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AOPA’s McSpadden lived his passion

“Where our minds linger is a choice,” Richard McSpadden once wrote, “and I choose the present.”

McSpadden came to AOPA in 2017 with an extensive flying background, including as former commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. But he never dwelled on his decorated past. He lived deliberately, intentionally in the present—leading a team at the AOPA Air Safety Institute, cherishing time with family, and savoring blissful flights in his Piper Super Cub. McSpadden, 63, died October 1 in an aircraft accident outside Lake Placid, New York.

McSpadden was in the right seat of a Cessna Cardinal 177RG that experienced an emergency after takeoff and turned toward the airport but failed to make the runway. The left-seat occupant of the aircraft, former NFL player and longtime pilot Russ Francis, 70, also died in the crash.

“AOPA has lost a great colleague in Richard McSpadden, and I have lost a great friend,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “Richard represented everything you ever wanted in a leader, teammate, and mentor. I spent many hours flying all over the country with Richard, and spent even more hours with him and Judy as great friends. My heart aches for Judy, Grant, Annabel, and Richard’s entire family.”

During his tenure leading the Air Safety Institute, McSpadden ushered AOPA’s safety education arm into the YouTube era, introducing popular new video series focused on improving the general aviation safety record and expanding pilots’ knowledge and skills. His approach centered on five principles of safety: Take knowledgeable people; train them well; keep them proficient; put them in reliable, modern equipment; and surround them in a culture that supports good decision making.

Inspired by his father, Richard “Dick” McSpadden Sr., McSpadden began flying during college and went on to log more than 5,000 hours flying a variety of civilian and military aircraft. He capped a 20-year career with the Air Force as commander and flight leader of the prestigious Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, leading 126 flight demonstrations flying the No. 1 aircraft. After that, he spent more than a decade in the information technology industry at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. McSpadden became executive director of the Air Safety Institute in 2017, then senior vice president in 2020.

Photo by Mike Fizer. Photo by Chris Rose. Photo by Chris Rose.

Under McSpadden’s leadership, the Air Safety Institute created the Focused Flight Review program that includes tailored lesson plans like mountain flying, IFR proficiency, positive aircraft control, and others that focus on specific training goals to make flight reviews more effective. The engaging program also includes profiles for helicopter and seaplane operations to strengthen performance in other types of aircraft. The team also transitioned its online courses created on a platform that had become obsolete to modern formats with a goal of meeting pilots wherever and however they consume information. He also championed the effort to transition the legacy Joseph T. Nall Report from printed form to an interactive format with near real-time data, and introduced popular new series, including the There I Was podcast and the Beyond Proficient; Reality Check; and most notably, Early Analysis videos. Air Safety Institute material is now accessed 10 million times annually.

Across the nation, McSpadden influenced pilots and aviation groups through speaking engagements and involvement in safety initiatives, including serving on the board of the Seaplane Pilots Association and as the industry chair for the General Aviation Joint Safety Committee. He was passionate about backcountry flying and met each summer with state aviation officials, pilot groups, and backcountry subject matter experts to explore backcountry safety and stewardship. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association recently recognized him with the James L. Oberstar Sentinel of Safety Award.

Many members grew to know McSpadden through his monthly column for AOPA Pilot, where he modeled self-reflection and humility with stories from his personal and professional flying. In one, we see his methodical dedication as he recounts spending hourslong sessions at home wearing a heavy helmet while studying or reading, to acclimate to the discomforts of the cockpit and improve his performance in the competitive Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training. In others, he revels in the joys of GA flying, a pastime he shares with his family: His father and brother are pilots, and he taught his children to fly. Many of his most lyrical descriptions are from experiences in his Super Cub.

Photo by David Tulis. Photo by Mike Fizer. Photo by Mike Fizer.

“Flying has brought so much to my life—in many ways has been my life,” he wrote in his January 2022 column. “The feeling of gratitude to the many people who’ve boosted me here comes back frequently. In ways it seems unfair that I was exposed to aviation and given opportunities few have. I feel a growing urge to give back, cast a wider net, and expose more people to this splendid experience that can change the trajectory of a life.”

McSpadden closed every column with a call to action: Go fly. His own flying connected him to aviators across the nation, and his loss is felt deeply by the GA community. McSpadden is survived by his wife, Judy, and his children, Annabel and Grant.

“Words are not coming very easily right now, but the hundreds of heartfelt messages I have received from pilots and partners everywhere over the last day have done the speaking for Richard’s influence on general aviation,” Baker said. “I am hard pressed to think of anyone who made such a positive and tremendous contribution to all of our members and the entire general aviation community.

“Richard will be missed each and every day.”

Photo by David Tulis.
Zoomed image
Photo by David Tulis.
Sarah Deener
Sarah Deener
Senior Director of Publications
Senior Director of Publications Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and has worked for AOPA since 2009.
Topics: AOPA Air Safety Institute, People

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