Three of AOPA's founders: (clockwise
from top) C. Townsend Ludington, John
Story Smith, Alfred "Abby" Wolf.
An invitation to become a charter member of
AOPA, and the original ledger of the first members
AOPA's membership publication grew from an
insert in Popular Aviation into the AOPA
Pilot magazine that members know today.
May 21, 2004 - The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association this week marks 65 years of protecting general aviation (GA). The association plans to celebrate by continuing its mission of education, information, and advocacy: petitioning Congress on behalf of pilots; pressing the FAA to protect and preserve the nation's airports; fighting states' efforts to balance their budgets on the backs of aircraft owners; and educating local leaders on the value of general aviation to their communities.
"From the outset, AOPA was intended to be a forceful advocate for general aviation," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "With the backing of our more than 400,000 members, we are an effective voice on Capitol Hill and in the halls of the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration. We've been able to head off costly regulations and to make sure that general aviation continues to have access to the national airspace.
"We take our mission seriously - and never more so than since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Nothing in aviation history has had as profound an effect on general aviation as those attacks," Boyer continued. "The shutdown of the National Airspace System and the security restrictions since then have changed the focus of AOPA work, but they have not changed our mission. For instance, AOPA's powerful Real Time Flight Planner software, a free member benefit, and literally millions of e-mailed Airspace Alerts are direct results of the association's efforts to keep our members informed about rapidly changing airspace and help them stay out of trouble."
AOPA was founded on May 15, 1939, at Wings Field in suburban Philadelphia. It was the brainchild of five visionary aviators: John Story Smith, Alfred (Abby) Wolf, Phillip T. and Laurence P. Sharples, and C. Townsend Ludington.
The association traces its roots to the very dawn of modern general aviation, as the barnstormers of the 1920s gave way to the pilots who, in the 1930s, began using airplanes for business and personal travel, as well as for the pure fun of flying. A number of largely ineffective pilots' groups sprang up during this period, and a number of influential aviation leaders came to the conclusion that for any truly effective aviation group to thrive, it would need to be a vigorous, professional organization. AOPA was the first and most successful effort to create such an association.
In those early years, AOPA's leaders saw the war clouds looming and strove to protect general aviation from the inevitable security restrictions. The association lobbied successfully for the formation of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which helped "prime the pump" for the coming U.S. involvement in World War II by teaching the pilots who would fill the ranks of the Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines to fly. AOPA also saw a need to supplement the military pilots and formed the AOPA Air Guard (also known as the AOPA Pilots Emergency Corps). Air Guard pilots would be available for coastal and border patrol, as well as other missions. The project was eventually replaced by the government's own Civil Air Patrol.
Today, with the war on terrorism and ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, AOPA continues to protect GA from excessive security restrictions while at the same time aiding efforts to improve national security. AOPA created Airport Watch, a program patterned after the successful Neighborhood Watch anti-crime programs, to enlist the nation's 630,000 pilots to help monitor general aviation airports and report suspicious activities. The Transportation Security Administration staffs a nationwide toll-free hotline as part of the program, giving pilots one easy-to-remember telephone number (866/GA-SECURE) to report suspicions. The agency also incorporated the Airport Watch concept into its just-released guidelines for improving GA airport security.
In the years following World War II, as America transitioned from older low-frequency radio navigation aids to VHF (very high frequency) omnidirectional range (VOR) radio beacons, AOPA lobbied against government plans to scrap the old system all at once, arguing for a phased transition that would allow GA pilots time to purchase the new system. AOPA also embarked on an educational campaign to teach pilots about the benefits of VOR, which to this day remains the primary means of navigation and of defining air routes throughout the United States.
As reliable as today's VORs are, AOPA is pressing the government to transition to satellite-based navigation using the global positioning satellite (GPS) system. In 1990, AOPA presented a landmark report called "The Future Is Now" to Congress, arguing in favor of civilian use of the military GPS technology even though many in the aviation industry scoffed, saying the units were too heavy and too expensive. Now even hikers and drivers carry small, inexpensive units.
Today, AOPA is pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to move ahead as quickly as possible with the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a system that enhances GPS signals to the point that they can be used for precision approaches into airports that don't have or can't afford instrument landing systems. That in turn opens the possibility of turning virtually all general aviation airports, many of which currently only operate in good weather, into all-weather airports.
In the 1950s, AOPA successfully fought efforts to impose strict new airspace definitions that would effectively have banned general aviation aircraft from the airports they served. Instead, AOPA proposed a "universal communications" channel so that pilots could report their positions to each other and to controllers. Now it's hard to imagine a time without a unicom frequency at virtually every airport in the country.
The fight continues today. At a recent three-day meeting between the FAA's new Air Traffic Organization, which runs the nation's air traffic control system, and stakeholders ranging from general aviation to the nation's largest airlines to plan for the busy summer travel season, the airlines tried to blame general aviation for delays. But AOPA's Boyer reminded everyone there that the vast majority of GA flights take place at altitudes and from airports that have no effect on airliners. Boyer's argument prevailed, and by the end of the three days, plans to deal with potential summer delays left virtually all GA flights alone.
In the past year, AOPA won some major victories for general aviation. The Transportation Security Administration recently suspended enforcement of the "pilot insecurity" rule while it complies with a congressional mandate to make the rule fairer. Originally the rule allowed the agency to revoke a pilot's certificate with essentially no recourse available to the pilot. AOPA successfully urged Congress to require that TSA develop an equitable appeal process.
To prevent a fiasco like the closure of Chicago's Meigs Field from ever happening again, Congress approved the AOPA-backed Meigs Legacy provision of the FAA Reauthorization bill, which establishes stiff penalties for anyone who closes an airport without sufficient notification.
AOPA provided strong support to local efforts in St. Petersburg, Fla., to prevent Albert Whitted Airport from going the way of Meigs. As a result, voters overwhelmingly told the city that they wanted to keep the airport.
Currently AOPA is involved in efforts to protect Buchanan Field in Concord, Calif., and to build a new GA airport in the Austin, Texas, area to replace two that closed in recent years.
AOPA was an early advocate for general aviation safety. In the years after World War II, the association urged members to install then-new stall warning systems.
In 1950, AOPA created the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, an independent group dedicated to improving general aviation safety. Like AOPA, the Air Safety Foundation has grown tremendously since its inception. The foundation pioneered flight instructor refresher courses to make sure the pilots teaching others to fly were up-to-date on regulations and teaching techniques. It took its safety message on the road, holding safety seminars that reach thousands of pilots all across the country. And with the rise of the Internet, the Air Safety Foundation created online courses to teach pilots about everything from runway safety to flying alone in instrument meteorological conditions.
Today, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation is the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated solely to general aviation flight safety. Since if was founded, the GA total accident rate has dropped by more than 90 percent despite a large increase in GA flight hours.
"AOPA's stated goal in May 1939 was 'to make flying more useful, less expensive, safer, and more fun,'" said Boyer. "It remains the same to this day."
With more than 400,000 members, representing nearly two thirds of all pilots in the United States, AOPA is the largest, most influential aviation association in the world. AOPA has achieved its prominent position through effective advocacy, enlightened leadership, technical competence, and hard work. Providing member services that range from representation at the federal, state, and local levels to legal services, advice, and other assistance, AOPA has built a service organization that far exceeds any other in the aviation community.