respect—for general aviation.

ASF's early officers were the officers of AOPA. But the AOPA trustees and their leading legal light—AOPA co-founder Alfred (Abby) Wolf—never failed to deliver strict guidance to keep foundation finances separate from AOPA.

The Air Safety Foundation would mature during its first decade into unparalleled activism through landmark pilot education and training programs.

Air Safety Foundation courses and clinics

AOPA Air Safety Foundation milestones

  • 1950—Established as the AOPA Foundation, Inc.
  • 1951—First grants for GA safety-related projects
  • 1957—Launch of the AOPA 180 Course teaching escape from IFR conditions
  • 1960—Development of the AOPA 360 Course using full-instrument control for IFR escapes
  • 1963—ASF Flight Training Clinics go nationwide, co-sponsored by the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO). More than 100,000 pilots trained.
  • 1964—First AOPA Pinch-Hitter® courses for nonpilots
  • 1966—Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic developed
    ASF Weekend Ground Schools launched, more than 250,000 trained
  • 1967—Renamed the AOPA Air Safety Foundation to better depict its function
  • 1972Aviation Weather (later A.M. Weather) premiers on public TV
  • 1976—Flight Instructor Revalidation Clinic developed
  • 1980Flight Instructor Safety Report mailed free to all CFIs
  • 1988—ASF's Emil Buehler Center established, builds GA accident database
  • 1990s—ASF focuses on publications and videos to reach more pilots, launches type-specific Safety Reviews and Safety Highlights

AOPA Air Safety Foundation leaders

  • 1950—AOPA President Doc Hartranft serves as ASF executive, later ASF president
  • 1958—Ralph Nelson joins foundation as project director, rises to ASF executive vice president over next 30 years
  • 1980s—With Nelson briefly in AOPA positions, ASF led by William Stanberry and Archie Trammel
  • 1988—Vice Admiral Don Engen (U.S. Navy, ret.), former FAA administrator and NTSB member, becomes ASF president
  • 1992—ASF's current executive director, former Cessna and FlightSafety International executive Bruce Landsberg, takes the helm

Today, with nearly 50 percent of U.S. pilots holding an instrument rating, it's a little shocking to recall that relatively few pilots (or even CFIs!) were instrument qualified in the 1950s. With VOR still relatively new and sophisticated instrumentation rare in lightplanes, some pilots were woefully unprepared for the era's new, more capable airplanes and wider ranging flying.

Private pilots faced no FAA requirement to demonstrate instrument skills but were running into more weather. It was no surprise, then, that 50 percent of their fatal accidents involved attempted VFR flight into IMC conditions.

The foundation's "AOPA 180 Course" offered a "quick fix" to weather-related accidents. Armed with research proving that physical miscues can doom a "suddenly IMC" pilot (19 of 20 test subjects lost control immediately), the new course taught an unorthodox and counterintuitive method: Drop everything. Take your hands off the yoke! (The method relied on the inherent stability of the aircraft, not the inability of the pilot!)

Developed under a 1955 grant to the University of Illinois, the procedure (simplified here) relied on the rudder as the primary flight control to reverse course out of IMC conditions. With hands off, ball centered using the rudder, and with power and trim adjusted to pre-marked settings, non-instrument-rated pilots could complete a "needle-and-ball" turn back to VFR.

Some 50 flight instructors (one from each state) were trained at the University of Illinois to train other instructors back home. From its debut in 1957, the AOPA 180 Course was a success.

The entire course was published in booklet form and made available free to any flight instructor. Bulk quantities were a mere $2 per hundred. In 1961, the entire course manual was printed in AOPA Pilot magazine. The FAA incorporated most AOPA 180 Course procedures into their official training manuals.

But after America awoke to Buddy Holly's 1959 nighttime, weather-related death in a chartered Bonanza, the FAA took more action. And by March 1960, a new pilot certification standard required full "positive manual control" during the instrument escape maneuver. The "hands-off" approach no longer cut it with the FAA.

So through a grant to Ohio State University, the foundation developed the AOPA 360 Course (not to fly in circles, but "twice as good" as the 180 Rating). It introduced pilots to full but simplified instrument flying techniques focusing mostly on the artificial horizon. The program premiered in 1961, later expanding into a series including the AOPA Instrument Nav/Com Course (teaching use of all equipment), AOPA Instrument Procedures Course, and AOPA Instrument Pilot Refresher Course.

The new FAA requirement did not apply to some 200,000 "grandfathered" pilots, but the FAA hoped each would take a voluntary FAA checkride to earn their "Blue Seal" instrument competency. Happily, the prospect of a second FAA checkride was obviated for many when ASF won authority to affix the Blue Seal to pilots' certificates through the AOPA 360 Course.

Myriad new AOPA Flight Training Clinics began to cover the nation beginning in 1963, co-sponsored by the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO). General aviation was expanding rapidly in the prosperous 1960s, and legions of new people were taking up flying.

AOPA Weekend Ground Schools helped more than 250,000 attendees prepare for FAA "written" tests. More than 100,000 pilots attended ASF Flight Training Clinics covering operations up to multiengine and ATP.

The ASF instructor corps expanded as rapidly. Many well-known aviation names served as ASF instructors early in their careers, including NBAA president Jack Olcott, Sporty's Pilot Shop owner Hal Shevers, and longtime University Aviation Association chief Gary Kitely. Training legends such as Jack Eggspeuhler of OSU, Joe Vorbeck of Purdue, and Don Burnside, co-founder of Florida's Burnside-Ott Flight Academy, were among hundreds of ASF instructors.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, courses were added to cover weather radar, mountain flying, and (crucial after the era's shocking airline/GA collisions), a unique scan training program. That concept, developed by Bray Studios in New York, involved combining six slide projectors and two rear-screen movie projectors to produce simulated conflicting traffic in "virtual" windshields.

These were followed in the 1970s and 1980s by other audiovisual productions supporting ASF and FAA safety seminars. Programs included "Take Two and See," a collision-avoidance program winning the FAA's Extraordinary Service Award. (ASF will debut a new collision avoidance seminar for 2001 at AOPA Expo 2000.)

Pilots' weak understanding of weather concepts fostered a widely acclaimed meteorology film series beginning with the ponderous title, General Circulation and Local Winds. Other films such as Warm Fronts and Cold Fronts were presumably more straightforward.

Mission to Alaska

As part of the Air Safety Foundation's strong partnership with the FAA on safety efforts, the Federal Aviation Agency in 1968 attacked the troublesome Alaskan air safety record with a mass invasion of ASF instructors from the "Lower 48." Loading the contingent on an FAA Boeing 727 at Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, the group arrived in Anchorage for a blitz of safety programs and training.

Air Safety Foundation director Ralph Nelson received the "keys to the city" from Anchorage's mayor, while downtown marquees proclaimed the arrival of Air Safety Foundation seminars at Merrill Field. The effort presaged decades of cooperation between the aviation agency and AOPA Foundation, with ASF providing training materials for FAA programs and the FAA alerting pilots to local ASF safety seminars.

In fact, the entire underpinning of ASF's extensive safety effort was the notion that pilots are more willing to expose their skill and knowledge level to a non-government entity rather than to the FAA. By 1967, the concept was proven and running at peak power as the AOPA Foundation legally adopted a new, more descriptive name: the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

Pinch-Hitter®: The genius of unintended consequences

Perhaps the most famous Air Safety Foundation course ever is the Pinch-Hitter®, originally intended to prepare wives to take over and land their husband's aircraft after in-flight incapacitation. Pilots were mostly husbands then; women were only about three percent of the pilot population.

Pinch-Hitter® was inspired by two pilots' in-flight heart attacks, one where a doctor's wife saved herself and their two children from 10,000 feet over Dallas. The Air Safety Foundation decided to approach the challenge "scientifically" through a course developed under an ASF grant to the Ohio State University School of Aviation.

The premise at the time: Women were not mechanically inclined, the airplane was a foreign environment, and the task of an emergency landing would have to be (1) simplified, and (2) couched in terms, things, and activities familiar to women. In today's environment, this might appear "sexist."

Various items in the cockpit were likened to familiar automobile controls and household appliances. The radio (a fearsome thing to any nonpilot) was compared to the telephone. Pinch-Hitters were told to just key the mic and say something like, "Hello, this is Alice, I need help." Controllers would deduce the problem immediately.

The first experimental Pinch-Hitter® Course was held at the 1963 AOPA Convention (then carrying the non-PC moniker "AOPA Plantation Party") in Palm Springs, California. Some 142 participants—test subjects, really—were assembled. Of them, 141 were pilots' wives. Their reported motivations ranged from "He made me come here" to "I'm only doing this for him."

Air Safety Foundation lecturers began their task, conceptually turning cockpit items into eggbeaters, telephones, breadboxes, whatever. After the ground school, scores of flight instructors took their unwilling charges aloft where "the throttle is like your gas pedal...."

Pinch-Hitters practiced controlling the airplane, reading maps, and making passable landings. Confidence building was a major course goal. It was made clear in advance that "everyone passes the course," and each student was told they were a "natural pilot."

To be more realistic, instructors flew in the left (pilot) seat while wives rode "shotgun" as usual while learning to fly, tune the radio, and push buttons from the right side. When it was all over, another survey was taken. Foundation officials were astounded.

To a woman, they were now enthusiastic about private flying. One wife (who had nixed a planned aircraft upgrade) took husband in tow to buy a Cessna 182 right off the AOPA exhibit floor. Another, having refused to fly to AOPA in the family Tri-Pacer, abandoned her return airline ticket to play co-pilot on the homebound leg. A third relinquished her claim on new kitchen cabinets so hubby could buy one of the new crystal-controlled, 360-channel radios at AOPA.

Some 50 percent of these first Pinch-Hitters voiced immediate interest in becoming a pilot. Today, a third or more of Pinch-Hitter® grads eventually take flight training, with most earning their wings—and all finding more happiness in the air and at home.

"Spouse and family member concern about flying has limited aviation pursuits for many pilots," said Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg. "Beyond Pinch-Hitter's clear safety implications (and graduates have saved lives), this much-sought program converts fearful fliers into interested co-pilots and enthusiasts."

Air Safety Foundation will conduct its largest Pinch-Hitter® course of the year at AOPA Expo 2000 in Long Beach, California, October 20-22. Each four-hour classroom session will offer ground school only, the norm today. The first-come, first-served offering will be—as usual—standing room only.

ASF plans to offer the Pinch-Hitter® course some 24 times around the country next year. A very popular instructional video and course manual for home use is also available.

Flight instructors refreshed, revalidated

Concerned with the quality of flight instruction, the Air Safety Foundation developed its first Flight Instructor Refresher Course in 1966 and offered it nationwide the following year. ASF premiered a Flight Instructor Rating Course in 1972.

In 1976, the foundation developed and won approval for its flight instructor re-certification program to meet new FAA requirements. The program thrives today, enhanced when ASF recently won FAA approval to shorten the three-day weekend review course. Today's more productive teaching methods allow covering the curriculum in just 16 hours over two days.

All this represents ASF's decades-long commitment to the notion that flight instructors are key to greater aviation safety. As early as 1966, ASF encouraged professionalism among flight instructors. Training standardization, even CFI appearance and demeanor, were all of concern as the industry struggled to get new private pilots to return for proficiency and upgrade training.

In 1981, ASF began mailing its periodic Flight Instructors' Safety Report to every CFI in the nation, free of charge. ASF believed a regular stream of safety tips, updated teaching hints, and a review of recent instructional accidents would help keep CFIs safety minded. All U.S. CFIs (whether AOPA members or not) get ASF's quarterly Instructor Report today.

Other major initiatives were pioneered during the 1970s. ASF studied the issue of standardized airplane flight manuals, a concept ultimately implemented by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

In 1972, the foundation also studied new methods for greater dissemination of aviation weather information, resulting in public television's popular early morning Aviation Weather program carried on 261 PBS stations by 1980. ASF remained a major partner in the re-titled A.M. Weather program until it left the air in the 1990s, replaced by cable TV's ubiquitous Weather Channel and computerized aviation weather services.

Challenges in the 1980s

Ambitious programs, including establishment of an aviation laboratory for aircraft and equipment testing, threatened to throw Air Safety Foundation finances off track in the early 1980s. A reexamination of the resources available to a small, nonprofit institution eventually led to more focus on free safety seminars, select course offerings, and printed training materials.

Some new programs were important at the time but could not be continued. Concern about the safety of new "air vehicles" prompted ASF to launch ultralight safety programs under the FAA's new Part 103 regulations. AOPA's entire involvement in ultralights was later turned over to a new ultralight association.

A major grant from a philanthropic organization allowed ASF's research function to set up the Emil Buehler Center for Aviation Research. The effort created what is now the largest database of general aviation accident records outside government. Analysis using every GA accident since 1982 allows ASF to track accident trends, thus focusing course development on actual accident experience.

ASF in the 1990s shifts to new methods

With live seminars and classroom courses its hallmark for nearly 40 years, the foundation shifted its focus in the 1990s to accommodate a modern dilemma: How to also reach the pilot who can't take time to attend a live seminar?

The foundation has reemphasized its commitment to stand-alone training materials in booklet and brochure form, plus new products on video. New innovations include the ASF Safety Advisor series plus ASF Safety Reviews and Safety Highlights covering specific aircraft types. The "type-specific" publications outline typical accidents in each of 11 popular aircraft models and suggest an appropriate training regimen to combat them.

ASF's annual Nall Report, named in honor of the NTSB board member killed on duty in an aircraft accident, is among the first to summarize GA's safety results for the preceding year.

The foundation's new "Project V" (for video) program kicked off in 1999 by mailing home-study videos to 30,000 pilots free of charge. Targeted to reach 20,000 brand-new private pilots and 10,000 new instrument-rated pilots, the videos were specially prepared to address the neophytes' greatest concerns—cross-country navigation and crosswinds for new pilots, procedures and flight planning for new IFR pilots.

ASF continues its free evening seminars nationwide, focusing on a major theme each year. Recently, it was a multi-year effort on weather, including "Weather Strategies" and "Weather Tactics," plus the involving "Trigger Tapes" method where accident scenarios are played out on video, right up to the last moment. Participants then try to determine the point where, and how, the "accident chain" could have been broken.

Recognizing that some pilots many be in rural areas where an ASF seminar cannot be held, the foundation recently pioneered its new "Seminar-in-a-Box®." Prepared in advance, kits with all seminar materials—even promotional literature—are shipped on request to flying clubs, pilot groups, and others who will hold their own ASF seminar.

ASF research continues as well, including the foundation's advocacy of a role for PCATD personal computer-based training devices to teach basic instrument procedures. The foundation is also looking into the transition to GPS and its resulting effects on procedures and human factors.

Financing it all

Early on, the familiar AOPA member "check-off" was adopted to provide basic funding. AOPA members could voluntarily designate 30 cents of their normal AOPA dues amount as a contribution to the Air Safety Foundation. The "check-off" contribution continues today, providing ASF a modest (and hardly inflation-adjusted) $1 per participating AOPA member.

Research, however, shows that most pilots believe AOPA underwrites Air Safety Foundation operations or the $1 check-off covers most of the bills.

For a $5 million-a-year effort, $1 each—even from the vast majority of AOPA's 360,000 members—doesn't get the job done. It is individual pilots' personal contributions—and the commitment of aviation companies and philanthropic organizations—which make the program fly.

Leading the cause

The Air Safety Foundation has been led by a number of dedicated safety professionals. A stand-out for years was Ralph Nelson, originally ASF project director and ultimately foundation executive vice president. He was recruited to ASF while a University of Illinois instructor during development of the original AOPA 180 Course. Except for a few years in AOPA assignments, he spent some 30 years with the foundation.

The famed Archie Trammel, teacher extraordinaire of airborne radar, led the foundation for a time during Nelson's absence, as did William Stanberry. Trammel, of course, made his devotion of radar weather avoidance an Air Safety Foundation course staple.

Taking command of the foundation in 1988 was Vice Admiral Donald D. Engen, following his stints as FAA administrator and member of the National Transportation Safety Board. As president of the foundation, working closely with beloved ASF training director Jerry Lawhon, Engen oversaw the modernization of ASF programs and management. Engen later became director of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

Leading the foundation since 1992 is ASF executive director Bruce Landsberg, an Air Force veteran and one of the young men at Cessna during the 1970s boom in piston-engine sales. He was later a marketing manager for FlightSafety International and a leader on industry safety committees before coming to ASF.

Today, the Air Safety Foundation provides in-person continuing pilot education to more than 30,000 pilots annually. New Seminar-in-a-Box® programs boost the annual total to over 60,000. One quarter of the nation's CFIs requiring certificate revalidation choose the foundation for their training in a given year.

Looking back on the world of general aviation in 1950, the Air Safety Foundation's 50 years played a valuable role in getting GA safety from there to here.

From general aviation's boom years and the vast expansion of pilot skills, to the unique innovations that got wives to fly and pilots to scan for traffic, to programs customized for today's realities, the Air Safety Foundation has "walked the walk," not just talked the talk.


September 22, 2000

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