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- AOPA Pilot -- AOPA Air Safety Institute Fiftieth Anniversary: ASF at 50

The AOPA Air Safety Institute's History

AOPA Air Safety Foundation

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's legacy of safety, and a view to the future

By Thomas A. Horne (From AOPA Pilot , November 2000.)

Has general aviation safety improved in the past 50 years? You bet. Back in 1950, the total accident rate was 46.68 accidents per 100,000 flight hours (the 100,000-hour measure being the statistical standard); the fatal accident rate was 5.17 per 100,000 flight hours. Today, both those numbers have plunged dramatically—7.05 and 1.26 per 100,000 hours, respectively. Those represent 85-percent and 76-percent drops. Fifty years ago, newspapers and accident reports were replete with stories of fatal buzzing accidents, hundreds of fatal forays by VFR-only pilots into instrument weather, and scads of fatal stall-spin accidents. These sorts of accidents still plague us now, but what a difference 50 years has made.

What explains this improvement in the crash rate? Many factors, but one of the big ones is the work of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF). The ASF is the principal nongovernmental general aviation accident prevention, safety education, instructor training, and research organization. A look at the Foundation's distinguished history underscores the importance and magnitude of the ASF's contributions over the years. Without its work, it's doubtful that general aviation safety would have reached today's records.

The early years

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation began life under a different name—the AOPA Foundation Inc. Chartered and incorporated in Delaware on November 10, 1950, the AOPA Foundation was created as a nonprofit educational foundation under Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. As such, the AOPA Foundation and its ASF successor are tax-exempt, any contributions to it are tax-deductible, and its operations and financial structure are independent of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)—something that many pilots and AOPA members don't seem to understand.

Perhaps part of the confusion stems from the fact that the Foundation's first president and corporate officers served dual roles. Joseph B. "Doc" Hartranft Jr., AOPA's then-president, also served as president of the AOPA Foundation. And AOPA's then-trustees—L.P. Sharples, P.T. Sharples, John Story Smith, C. Townsend Ludington, and Alfred L. Wolf—also constituted the AOPA Foundation's board of trustees. There is nothing incorrect about this duality of roles (many other corporations have similar arrangements) as long as the ledgers are kept separate and the nonprofit foundation sticks to its charter. That's something that AOPA and the AOPA Foundation/ASF have fastidiously adhered to over the years.

In the early 1950s, the AOPA Foundation's efforts were primarily focused on making grants. The first grant went to the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory Inc., of Buffalo, in October 1953. This was for the design of an airborne emergency ground lighting system. The idea was to develop an airborne light for use in night emergency landings—one that would replace the flares used in general aviation airplanes of the day. The light had to be powerful enough to illuminate a large landing area, yet draw little current and weigh less than 25 pounds. Cornell came up with what it called the "Strobalume" system. This used a battery-powered, slow-flashing strobe lamp that, at 1,050 feet agl, could light up an area the size of a football field to the level provided by full moonlight. The strobe light was to both conserve energy and yield maximum light, but there was a flaw. Cornell researchers discovered something we're now all warned about: that flashing strobe lights can cause disorientation and vertigo—especially if they're used in clouds or fog at night. For this reason the project was shelved, but in the years to come, when strobe lights became common, the lessons learned from the Cornell project were applied in the form of FAA-mandated placards warning about the use of strobe lights in conditions of limited visibility.

In 1954 the University of Illinois received a Foundation grant to study pilot loss of control in instrument meteorological conditions. In 1953, federal accident statistics showed that 50 percent of all fatal general aviation accidents were attributable to VFR-only pilots inadvertently flying into instrument weather. In those days, relatively few pilots were instrument-rated, and the University of Illinois grant proved just how a VFR-into-IMC crash was most likely to occur. When 19 out of 20 noninstrument-rated pilots were suddenly placed in instrument conditions, a bank ensued, the nose of the airplane dropped, airspeed increased, the pilot would see his altimeter showing a rapid descent, and he would exert back-pressure on the control column to stop the descent. This tightened the turn, which consequently caused an even greater descent rate. The dynamics of what had been called the "graveyard spiral" had been quantified, and the germ of one of the Foundation's most popular programs was born.

Other grants awarded to the Aviation Crash Injury Research facility of Cornell University's medical college in 1954 and 1955 funded the first research into the feasibility of installing shoulder harnesses, which extended to innovations that would later produce the inertia-reel harness, and included catapult-testing of dummies. The first type-specific accident research was begun under terms of another grant to the Washington, D.C.-based aviation research firm of Ray and Ray. Other research projects focused on a stall-warning system and a basic wing-leveler.

A turning point

The 1954 University of Illinois research brought another grant, this one to come up with a course curriculum designed to teach noninstrument-rated pilots how to extricate themselves from instrument conditions. In 1956 the University's Institute of Aviation accordingly developed a six-hour course, and the AOPA Foundation ponied up some more money to allocate as scholarships aimed at instructors who would teach the course.

The Foundation called it the "180° Rating Course," and this course kicked off what was to be a 40-year tradition of nationwide course offerings, many of them involving several hours' worth of in-flight and classroom instruction. At the time, there were no other courses like the 180° Rating Course. As with so many other Foundation and ASF initiatives, it was the only course available that effectively addressed a genuine safety problem.

One of the instructors chosen to teach the 180° Rating Course was Ralph F. Nelson, then a junior at the university. A standout in the fledgling instructor corps, he caught Foundation President Hartranft's attention. Hartranft offered Nelson a job at the Foundation, heading up the 180° Rating Course and the rest of the Foundation's educational efforts. Two years before he was to graduate, Nelson landed the title of project director of the AOPA Foundation then located in Bethesda, Maryland. In June 1958 he graduated, moved to Bethesda, and immediately began plans to teach 50 instructors (one from each state) how to teach the 180° Rating Course techniques.

The course emphasized reliance on the airplane's inherent stability. Students were taught to remove their hands from the control column, center the needle of the turn-and-bank indicator (later, the wings of the symbolic airplane, as depicted in turn coordinators) using the rudder pedals, then set power and pitch trim to predetermined markings. The student was then taught to make a single-needle-width, 180-degree turn using rudder only, and to descend at 300 fpm using a target power setting.

The course made its public debut in October 1958 at AOPA's Plantation Party (the forerunner of today's AOPA Expo) in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a smash hit, drawing hundreds of pilots to the six-hour program. By the time the 180° Rating Course was rendered obsolete, some 1,200 pilots had taken it.

Courses galore

The reason for the 180° Rating Course's becoming obsolete was that the FAA came up with a new ruling. Impressed by the course's success and publicity, the FAA went a step further in March 1960 by requiring private pilot applicants to demonstrate their proficiency in reversing course by reference to instruments only. However, the FAA wanted pilots to have their hands on the controls, and execute their turns by reference to the attitude indicator—a method dubbed "positive manual control."

Nelson set about developing a new course that accommodated the new rules. Called the "360° Rating Course," this curriculum called for four hours of ground school and four hours of flight instruction. Pilots flocked to the course by the thousands, at sites all across the United States. Those who took the course were exempted from taking an FAA checkride to demonstrate their competence and, under an arrangement with the FAA, an FAA "Blue Seal" was affixed to their pilot certificates. The first courses were held at the 1961 AOPA Plantation Party, and the flight training manuals used for the course were published in the November 1961 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine.

Buoyed by the 360° Rating Course's success, the Foundation started embracing more advanced training. Instrument Nav/Comm, Instrument En Route, and Instrument Approach courses followed. Then came the vanguard of a blizzard of even more specialized courses to follow—the Flight Training Clinics. These two-day, weekend courses were set up at airports all across the nation, with the cooperation and endorsement of the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO).

With that initiative came an impressive number of flight training and knowledge-test preparation courses, called weekend ground schools. Included were:

  • Instrument procedures course
  • Instrument pilot preparatory course
  • Instrument pilot refresher course
  • Multiengine refresher course
  • Aviation mechanics refresher course
  • Mountain flying course
  • Survival training course
  • Airmanship refresher course
  • Private/Commercial pilot written exam course
  • Instrument rating/instrument flight instructor written exam course
  • Airline transport pilot/flight engineer basic written exam course
  • Flight/ground instructor written exam course
  • Practical aviation weather course

By the mid-1980s, more than 100,000 pilots had taken one or more of these courses. "I'd say, conservatively, that we made three million dollars a year for the 20 or so years that we had the weekend ground schools and the other courses," said Nelson, now a retired vice president and director of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI). Nelson was also instrumental in establishing the International Aviation Theft Bureau (IATB), which operated for several years under the ASF aegis.

But it wasn't all a bed of roses. "Remember that you were on the road 200 days a year. That could take a toll," Nelson said. "But don't get me wrong. Not many people liked their work as much as I did. I was a very lucky person."


Nelson would need even more instructors for a wildly successful course—the Pinch-Hitter®—that made its entrée at the 1963 AOPA Plantation Party in Palm Springs, California. The Pinch-Hitter came about as a result of two accidents involving pilot incapacitation. "People weren't keeling over left and right, and the chances of a pilot's becoming incapacitated are microscopic, but there was a fear out there so we decided to take a chance and offer this kind of instruction to nonpilots—meaning mainly wives," Nelson said.

The idea was to offer training that would enable a nonpilot to navigate to an airport, talk with air traffic control, and land an airplane safely—without any assistance. There would be four hours of classroom instruction and four hours of flight instruction. The Ohio State University's School of Aviation developed the curriculum and everything was set for the first classes, but there were doubts. Ohio State's research indicated that nonpilots believed it took a Superman to fly an airplane, and predicted that students would be afraid of failing the course. Nelson was warned that if his new course didn't draw at least five people it would be immediately canceled. At Palm Springs, 143 women and one teenage boy took the course.

The die was cast for a program that continues to this day. Pilots would fly their spouses and other family members to designated venues, in their own airplanes, and while one spouse took a weekend ground school course the other would take the Pinch-Hitter. Most interesting is that by 1966 some 50 percent of the 4,000 Pinch-Hitter graduates had gone on for more flight training; one-third earned their private pilot certificates. "We didn't really mean it to be a tool for recruiting new pilots, but that's what happened," Nelson recalled.

The key to the program's success was its nonthreatening approach to flying. There were no heavy discussions about aerodynamics and no complex procedural advice—just the bare essentials necessary to fly an airplane to a safe landing. Instructors were chosen for their affability (the course supervisor was Hal Shevers, then working as an instructor, but who would soon launch Sporty's Pilot Shop), and the main ground rule was that no one was to flunk the course. The pressure to succeed was removed, so real, unfettered learning could begin.

Flight Instructor Refresher Courses (FIRCs)

In 1966 the FAA picked up on a program run by Montana's state aeronautical commission. It was a recurrency course given to flight instructors, and the FAA thought that a biennial recertification of all flight instructors would be a good idea. The rule was enacted, and the FAA began to hold recertification courses around the country.

It soon became evident that the FAA didn't have the manpower or resources to deal with a project of this magnitude. Based on ASF's (the AOPA Foundation was renamed The AOPA Air Safety Foundation in 1967 to better reflect the nature of its work) demonstrated competence in aviation education, the FAA empowered ASF to conduct the recertification courses. Thus began another ongoing program: Flight Instructor Refresher Courses (FIRCs). Thousands of CFIs renew their certificates every year under this extremely popular course, and it's still the largest in the nation. By the early 1990s the ASF again led the way by successfully petitioning the FAA to shorten the course from its original three-day/24-hour format to its current two-day/16-hour length. Better teaching techniques and a more focused curriculum made this change possible.

By the new millenium, high-speed Internet was becoming more commonplace and the online FIRC was becoming popular.  ASF partnered with Jeppesen, who had created a very popular online CFI refresher. Today, the ASF Jeppesen CFI Renewal Online course renews nearly 12,000 CFIs annually, more than twice the number of CFIs than the live FIRC. With the FAA's acquiescence, ASF emails the new temporary certificate to the completing CFI upon receipt of the 8710 form at ASF headquarters.

Media initiatives

ASF's first involvement in educational films began in 1964, with Come Fly With Me Darlene, a short feature aimed at the Pinch-Hitter crowd. Other films would soon follow. These included:

  • Using the Airspace
  • General Circulation and Local Winds
  • Theory of Air Masses
  • Warm Fronts
  • Cold Fronts
  • Weather Watch/The Time is Now
  • Stall/Spin: Classic Facts and Myths

Other films accompanied the Instrument Nav/Comm, Instrument En Route, and Instrument Approach courses. Most of the films were produced by Bray Studios of New York City. Bray's most innovative film was Take Two and See, a show that merged slide and rear-screen projections to educate pilots on effective scanning techniques for collision avoidance. This was used in conjunction with still another new ASF course—the Scan Training Program.

ASF also was the prime mover in establishing the first and only public television program that provided aviation weather information. Aviation Weather first aired over Public Broadcasting Service stations in 1972, thanks to an ASF grant. Annual grants continued as the program, renamed AM Weather in 1986, expanded to some 360 stations by the early 1990s. Unfortunately, PBS canceled the program in 1993 in favor of Bloomberg Business News.

There were awards, too. ASF's Stall/Spin: Classic Facts and Myths and Take Two and See won recognition for excellence from both the FAA and the Flight Safety Foundation.

Changes of the guard

In 1977 William R. Stanberry succeeded Nelson as ASF executive director. Under his tenure ASF's courses continued to grow in popularity, and ASF received the FAA's Extraordinary Service Award for its long commitment to aviation safety.

Archie Trammell served as executive vice president of the ASF from 1981 to 1983. Trammell, well-known in aviation circles for his editorship of Business and Commercial Aviation magazine and his weather radar seminars, began offering these seminars under ASF's aegis. In addition, Trammell published a series of bimonthly Air Safety Journals. These journals—a VFR version (for VFR-only pilots) and an IFR version (for those with instrument ratings)—were mailed to every pilot in the FAA registry, free of charge. Another publication, the Flight Instructor's Safety Report, was mailed to every flight instructor in the United States.

When ultralight aviation burst on the scene, Trammell and his director of ultralight affairs, John Ballantyne, established the nation's first ultralight pilot, instructor, and vehicle registration programs, and compiled the first complete accident statistics on this new segment of general aviation. These self-regulatory programs continued until 1984, when federal regulations covering ultralights were enacted under FAR Part 103.

Nelson was called back into service as executive vice president in late 1983, and he was succeeded in 1987 by retired Adm. Donald D. Engen, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and former FAA administrator.

The new world

Nelson and Engen inherited ASF at a time of financial stress. The pilot population had changed radically from the 1960s and 1970s. More pilots were instrument-rated, which meant less demand for the weekend flight training clinics and their heavy emphasis on learning instrument procedures.

ASF responded by striving for overarching goals that would benefit the entire pilot population. Landmark research in human factors was begun in the mid-1980s, and culminated, under the leadership of ASF Director of Operations Russell S. Lawton, in the publication of three aeronautical decision-making manuals in 1986.

Engen's tenure, which ran to 1992, was distinguished by the establishment of the Emil Buehler Center for Aviation Safety and the development of its general aviation accident database. This database covers all general aviation accidents since 1982. Buehler, a New Jersey real estate executive, funded the Center with several generous grants—the first amounting to $100,000. Using data from the accident database, ASF began a Human Factors Research department to provide information that made ASF's flight training programs even more relevant and safety-oriented.

Engen also expanded the Foundation's fund-raising efforts. This helped bring about several publications, films, and videotapes directed at the issues surrounding single-pilot IFR operations. He also created the ASF's board of visitors—a group of general aviation notables who provide the Foundation with ongoing technical guidance and financial support. Engen left the ASF to become director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Sadly, Engen died in a sailplane accident in 1999.

Today and tomorrow: tradition and innovation

The ASF's current President, Bruce Landsberg, came to the Foundation in 1992. An aviation marketing and safety executive, flight instructor, and writer with experience at the Cessna Aircraft Company and FlightSafety International, Landsberg continued the Foundation's tradition of providing a high volume of quality safety information and initiatives to every segment of the general aviation pilot population.

Under the current administration the ASF plays an increasing role in general aviation safety education, and ASF management spends considerable time serving on FAA, NASA, and special committees to provide technical and educational expertise from a general aviation perspective. Considerable support is lent to AOPA and the media when there is a high-profile accident. ASF won a Laurel Award from Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine for outstanding service to the industry in the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy Jr. accident. Also, ASF has taken the lead in safety issues such as runway incursions, operations at nontowered airports, and the human factors and other challenges associated with the transition to GPS navigation. Other research in recent years has addressed such issues as personal computer-based training devices.

Most pilots don't realize just how much safety information and advice is available from today's newly revitalized ASF. A list of products has grown exponentially. Here are just some of the more popular offerings:

  • Interactive online courses. Almost 30 free online courses about weather, airspace, runway safety, and radio communication, to name a few. With over 200,000 course completions each year, the online courses have become one of the most popular products offered by ASF.
  • Real Pilot Stories. Each Real Pilot Story is a true account of a good flight gone bad. Listen to pilots who really have "been there, done that" (and survived) tell their harrowing tales in hopes of helping the rest of us become better pilots.
  • Safety Seminars. Each year some 190 of these free seminars are held all across the United States. Seminar locations and dates are published each month in AOPA Pilot magazine, each week in AOPA ePilot, and on ASF's Web site, as well as DTN weather terminals in many FBOs.  The seminars cover weather strategies and tactics, operations at towered airports, mountain flying, GPS for VFR operations, and collision avoidance, to name a few.
  • Webinars. Can't attend a safety seminar in person? Join us from the comfort of your own home while viewing our live and recorded Webinars. The one-hour webinars require an Internet connection and sound—the rest is up to us, so sit back, learn, and enjoy. You can also participate live by using the chat feature.
  • Safety Quizzes. These 10-question safety quizzes use graphics and interactivity to test and expand pilots' knowledge. The standard multiple-choice and true/false questions are augmented by drag-and-drop matching exercises, fill-in-the-blank brainteasers, and "hotspot" questions. A new quiz is featured bi-weekly.
  • Safety Publications.  This Web page is chocked full of aviation safety knowledge: Safety Advisors and Safety Briefs covering almost 40 safety related subjects; ASF's annual Nall Report—a compilation and analysis of general aviation accidents; Airport taxi diagrams; Runway and Airspace flash cards; and ASF's recently revised CFI to CFI newsletter (formerly Instructor Report), to name a few.

Missing from this vast lineup of coursework are the programs that employed flight training as part of the curriculum. In 1992, the ASF discontinued flight training as part of their traveling "road show" of courses. Costs were prohibitive, liability became an issue, and it was determined that the ASF wasn't reaching as many pilots as it could or should. This explains the huge array of recent programs listed above. Even so, some flight training programs are conducted on a contract basis with such agencies as the FBI and other law-enforcement organizations. Heading up these and all other educational programs are Kathleen Vasconcelos, vice president of education and operations and Paul Deres, director of education.

Central to the achievement of this expanded role is a healthy fund-raising effort, and in this area Landsberg relies on his fund-raising team. Tax-deductible donations can be made to the ASF via several programs: The Hat in the Ring Society; Hat in the Ring Life Membership Program; the Life Member Program; and the ASF Endowment Fund (these directly fund the safety seminars and other projects). Sure, the ASF continues to derive income from a one-dollar voluntary contribution from AOPA member dues, but it's only through donations via the ASF's own fund-raising vehicles that this new kind of mass exposure of cutting-edge educational programs and materials can be sustained and enlarged. For more information on how you can help, visit ASF online at

The ASF's history underscores its faithfulness to its original charter, written down in A. Felix DuPont Jr.'s Wilmington, Delaware, law offices just 50 short years ago: "To promote safety in every manner in all phases of aviation, and to engage in research and investigation upon, and the dissemination of, the science and scientific aspects of aviation and kindred subjects."

Too bad that more pilots aren't fully aware of the magnitude of the ASF's many contributions. Let there be no doubt: We're all better, safer, more educated pilots thanks to the Air Safety Foundation's work.


In 2008 the AOPA Foundation was formed—an organization with the goal of raising $58 million to promote initiatives to increase student pilot enrollments, and ensure the future of general aviation. Among the initiatives funded by the AOPA Foundation is Let’s Go Flying, an internet-based program to make general aviation accessible to prospective pilots.

As the two foundations coexisted, there was confusion about their roles. While the AOPA Foundation was to address strategic problems negatively affecting general aviation, such as poor public perception, airports closing, and a declining pilot population, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation was tasked to raise the bar on safety education and accident prevention. To streamline operations and clarify their missions, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation became the Air Safety Institute (ASI), a division of the AOPA Foundation in 2010.