I knew the day would come to talk about Charlie Spence. He was a signal force in General Aviation public relations. He was once my daunting competitor. Later, he was a warm and encouraging friend — as he was to so many.
Charlie and I each held the same two top PR jobs in GA: From 1963 to 1968, Charlie represented the Utility Airplane Council (predecessor to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.) I was at GAMA about 12 years later. And we were both senior vice president for public relations/communications at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Charlie held forth from 1968 to the mid-1980s. I signed on in 1991.
Charlie died on June 23 at age 94, having remained remarkably active for three decades after leaving AOPA. Thereafter, he covered Congressional, FAA and association politics until 2014.
It was only a month or two ago he asked if I could finish a small writing assignment for him. “I’m 94, have cancer and I just can’t…” God bless him.
I never knew why Charlie left AOPA. I can only note that so many top PR practitioners become fodder for some new idea or hot shot. They are almost always swept out with changes at the top.
Charlie’s departure from AOPA did not diminish his legacy as a fighter for GA. He personified his era’s “damn the torpedoes” approach to defending GA at all costs. It was those costs to which I often objected.
An old airline PR friend famously dubbed AOPA “The NRA of the Air.” Back then, comparisons were apt. AOPA seemed to oppose everything and threw its weight around to do it.
Initially, I tip-toed around AOPA’s oversized personalities. They seemed ferocious. Charlie eventually invited me out to show off AOPA’s big new Frederick, Maryland, headquarters… and to show me who was boss. (AOPA officials often complained that GA needed only one D.C. organization.)
One of Charlie’s favorite tour stops? The large industrial building behind the parking lot — the AOPA printing plant. Yep, the association had its own!
“You don’t argue with guys who buy ink by the barrel,” Charlie boasted of AOPA’s power in publicity, publishing and direct mail.
I would wait a few years to work for AOPA under the new leadership style of Phil Boyer. Yet I had no doubt that Charlie Spence’s times were daunting ones that demanded his toughness.
Take muckraker Jack Anderson’s October 1969, article in the Sunday newspaper supplement “Parade.” Several notorious airline/GA mid-airs had plagued “the crowded skies,” thus informing Anderson’s daunting title, “The Growing Menace of the Private Airplane.”
Following collisions in Urbana, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Anderson charged that, “every air traveler… moves through the clouds in constant danger of meeting that sinister unseen pilot of a private plane.
“Private planes contribute much more distress to the airlines than just delays.” And further, “probably the greatest threat to air safety is the private pilot who decides to go on a lark in the skies after drinking.”
Plenty to work with there! Charlie was right in the fray, quoted as saying, “In fact, the collision is often the fault of the commercial airliner, as recent reports by NTSB investigations show.”
Such arguments would become AOPA coin of the realm when an accident called for a “Who hit who?” argument (as did the 1978 San Diego collision.)
Often, however, all this was seen as merely academic in the big picture of things.
By the time of the Cerritos collision in 1986, AOPA (still under president John Baker but now PR’d by Ed Pinto) did a masterful (if impossible) job cutting to the fine points: 1) the overly complex boundaries of Terminal Control Areas, and 2) ATC’s propensity to suppress VFR 1200-code traffic from their radar screens.
Still, an out-of-town GA pilot HAD climbed 300 feet into a Terminal Control Area ring and his transponder WAS NOT altitude-reporting capable.
Echoes of Jack Anderson’s 1969 diatribe would dog AOPA throughout Charlie’s years: “Many weekend fliers are unaware of new regulations or procedures,” Anderson (and many others) had said. Moreover, many decried AOPA’s power in printing, propaganda and policymaking as obstructionist and Luddite.
It takes a tough guy to face all that. On that first trip to AOPA, I was taken aback when Charlie related how some left-turning driver had encroached on his New York City crosswalk in 1956.
“I took my keys and just scraped a line along his car as he squeezed by.” HE KEYED HIM! At the time, I was aghast. But Charlie the ex-Marine was a fighter for his rights.
In subsequent years, Charlie mellowed. Reporting for General Aviation News, Charlie’s reassuring phone voice would offer an upbeat greeting to many an association PR person. He was encouraging to all the young, less experienced people who came into the associations by then.
Heck, I know he sometimes prompted a young PR person on what positions their association would be taking. I heard it myself. He already knew what each “alphabet” group would do or say. He just had to get you to say it so he could put it into the article he had already mostly finished!
I admired him especially for being that person. I was thrilled when, in later years, he complimented my work for AOPA. Catching my CTAF radio calls arriving at the Ercoupe convention, he said, “You were the only pilot to do it right all day.” (I felt validated until EAA-AOPA competitiveness reared up with some Ercouper’s nasty “If you can’t fix ‘em, you shouldn’t be flying ‘em!)
I was also thrilled with Charlie’s praise of my 2009-2014 reflections for General Aviation News.
“If I had known you could write,” he said, “I would have hired you at AOPA.” That was a privilege I would have turned down at the time.
My brand of media relations was much more collaborative. While I battled when needed, AOPA became a friendlier, more trusted resource for the media, as well as an advocate. The media then became more willing to listen. It was two different approaches for two different eras.
By the 1990s and my time at AOPA, the FAA had implemented new airspace rules. GA had equipped and trained for navigation very compatible with “the system.” More pilots had instrument ratings and were more conversant with the flow of traffic and the ways of ATC.
So what divided Charlie and me was not our approaches to PR but the times at hand. What linked us was real-world experience — news writing, promotion and public relations.
My outside preparation for this work was far shorter than Charlie’s decades-long newspaper career. But he and I both learned well how “news is made” before applying that expertise for GA. This was experience you didn’t always see later.
That was understandable, of course, just as flying experience became harder and more costly to come by. Opportunities were diminishing to become the pre-qualified and experienced aviator/spokesperson ready in both roles. Today, some become qualified on the job. And it’s always easier just to keep the friendly trade media happy and entertained. Fortunately, the general media environment is relatively quiet currently.
But GA’s risks are still with the general media — the hard-bitten reporters and broadcasters who mold public opinion. That’s the heavy lifting.
And that’s why Charlie was a hero to many. In difficult times, he was one of those from his tried-and-tested generation who knew what they were doing and made their times their own.
© 2016 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved