AOPA President Craig Fuller is only the fourth president in the association’s 70-year history.
Seventy years ago, a group of dedicated aviators met to form the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The founders of AOPA wanted to ensure a strong future for general aviation in the face of economic uncertainty, fragile aircraft manufacturers, and troublesome federal regulatory and legislative threats. Since 1939, the inspired leadership at AOPA has allowed us to experience the freedom of flight beyond what even those early visionaries meeting at Wings Field in Pennsylvania could have imagined.
This history was very much in my mind several weeks ago when the call came from AOPA’s chairman, William Trimble III, indicating that your board of trustees had selected me as the next—and only the fourth—president and chief executive officer of AOPA.
Even though we have come so very far as an organization these past 70 years, we share today the very threats our founders faced in their day. Just as our founders and the leaders after them, we have as an organization the solemn task of ensuring that each month and each year are more rewarding and fulfilling to pilots who seek the freedom found in flying.
Truly, for me, each year since my first solo flight in 1967 from Buchanan Field in Concord, California, has been more exciting than the past. So, while there are many issues we will discuss in this space in the months and years ahead, I thought with this first column I might begin at, well, the beginning.
It was a seaplane ride in Oregon during a family vacation that really hooked me. From the right seat, the sensation of lifting off the water and having a more and more wondrous perspective of land below is one that never left me.
When I reached age 16, my father—a former Army Air Corps pilot—agreed to pay half the cost of my flight instruction if I paid the other half. There was never any doubt about my commitment, but I worked hard to make sure I progressed through my ground school and flight training.
There were many proud moments, such as flying my parents and brother over Yosemite for a view that remains unforgettable, or traveling to Wichita with my father to pick up the first aircraft I owned—a Cessna 172RG Cutlass—and flying it back to Santa Monica, California, together.
I was fortunate to have developed a career in public affairs that allowed me to fly myself around the western states on business from my home in the Los Angeles area. I earned an instrument rating in the Cessna Cutlass, which had the “IFR package”—dual VORs and an ADF with no autopilot.
In 1981, I flew the Cutlass to Virginia from Santa Monica as I began what was to be eight years in the White House with the Reagan administration. Four years later, I became the chief of staff to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. I had the opportunity to travel to more than 60 countries and to every state in the nation, often courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.
After leaving the White House in 1989, I remained in Washington, D.C. Although I had left government, my enthusiasm for public policy was undiminished. Running and participating in organizations small and large, I worked to help clients shape their public policy arguments. I have always enjoyed the public affairs challenges and have made wonderful friends on both sides of the aisle during more than two decades in Washington.
In 2003, while running a health care-related association, I purchased a new Beechcraft Bonanza A36. Flying more than 200 hours each year since then, the Bonanza has become my principle means of moving around the country on business. And, my wife, Karen, and I have enjoyed wonderful personal trips as far away as the San Juan Islands.
I count myself incredibly fortunate. I have had a lifelong passion for flying and a professional passion for advocacy, communication, and leading organizations. The opportunity to combine these as your president is remarkable. We do face challenges for sure. But, I am just as certain that we have tremendous opportunities ahead of us. Of course, we have a new administration in Washington. President-elect Obama assumes the presidency at one of our most challenging times as a nation. He has identified strong individuals for his cabinet in a transition that has been as carefully choreographed as his campaign.
Before formally assuming my office at AOPA, I had the chance to meet with President-elect Obama’s transition team at the Department of Transportation. Some of the individuals working on this transition as well as those leading the effort have been people I have worked with before. We have discussed the role of general aviation with the transition team. Although it is still early, we do believe we are being heard and that our positions on critical issues are well understood. The real work for the new administration, the Congress—and, of course, AOPA—begins after the historic inauguration on January 20. I can assure you that we are already fully engaged.
I want to close by offering my personal thanks to a great aviator, a great leader—and, now, a wonderful friend: Phil Boyer. During this transition, Phil and I have flown together, dined together, and had many memorable sessions over a period of months. We should all be grateful for the work he has done over the past 18 years and for the strong association he has built. With his frequent reminder that what we do is all about you, the members, I pledge to do everything in my power to build on Phil’s record as I lead AOPA.