By GUY R. MAHER
The stats are in and the 2014 series of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) regional fly-ins were a resounding success.
One of the first major moves of new AOPA President Mark Baker was to discontinue the annual AOPA Aviation Summit [the last one was held in 2013 in Fort Worth, Texas] and replace it with a series of regional one-day fly-ins. The final one for the year was held at Malcolm McKinnon Airport (KSSI) in St. Simons Island, Ga.
It couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather was good VFR. The airport was made for this event with ample parking space for both aircraft and autos, and plenty of both indoor and outside ramp space for the exhibitors, meals, and speaking sessions.
The attendee count totaled 1,850, which was not as high as some of the other fly-ins. But it certainly surpassed the other fly-ins at doing exactly what the event called for – flying in.
I arrived on the day before the Saturday event, and my 310 was one of the 200 that arrived that day. It was the highest count of any of the fly-ins for the day before arrivals, and the total aircraft count was also the highest of all the fly-ins at 543. Seventeen of those aircraft were campers who had their own grass area to park on the grounds. There were more than 500 automobiles as well.
The total stats for the 2014 series included more than 16,250 attendees, more than 20,000 meals — pancake breakfasts and free lunches — were served, and a total of 2,845 aircraft were parked. But the fly-in series was far more than the stats.
AOPA came to its members instead of making the members come to them. And the results showed. The Fort Worth summit mentioned above had 5,716 attendees. And Baker noted at the KSSI event that the regional fly-ins attracted many members and aviation enthusiasts who would never have attended one of the Summits.
At the last fly-in of the year, I wore two hats: One as a reporter and another as a member of AOPA. As a member, I can report that I was very impressed with the event.
As soon as my wheels touched town, everyone from AOPA staffers, volunteers, to resident FBO Golden Isles Aviation, made the aircraft parking, servicing, and rental car acquisition quick and easy. Departures were just as smooth.
Although I didn’t attend the Friday night dinner, there were more than 300 people who did and experienced the area’s finest BBQ. The morning started with a pancake breakfast and the show officially opened at 10 a.m. By that time KSSI was a sea of parked airplanes.
There was a strong presence of exhibitors in the static display area, and 35 booths in the exhibitor hangar. There were a wide range of products and services represented and it was obvious the exhibitors loved the format and fly-in exposure.
“Because of the results of the Frederick and St. Simons events, we are seriously considering attending all of them next year,” stated Power Flow Systems General Manager Darren Tilman.
For me, one of the biggest home runs for this venue was how it positively impacts the local community. My family and I spent a four-day weekend there and at just about every business we visited, they asked if we were in town for the fly-in — with many saying they visited the event and enjoyed it.
Non-pilot and area resident Tricia Boatwright was at the fly-in with her young nephew, Bryson (left). “This is awesome!” she exclaimed. “This was such a fun day and my husband is talking about learning to fly.”
Indeed, with airport security hindering the through the fence ease of days ago, this kind of community reaction is much needed to show off airports as public use facilities.
There were eight different educational sessions — something for just about everybody. The excellent lunch was free for AOPA members and only $5 for guests. And the highly popular town hall meeting led by Baker wrapped up the day’s speaking sessions.
So what was the biggest surprise for AOPA regarding the series of fly-ins?
“We figured on 100 planes and 500 to 600 people in attendance for each venue,” stated Baker.
And for the future of the AOPA fly-in series? “We have proposals from 45 different airports already for next year ‚ and the next several years”, stated Baker.
That’s good news for the AOPA membership, exhibitors, hosting airports, and AOPA associates who enjoyed the ability to engage with the members. I know I’m far from being alone in saying I’m looking forward to next year’s fly-in in my area.