Sunday, November 13, 2011

Controlled Flight Into Terrain

If you’ve noticed a change in the magazines Sport Aviation and AOPA Pilot, then you are not alone. Do you remember Bill Murray’s character in the movie Ghost Busters? If so, then you likely remember the scene where he is trying to explain to the mayor just how bad things are about to get when he finally hits on something everyone can understand “…dogs and cats sleeping together”. Well, it seems the ghosts are loose and the streams are crossed.
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?


Wayne Bressler said...

I've been thinking the same thing. Thanks for putting it out there.

Bobby Hayden said...

Hi Rich, I have to commend you for posting your position and your thoughts about these two organizations. In the past years I was constantly subscibing to one aviaition related magazine after the other. Even in my slow working thought process it became very apparent that all that the article writers did was to copy from a manufacturers sales brochure and regurgatate it back on paper for the "masses" to read. One magaizene was no different form the other. I eventually over time let all of my subscritptions expire. I had even refused to renew my memebership in EAA and AOPA for the reasons that you point out in this article.

I eventually renewed AOPA and just this past year even EAA memeberships. Unfortunantly I think that these two groups are about all we as aviators have to stay connected to the subject we all like so well even though most of the time it appears to be somewhat distant and out of touch.

After the disaster of the 2008 elections I fired and email to the pres of AOPA and complained about his supprt of the most unfriendly general avaition administartion to ever be elected and if you can believe it the email went unansewered from anyone at AOPA.

Look what this administration has done over the past few months to us as general aviation pilots and users. Its disgusting to me that my money for memembership to AOPA went to the campaign of this GA adversary.

Boy that sure took a turn from what you wrote about didn't it. Oh well, thanks again for keeping these guys on their toes. Please try to help us stay in touch with what most of us that read what you write about actually care to read and experience.

MrT said...


I can't comment about current affairs, but having spent a significant part of my professional life working for one of the associations you discuss, I can say that during my time the issues you raise were always front and center in the building. It's a continuing challenge, and a continuing discussion internally, to strike a balance in the publication that will keep everyone--from the number crunchers in the building to the very diverse segments of the membership--forever happy. Also, much depends on the people doing the writing and editing.

That said, it's important to keep everyone's feet to the fire. Keep feeding the flames!

Harry Fenton said...

The latest Sport Aviation has a many page article on the Socata TBM 850. There are approximately 160,000 EAA members, and less than 100 of these members either own, or could own a TBM 850. Socata has donated quite a bit of money to the EAA, so, understandably, this is part of the deal. On the other hand, a largely useless excersize to fill pages in the magazine with editorial.

EAA might as put a yellow sticky not over the Sport Aviation title with the words "Flying" on it. Sport Aviation was on the right track about a year ago, it was really an improved magazine, but it is just a cookie cutter info-mercial at this point.

At one point, I had decades of old Sport Aviations saved and archived. Now, I just pitch them- they just don't have any value any more.

anita said...

Great blog post Rich

I don't know if your sources at EAA can confirm it but J. Mac McClellan is reported to have made some worrying statements recently :

Jeff Franks said...

Great commentary! I would like to add that I think we are misdirecting much of our very limited resources in Sport Aviation - With the Young Eagles program.

Don't get me wrong. I think the YE's is a great thing and getting kids in the air is a definite win. But how many of those 13 yr olds are returning as pilots 10 years later? and even if they get a certificate when they're 17, they stop flying for 15 years due to time/money/family/school issues.

We need an 'Old Eagles' program :) We need to be fighting for the extra cash that they 35 year olds have. I can name 10 people in my 'friends' list that have spent more than $15k on a motorcycle. Many of them would love to fly, but they all think it's out of their league. either too expensive or requires too long to get a license (months rather than the 15 minutes to get a motorcycle license).

Our numbers are dwindling. Go to any GA flyin or event. I'm 41 and most of the time, I'm the youngest person there!

We've got to get the people interested who have the means to carry on the 'hobby'. It's great that Young Eagles introduces the kids to flying (and demystifies it some). But thats an investment in the long term future. We need excitement like Harley-Davidson has NOW!

Just my humble opinion :)


Anonymous said...

Hi folks, Chad Jensen from EAA here...couple of things I want to address.

First, Rich, know that we are listening here at EAA. I am probably one of the more active members of the staff online, and I appreciate you putting this out there. The perceived mis-direction at EAA is being talked about all over the internet, and the voice of the membership is being heard. All organizations make changes, and when times are tough, changes become a mode of survivability. Are the current changes the correct move? Maybe...maybe not. The only way to tell is by listening to member feedback, and making a course correction if it's needed. We do member survey's on the magazine, and that is taken in to consideration on future issues. There's a lag in the changes though, and with the information available on the internet, changes in the magazine always seem to never happen because it's not here and's a couple months ago. Look for some good things in the coming issues.

anita, the posts that you have linked to are stemmed from information that was taken WELL out of context. Things like this that are posted on the internet without a trustworthy source cannot be taken with any weight to them.

Jeff, the great news is, we have an 'Old Eagles' program coming! The official name has not yet been released, but it will be launched and announced very soon! It was announced at an all hands meeting last week that the program was ready to be unveiled. This is VERY exciting, and we are all looking forward to it's success in creating more new pilots!!


Peter Bichier said...

I grew up reading FLYING Magazine and by the time I was full grown and interested in aviation it was way out of my reach and like you say all it covered was Jets and Turbo props.

I became frustrated and bored with it and let it all go. One day I crossed my path with a cover on the birthday of Beechcraft and they had the V35 in there (that's what caught my eye) then inside I discover Martha Lunken's column and it made me swing back to Flying back again.

To make a long story short, one thing lead to another but she revived my interest and I became an LSA pilot months after reading her "flour bombing campaign."

I completely agree with you and may be by at least having columnists that keep the soul of grass root aviation alive is the only way to survive this movement and keep on flying vintage and home builts.

As far as EAA mag. I never read much but the builders column, it's usually the last magazine that I'll read. I'll start with Flying, then I prefer to look at Flight Training from AOPA.

And thinking you are an airline pilot... no wonder it took me 45 years to get up in the air...

Thanks for your input though and it was really a pleasure to visit a place like Lee Bottom!

Best of luck and I'll make sure to pitch in for a great spirited airport!


Peter Bichier
(a Pietenpol driver)

Jim said...

It's interesting to read the Osh365 "Hanger" forum and see the homebuilders complaining that the magazine is no longer about homebuilding. My personal opinion is that I'd like to see more pilot reports on the various Light Sport Aircraft. Obviously you can't please everybody, but high-priced, turbos?????? In Sport Aviation magazine, I just don't think so. Glad to see that there are a bunch out here that agree with me.