Living in Easton, there are constant reminders of the value a community provides. The value flows from the people, the relationships, the culture and the shared experiences. It also flows from a unique geography associated with one of the largest inland bodies of water in the world.
Recently, a weekend event reminded me that the power and elements of a strong community need not be geographic; or, perhaps, I should say they can be multi-geographic.
The event occurred in Frederick, Maryland where the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) hosted their 80th anniversary celebration. The events over the weekend marked the formation of an association that developed into a full-fledged community we know as general aviation. It happened with the approaching world war when a small group of young and adventuresome aviators feared their beloved flying activities might be curtailed if America entered the war. The year was 1939 and the place was what is now Wings Field outside of Philadelphia.
These aviators decided to form AOPA in order to protect the freedom to fly and to encourage safe aviation. The organization grew over the years and evolved, but always remained true to the purpose the founders gave it. Today, it reins strong as the protector of airmen and aviation enthusiasts, running safety and educational programs right along with a formidable advocacy effort in Washington, D.C. and all 50 states.
It was an honor to be invited by the current AOPA President, Mark Baker, to join my friend and predecessor, Phil Boyer, for a gathering of the three living individuals who share the privilege of representing hundreds of thousands of pilots as presidents of AOPA. We spent a good deal of time together and were captured signing the beautiful AOPA 80th Anniversary books for members.
As I stood near the flight line, I marveled at the foresight of the founders and appreciated the hundreds of people who have worked tirelessly at AOPA to make a vision into a reality. Aviators had come from all over the country to be present for the celebration. Pilots were demonstrating short field landing skills in a competition with two-seat backcountry aircraft (some of the most fun flying I’ve done was in one of them…the Husky); while at the same time, restored World War II aircraft were used to launch paratroopers dressed and using parachutes just like they would have in the war.
Aircraft of all kinds were on the field drawing a record crowd even on days with marginal weather. They came to witness the event. They came to enjoy the company of fellow pilots and aviation enthusiasts. They came to show their support for general aviation. They came, in every sense of the word, because they wanted to show they are part of a community.
Often, success in the world of associations is judged by numbers. However, while numbers matter, the impressive nature of the general aviation community built by AOPA and the other general aviation associations is the strong bond that is shared by so many. That bond results in engagement when threats appear on the horizon. The bond is why safety information is shared rapidly throughout the aviation community. Not only do pilots want to know everything there is to know that can enhance the safety of flight, they are anxious to share it with others.
Having flown airplanes for fifty years purely because I chose to do so, I was never prouder or more moved by the community that has become general aviation. It was as exciting to see a 100-year-old World War II veteran stand to speak of his love for aviation as it was to see the excitement on the faces of children as they watched the World War II era aircraft lift off the ground.
As long as the bond that brings aviators and aviation enthusiasts together remains strong, the community will remain strong and the unique freedom to fly we enjoy in the United States will provide new opportunities for people of all ages to, as an American pilot in World War II, John Magee, Jr, said, “…slip the surly bonds of earth.”
Perhaps on this 80th Anniversary, we could celebrate with John Magee, Jr.’s full poem and reflect on the remarkable experience of flight….
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Happy birthday, AOPA! Well done!
Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.