Two years ago, if you and I had been hanging out and I had said, “Within two years, AOPA Pilot will be covering real aviation and Sport Aviation will be filled with articles about pressurized turbines, you would likely have laughed your ass off. Now though, a few of you are thinking “how did he know”.
Few organizations today do any long term planning. Having fallen into the trap of the instant gratification mentality of the internet generation, many non-profits have forgotten that although they have to be agile and open to change, there still has to be a goal, a destination at the end of a chart. Without that, all you get are answers to yesterday’s problems. Welcome to AOPA Pilot and Sport Aviation.
Only a few years back, a writer at AOPA Pilot would have needed to work every angle to get a story about flying a biplane cross country green-lighted. Today, Dave Hirschman has free reign to write about flying anything. Two years ago, the pages were filled with turboprops, and cold unspoken advertorials. Today, Dave Hirschman routinely argues passionately with some other guy about whatever gets people worked up. So what gives? I suspect several things.
Not that long ago, AOPA was in the hot seat and this is what I imagine went down. Complaints about the wine club and the advertorial disguised as a magazine were reaching record levels; levels that could not be ignored. Then, just as AOPA was about to do some impeaching, somehow, an adviser got a call through to Craig to offer a solution. “Mr. Fuller, I think I have an idea to rescue your Presidency. What if we covered aviation in our magazine?” And, for whatever reason, Craig thought “You know, this crazy idea just might work”. A poll was taken, the results came back favorable, and Dave was given the go ahead to place real airplanes in AOPA Pilot. There’s just one problem; other magazines already do that.
Memberships; just as every drunk needs a moped, AOPA needs memberships. When General Aviation manufacturers had money to burn, they could buy as many articles in AOPA pilot as they wanted. Faced with a choice, back then AOPA chose to drink the money and ignore the members. This was an easy call because members, like voters, would swallow whatever they were fed. Now though, AOPA has a problem; GA Manufacturers are broke.
Trying desperately to make up with the members it ignored for those with bigger bank accounts, AOPA now finds itself doing some serious sucking up. I tell ya, it’s like an after school special; AOPA is the fair weather friend and we’re the not so attractive but reliable types that are easy to take advantage of. Unfortunately, there’s an issue with this too. We lowly membership types can no longer afford multiple magazine subscriptions. Therefore, with AOPA Pilot starting to look like other magazines that cover real aviation, more substance will have to be added to the lobbying side of the operation if they are to retain subscribers, err, members. Why? Because they have a new competitor; EAA.
Have you heard? Sport Aviation is moving away from grass roots. You haven't? Well yeah, there is new leadership at EAA and although Sport Aviation technically has an Executive Editor, other people in the building insist on playing that role too. Therefore, like a pinball, Sport Aviation is along for the ride in a game of executive bumpers. But maybe I am ahead of myself.
Some time ago, a new Executive Director was brought in to Sport Aviation in an effort to rebuild the heart of a dying magazine. That person, for all practical purposes, did just that. Then a new President came along. He, and perhaps along with a few others, had something different in mind.
Being a business person, and therefore someone who needs benchmarks to keep score and earn bonuses, he began making many changes to the organization behind the scenes. Expenses were cut and potential profits were identified. The magazine would play a large role in the later. But again, I am ahead of myself.
Do you know how a President of a non-profit like EAA is judged by its members? Historically, although you may not wish to admit it, it has been memberships. One of AOPA’s past Presidents, John Baker, is well known for reminding his employees of this fact. “We’re not in the aviation business. We’re in the membership business”, he would say. And quite honestly, there is some truth to that. The question arises though, for what purpose are you in the membership business?
Now, understanding how a President is judged, put yourself in Rod Hightower’s shoes and find yourself a new batch of members with which to make your mark. Where would you look? What areas would you pursue? Do you have suggestions?
Well, this is how I think they now see it at HQ. They’ve had the homebuilders for years and they’re cheap. The vintage folks are the old timers who only want to talk about EAA’s past. And the warbird folks have run free for too long thus getting the best of everything while giving the least return. What does that leave EAA? The answer may frighten you but Sport Aviation has a new directive; focus on “The North-Forty”.
If you don't know what “The North-Forty” is, to regulars of Oshkosh, that’s Airventure to three or four of you, The North-Forty is the northernmost East to West parking area where modern flying machines, built on assembly lines, park. Fuel injection, turbo-chargers, aluminum, composites, glass panels, twin-engines, large N-numbers, and even jet fuel are likewise common to the area.
Now, if you know EAA, and you have a good feeling for what EAA is, then you likely see a problem. If Ferrari said it was going to focus on mass producing mid size, low performance, four door sedans for the broader American market, would you recognize that for the colossal mistake it was? Porsche tried something similar with the 924, and 914 before that, and it nearly killed the company. Why? Because that simply is not the business of Porsche. Likewise, the North-Forty is not what EAA does.
If you think I’m looking down on The North-Forty, think again. Those machines and their older brothers make up the majority of aviation. What they aren’t though is fitting material for Sport Aviation. If you don’t believe me, turn to page 25 of the November 2011 Sport Aviation. Look at that article and ask yourself if that piece belongs in that magazine. Does it feel right? No, of course not, its presence is a joke, and the fact the manufacturer has been around a hundred years does not make it appropriate. Furthermore, putting this nose-wart twenty pages from a full page add for the same manufacturer does not disguise what is going on here. Pay to print publishing has arrived, Sport Aviation is being rebuilt, and soon your beloved EAA magazine will be a mainstream aviation publication. What? You don’t believe me?
When I received this issue of Sport Aviation, I put it in my flight bag and took it to work. Over the next week, I showed the article to fellow pilots and asked them to guess what magazine I was holding. Amazingly, every single one of them, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM, twelve total, made the same three guesses: AOPA Pilot, Flying, and Plane and Pilot.
If you pay close attention to the aviation publication industry, those results are not a good sign for Sport Aviation. But maybe you’re thinking that little experiment proves nothing. And you know what, it alone does not. But mark my words, that is what’s going on. Just look at their recent acquisition.
J. Mac McClellan has been a staple of the mainstream aviation publication industry (read boring) for a very long time. But, where was he before Sport Aviation? That’s right, Flying Magazine was his home and that is what he was hired to bring to EAA; Flying Magazine content. And why was he hired to bring Flying Magazine content to EAA? Because the North-Forty is the new largely unspoken vector for Sport Aviation. And why is the North-Forty the new direction? Because EAA is no longer in the aviation business, it is in the membership business.
Now folks, I’m going to say it again, this is a bad idea. Not only does this put EAA on a direct course with AOPA, a supposed new ally, it also has EAA trolling a segment of the industry in which it simply has no experience. It is not what EAA does. It is not what keeps EAA alive. And, if executives continue this pursuit, I believe it will be the ultimate downfall of the intent of EAA. I don’t care in how many issues of Sport Aviation, Vintage, IAC, or Warbirds, articles about PT-17’s appear. They will not disguise the fact that EAA is moving away from grass roots aviation and they will certainly not hide the fact who took us there.
As members of the Grass Roots segment of Aviation, we find ourselves in perilous times. Over-regulation, agencies such as the TSA, and a weak economy continue to swing at us with all they have. Yet that I can handle. It’s the thought of EAA and AOPA taking us down with the misuse of our money and trust that I cannot.
What other surprises are in store members?
What other surprises are in store members?