New AOPA president wants to bring fun back to small airports like Wichita’s

Mark Baker, named president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in September, was in Wichita for the first time in his new role recently, but it wasn’t his first trip to the city.

In 2005, as then-president of Gander Mountain, Baker was in town to open the Gander Mountain store along the east bank of the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita.

This time, Baker, 55, was in Wichita to attend the inaugural Kansas Aviation Expo, held before the Wichita Flight Festival at the end of September.

A pilot who learned to fly in his 20s, Baker has logged more than 7,500 hours of flight time and has owned a number of airplanes over the years.

“When you get into any airplane and you take the controls, the full activity of creating flight – going down the runway and getting in the air – it’s just fun,” Baker said. “It just feels good. ... I never get bored with it.”

Baker wants to bring the fun factor back to small airports around the country.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, airports put up fences and took other measures that can be off-putting.

“I’ve been driven a little bit crazy about all the fences around the airports,” Baker said. “We need to make it welcome.”

Instead, airports should add picnic tables, grills and sheltered areas to the nation’s 5,000 public-use airports, so that people can watch airplanes and be “part of the aviation experience,” he said.

It’s a way to encourage the use of general aviation for fun or business and create pilots, Baker said.

“Everything in aviation starts at the airport,” he said.

Baker is AOPA’s fifth president in its 74-year history. He replaces Craig Fuller, who announced earlier this year his plans to to move to other opportunities.

Before taking the AOPA post, Baker served as CEO of Orchard Supply Hardware Stores Corp., and he also has served in senior executive roles with Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the Home Depot and other companies.

A native of Minnesota, Baker and his wife, Vickie, have four children.

Under his leadership, Baker wants the AOPA, which has 400,000 members, to focus on regional rather than large national events.

This week’s annual AOPA national summit in Fort Worth will be its last so it can hold more intimate gatherings.

AOPA will also work to encourage the start of flying clubs and ride alongs.

“Most people have a romantic idea about flying,” Baker said. But they don’t know how to start.

“We have to create the access and the welcome,” he said.

AOPA works to be an advocate of general aviation. It works with other trade groups, such as the Experimental Aircraft Association, the National Business Aviation Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

“We all are working together to make sure we protect this freedom to fly,” Baker said.

They want to ensure that the actions the Federal Aviation Administration takes to reduce its budget makes sense to the industry, he said.

AOPA also wants to work to support regulations that improve safety, lower costs and reduce restrictions.

Baker is reviewing all of AOPA’s services and practices.

The aviation industry has gone through a tough time since the downturn five years ago.

Some pilots quit flying or started flying fewer hours. That’s understandable when people are worried about the economy and their jobs, Baker said.

“I think aviation has the potential to come back very strong,” he said. “We all believe in aviation. We believe it will keep going.”