In 1939, five pilots – all unabashed aviation enthusiasts – gathered near Wings Field north of Philadelphia and signed the charter that would launch the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a fledgling group that was destined to become the world’s largest aviation member association.
Then, as now, AOPA’s primary mission was to protect the freedom to fly for the growing population of general aviation pilots and aircraft owners.
“Looking back on our history it’s striking how constant AOPA’s mission has remained through the decades,” said Mark Baker, AOPA president and CEO. “Technology has changed dramatically and the general aviation fleet has grown from about 13,000 aircraft 75 years ago to more than 200,000 today, but many of the challenges we face are the same. AOPA’s founders were concerned about excessive regulation, rising costs, access to airspace and their freedom to fly, and many of those same issues are on the table today.”
As the storm clouds of World War II gathered, aviation enthusiasts Philip and Laurence Sharples, Alfred Wolf, C. Townsend Ludington and John Story Smith were concerned that the growing influence of military air power would eclipse general aviation.
When the five founders gathered on May 15, 1939 to establish AOPA, they elected Ludington as AOPA’s first president – one of just five in AOPA’s history. The May 2014 issue of AOPA Pilot, the world’s largest aviation magazine, is a commemorative anniversary edition highlighting those first members and exploring the future of general aviation.
The rapid expansion of aviation in the United States has today introduced a range of challenges that AOPA’s founders could have hardly imagined.
They include proposed user fees – which AOPA has successfully blocked, GA’s role in air traffic modernization, eliminating medical requirements that needlessly ground pilots and raise costs, developing an alternative to leaded aviation gasoline, revising restrictive certification standards, protecting threatened airports and maintaining adequate airport funding, facing down safety hazards posed by commercial drones, reducing the cost of flying and increasing and sustaining the pilot population.
Today AOPA is the world’s largest aviation member association, with representatives in Frederick, Md., Washington, D.C., Wichita, Kan., and seven regions across the United States. AOPA provides member services that range from advocacy at the federal, state, and local levels to legal and insurance services, flight planning products, safety programs and award-winning media. AOPA is a member of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations, which includes 73 affiliates that collectively represent 450,000 pilots.
AOPA’s Air Safety Institute has become a renowned safety leader with innovative training seminars and online clinics, while the AOPA Foundation independently raises charitable funding to support programs that ensure the future of general aviation. (To learn more, visit: www.foundation.aopa.org ).
During its anniversary year, AOPA has launched a series of programs to benefit members, old and new.
The Rusty Pilots program offers pilots who have gotten away from flying a simple, low-cost path back into the cockpit. AOPA, working with flight schools and flying clubs, offers a free 2.5-hour ground school that brings Rusty Pilots up to speed on airspace and regulatory changes. With subsequent dual flight time with an instructor, Rusty Pilots can quickly become current.
AOPA also continues to promote flying clubs as an affordable and fun way to fly. AOPA’s Flying Club Initiative offers the “AOPA Guide to Starting a Flying Club,” a manual with advice on club management, selecting and scheduling aircraft, finances and insurance. A Flying Club Finder website allows pilots to find and join one of the more than 600 flying clubs in the U.S.
In addition, AOPA this year will host seven regional fly-ins to meet members where they fly. The first fly-in, in San Marcos Texas on April 26, was a resounding success with more than 2,600 participants. Other fly-ins will be held May 31 in Indianapolis, July 12 in Plymouth, Mass., Aug. 16 in Spokane, Wash., Sept. 20 in Chino, Calif., and Nov. 8 in St. Simons, Ga.
On Oct. 4, AOPA will also renew its popular Frederick Fly-In with a Homecoming event where members can visit AOPA headquarters, meet the staff and take part in AOPA’s 75th Anniversary celebration.
“Aviation creates a unique bond that holds pilots together,” Baker said. “AOPA’s founders instinctively knew that. Our members and their shared passion for aviation are what have made AOPA so successful – and influential – over its first 75 years. And we know that it’s the people in aviation who will continue to make GA such a unique and beneficial American endeavor for the next 75 years and beyond.”