Venerable Aviation Advocacy Group Turns 65
The Aircraft Owners and
Pilots Association this week marks 65 years of serving -- and
protecting -- general aviation. 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
"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
The Early Days
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 (below).
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.
Then And Now
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
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
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,
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 syste 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
AOPA provided strong support to local efforts in St. Petersburg
(FL) 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 (CA) and to build a new GA airport in the Austin (TX)
area to replace two that closed in recent years.
AOPA Air Safety Foundation
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
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
"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