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This past year was a year destined to be remembered by millions for a handful of momentous moments. In the world-at-large- the challenges of a global economic crisis may supersede memories of other- more uplifting moments such as the Beijing Olympics and the transition in power started in embattled Iraq. The economy’s precipitous decline likely will be forever linked to the outgoing President of the United ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st February 2009
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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New PIC On Deck At AOPA:

Craig Fuller sees challenges and opportunities in 2009.

This past year was a year destined to be remembered by millions for a handful of momentous moments. In the world-at-large- the challenges of a global economic crisis may supersede memories of other- more uplifting moments such as the Beijing Olympics and the transition in power started in embattled Iraq.

The economy’s precipitous decline likely will be forever linked to the outgoing President of the United States- George W. Bush- just as the year 2008 will be equally remembered as the year a nation lived up to the ideal of its promise of equality for all by electing President of the United States a mixed-race forty-something from Illinois- to whom it now falls to shepherd the nation through its monumental challenges.

In aviation- in the U.S. and around the globe- 2008 also will be forever a milestone for the transition at the top of the world’s largest pilots' organization- the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) from the third president to the association’s fourth.

From all indications- the selection of long-time private pilot and political operative Craig Fuller is viewed as a savvy step on the part of AOPA’s attentive board of directors. Fuller brings to the post a background as a senior-level public affairs executive for private businesses- leadership at a major trade association and lobbying group- and executive positions within the federal government – time that includes eight years of service in the White House from 1981 to 1989.

Changes at this organization of more than 414-000 pilots come far less frequently than presidential elections. In fact- transitions such as Fuller’s on January 1 occurred only two previous times in AOPA’s 70-year history. Fuller follows into the AOPA PIC seat Phil Boyer- a long-time private pilot and television-network executive filled when he assumed the post from John Baker in 1991. Prior to Baker’s ascendancy in May 1977- the association’s only president had been its first employee- J.B. “Doc” Hartranft. And Hartranft took on the position shortly after its formation at Philadelphia’s Wings Field in May 1939.

Interestingly- each president differed significantly in background from his predecessor. Hartranft was a pilot with a head for business and politics. He laid the foundation of services and established the association as a politically savvy force from the start.

Baker- a lawyer who previously served as an Air Force combat pilot and as an assistant administrator of the FAA- came to an organization already respected for its assertiveness on behalf of its members- and brought a more firebrand style to the job- an approach heavily informed by his time inside the aviation agency.

Boyer- formerly a senior vice president of the American Broadcasting Network (ABC) brought a lower-key- somewhat less confrontation style to the association- but never let AOPA lose sight of its mission- or lose its ability to voice its actions. His imprint most notably came in transforming how the association employs and deploys the advancing communications tools that emerged during his tenure.

In Fuller- AOPA once again has an active general aviation pilot with a Washington insider's innate connections- one with a lower key personal style than any of his predecessors. And Fuller arrives at AOPA already plugged in to many of the players taking important aviation and transportation roles as appointee designate of President Elect Barrack Obama.

The challenges facing general aviation are as manifest and threatening as ever – from the need to reauthorize the FAA and its funding mechanisms- to the creeping encroachment of security mandates from the Transportation Security Administration. In between these extremes stand operational and equipment issues with the potential to effect growth- access and capacity of the aviation system stretching out into the lives of pilots yet unborn.

It’s enough to make one senior aviation executive in my acquaintance ponder a question similar to that raised about the presidential candidates: “Knowing what lies ahead- it makes one wonder why anyone would even consider the job- let alone want or pursue it. But we’d all be in serious trouble if there weren’t people out there who want to- can and will tackle those issues. If we have any sense at all- we’ll support them as much as we can out of our own instinct for survival.”

Fuller’s appointment also automatically casts him as head of the International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association- so the general aviation’s global issues also fall on his desk. It is into this environment that Craig Fuller took the yoke at AOPA on January 1- after several months in which he and the membership and alphabet-group communities had their chance to get to know one another.

Now- Boyer is headed to retirement on an airport in Ohio- and Fuller has steered himself into a front-row seat for the maelstrom that will be general aviation issues- domestic and international- in the coming years.

“I had the good fortune of having a long transition-” Fuller told World Aircraft Sales Magazine. “I discovered that being a member since 1973 didn’t expose me to the full extent of the good things this organization and its people do for its members. The past few months have been a real education into all that AOPA does and how it serves its members-” he said.

WAS: This may be the easiest question of the batch: Can you please give us a brief introduction to Craig Fuller- the general aviation pilot?

Fuller: I was on a family vacation in Oregon at about age 15 and decided that flying general aviation aircraft was something I wanted to do. So when I said at 16 I wanted to learn to fly- my father- himself a pilot- said he’d pay for half if I paid the other half. I soloed at 16 and got my license at 17.

After that I earned money to support my flying by doing aerial photography for real estate companies. When I graduated from college and got a job with a consulting firm- I got a chance to do my own flying out of California. I went from a purely recreational flyer to a mainly business flyer in a Cessna Cutlass 172RG I’d bought - a plane I kept for a long time- and sold in the 1990s.

In 2003 I was in a position to return to more regular flying and bought a new A36 Bonanza that year- and I’ve been flying 200- 220 hours a year since.

WAS: Our next easiest question… In many ways- you come to the job with a degree of anonymity similar to Phil Boyer’s when he came over from ABC. So- would you enlighten us on your background and what brought you to want this job?

Fuller: I’ve always enjoyed working with various organizations that have issues involving government. Sometimes with companies- sometimes with associations. I represented pharmacies and worked a lot on healthcare issues- for example. But I’ve always enjoyed my flying.

So when I heard of this position coming open- it seemed like an ideal way to combine the work I really enjoy with my love of flying over the past 40 years. I hope that on this job I get to build on the work I’ve done in improving government relations and communications on behalf of general aviation.

WAS: In your New Year’s Day message to members you noted that both challenges and opportunities are ahead for general aviation. In terms of challenges- what do you see as the top three for AOPA and general aviation pilots as a whole?

Fuller: Two overarching challenges stand out. One is simply the economy. As long as we’re in this economic downturn it puts pressure on people’s ability to fly - to use their aircraft and to own aircraft.

The other broad issue as it pertains to general aviation is the lack of understanding of general aviation and how it fits and functions. Policy makers- in particular- don’t seem to have a good understanding of general aviation. I think it’s important to create a better understanding of general aviation.

One of the things this lack of understanding brings is attempts to regulate us- highlighted by this security proposal from the Transportation Security Administration – the Large Aircraft Security Program.

We’re very mindful of the need to attract and keep more pilots and to protect airports. When a group or industry is not well understood- it becomes vulnerable and I think we need to improve on that understanding.

WAS: What are the top three opportunities that you see?

Fuller: One of the opportunities I think builds on a real strength at AOPA- and that is further building our on-line communications. We reach hundreds of thousands of members and a very large number of non-members through our on-line channels. I want to build on that with communications that tell our story and promote a better understanding of general aviation.

Another opportunity that we’ve worked on is our “Let’s Go Flying” program- focusing on images and messages that encourage people to go to the airport and try out flying – and also- to encourage inactive pilots to come back. We need to make people more aware of the utility and convenience of general aviation.

I think there’s also an opportunity in Washington with a new administration and new people coming in to improve our communications with the government and Congress.

Along those lines we’ve just made an excellent addition to strengthen our Washington office by adding a new vice president- Lorraine Howerton- and she’ll be working with me and our existing government affairs staff to present our story to the government. We’re very happy to have her on board. It’s an opportunity for us to get in and explain the role of general aviation.

WAS: Partly due to its own recruiting strength- and partly due to the population’s decline- AOPA today represents a larger percentage of pilots than at any other time in its history. For those who might believe membership is only about the magazine- what would you tell the non-member pilot to explain the importance of membership to both them personally and to the general aviation community to which they belong?

Fuller: First of all – and it comes from decades in Washington – if you want something to grow and thrive- you need to protect it in the halls of Congress. I’d encourage membership to help assure that our freedom to fly continues to exist. Also- there are a large number of services available from AOPA that are useful to the pilot. I use many of them every time I fly – weather information- the real-time flight planning- corporate legal insurance- the airport directory that’s available on-line; I think I use that one every time I go somewhere.

And we have a strong association with Bank of America that provides benefits to the member and the association every time they use its services and the AOPA Credit Card.

I want to add- I think that the number one benefit is the safety and training information available through the (AOPA) Air Safety Foundation. We now have a record number of pilots going on-line to take the foundation’s courses. It’s of tremendous value to pilots.

WAS: Also in your New Year’s Day message- you said “…one of the greatest challenges facing the entire aviation industry is the declining pilot population.” AOPA has- in recent years- worked many different efforts to attract new people to flying- from the Be-A-Pilot program- the Mentor Pilot effort and the latest- Let’s Go Flying! effort aimed- it seems- at both keeping existing pilots active and expanding the population. In your view- what makes learning to fly and staying engaged such a challenging sell?

Fuller: I’ve struggled with this one- too. I fly to destinations for meetings and arrive very rested and relaxed and ready to work and the others come in and say they want that advantage- too - that they want to learn to fly. And I ask- “Why don’t you?”

I think there’s a perception that it’s complex and costly – and to a certain extent- it is somewhat complex and somewhat costly. But not like people think.

The new technology offers such benefits. But I think some people are intimidated by the technology. We need to help them understand that the technology can actually make flying safer- easier and more fun. Cost- of course- is always an issue. We’ve had good news recently in the cost of fuel going down - so that people can fly more.

The combination of aircraft available today - the light aircraft - can also help. With inexpensive aircraft in the light end- they can suit people who need less- or want less. I give a lot of credit to the industry for coming up with the light sport aircraft. But again- we have to give people a sense that there’s value in learning to fly.

We’re going to do that more this year with our sweepstakes aircraft- a new Cirrus that will be used to tell the story of how people can use airplanes for business and personal travel. There is a lot of potential out there. My eyes really got opened last year when I walked the grounds with AOPA Air Safety Foundation Director Bruce Landsberg at (EAA AirVenture) Oshkosh.

WAS: In the security sector- it seems that despite intense efforts to enlighten and educate- the TSA seems unwilling (or incapable) of acknowledging the differences between private aviation and common carriage; at least- as the agency has responded under the outgoing White House administration.

Many aviation group executives see that failure manifested in the Large Aircraft Security Program NPRM. Do you see any hope or encouraging sign that the TSA under a different White House administration might be more realistic and sensitive to the differences?

Fuller: Truthfully- it’s too soon to know how things are going to sort out. I think that the facts of our TSA being headed by a former prosecutor and lawyer- and now to be headed by a governor gives me some hope that there will be a different view. I’m disappointed that in its final hours the Bush Administration has taken this proposal and offered regulations that are basically attempts to restrict whatever they can for whatever they can imagine with no justification.

Going forward- all of us in general aviation are going to need to make our case to the Obama Administration and make it known that we are not a threat. I think one thing that has been missed is that the general aviation community has been second to none in recognizing the need for airport and aircraft security and acting on it. It’s an issue of importance. We have people of pretty strong credentials to carry our message.

WAS: Early in its history- AOPA fought for- and won the creation of the Civilian Pilot Training Corps- in essence preparing the nation to meet the massive need for pilots driven by the realities of a looming world war. Some pilots believe a similar type of effort is needed to help general aviation equip for ADS-B and NextGen if the community – users and regulators – is going to realize the promises of these complementary technologies.

Would a public-works type program to help users equip older airplanes with the hardware needed for ADS-B – something like what the FAA did with CAPSTONE in Alaska – be a useful approach to help pilots- airlines and the FAA move forward?

Fuller: This is obviously one of the areas I’m getting into more as I’ve come here. I do believe we need a better idea of what the benefits will be for general aviation. I also think when you consider the rapid acceptance of GPS systems by general aviation and the proliferation of approaches – there are no more GPS approaches than ILS approaches – we’re perfectly capable of making these transitions when we understand the value.

I do think there are ways to mitigate the costs to realize those benefits – they may be tax credits or other tax benefits – so the costs don’t impose a huge cost burden on aircraft owners.

WAS: For years- the president of AOPA has been a shining example of the benefits and efficiency of general aviation through the annual series of Pilot Town Hall Meetings. During the last couple of years of Phil Boyer’s tenure- the demands of the FAA reauthorization fight kept Phil off the circuit. Do you plan to resume these important- highly anticipated meetings once settled into your new role?

Fuller: I’ve taken a long look at this. My sense is; number one- I want to be out with members and have a sense of what’s on their minds. So the idea of interacting with members is a high priority for me.

I’m looking for other ways – maybe less formal hangar-flying sessions – around the country to allow me to interact with pilots. I’m also looking for forums where I can press our message- like the (January) meeting of the Wichita Aero Club. But I do recognize the importance and want to get around the country and interact with pilots in some fashion.

WAS: Typically- the people we tap for these interviews are themselves pilots- rather than merely association professionals- so we like to close out these interviews with a question about the subject’s personal flying. Can you tell our readers what your favorite general aviation getaway is- or a favorite non-business use of your personal airplane?

Fuller: I fear you’re going to get me in trouble here. So I’m going to say my most recent favorite place to fly is on the East Coast visiting some friends in Martha’s Vineyard. We picked up his mother on the way up and she sat in back of the Bonanza and had the time of her life. I also love the Greenbrier Inn in West Virginia. And another favorite is Bedford- Pennsylvania – the Bedford Springs Resort. We land at Bedford County Airport- designator HMZ- and they come out from the resort- pick us up and allow us to really enjoy things we like to do.

WAS: Craig- thanks again for your time. We wish you nothing but the best success in your new career; an entire community needs AOPA to continue to be the strong- successful leader it’s been.

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