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AOPA’s Max Karant championed the little guy, tilting at bureaucratic windmills and public apathy.

By Arthur H. Sanfelici

Many books exist about heroes of the air–military combat pilots, industry giants, pioneers and record-setters who fly their airplanes to fame and glory. But Max Karant: My Flights & Fights (with Charles Spence, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1998, $29.95) is about a man known to few outside his own industry who became an aviation hero because he wielded his pen like a sword, cutting a swath through individuals and organizations he considered enemies of “his” general aviation, that segment of aviation wedged in the gray area between military and airline aviation.

Max defended and supported the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). AOPA was formed in 1939 to create a common bond and voice for the nation’s private pilots, who up to that time had no organization by which they could garner public acceptance and gain clout before Congress, government regulators and the media. Max, a former newspaper and magazine editor, was the second full-time employee of AOPA. The first employee was Joseph B. “Doc” Hartranft, Jr., who was president of the association until his retirement in 1978.

Karant and Hartranft nurtured the fledgling AOPA through the slow, early years, gradually offering member benefits that pilots previously had trouble obtaining such as insurance, flight planning assistance, representation in Washington and help with educating the media that general aviation pilots were not a bunch of irresponsible nuts flying unsafe airplanes. It became a rallying point for general aviation pilots who ran into discrimination and harassment from regulators and an uninformed public. The association grew in membership and in recognition.

Max used the AOPA Newsletter as his soapbox to excoriate those people and organizations that sought to limit the rights and privileges of the general aviation pilot. The former editor of Popular Aviation magazine, he founded the association’s AOPA Pilot magazine, today one of the aviation industry’s major periodicals. In addition to writing, editing, and speaking on behalf of his constituency, Max became a pilot and an airplane owner himself, and he flew regularly to spread the AOPA gospel of safe, economical and minimally regulated access to the skies for the little guy.

Max’s adopted industry is a portion of aviation that covers many flying endeavors, from agricultural to corporate to private flying and air taxis–the pilots of which fly all sorts of aircraft, many considered to be “puddle-jumpers.” But, because of that diversity, it also is an industry whose diffuse goals have for years fragmented attempts to create a cohesive, coordinated entity. When general aviation is faced with new regulations or fees, the result is usually an internecine squabble. By way of contrast, let the usually fiercely competitive airlines be faced with a common threat and you see a united front that can influence the public, the FAA and Congress. And the military? Well, the Pentagon provides what we are led to believe is unification–at least when the Air Force and the air arms of the various branches are defending themselves. General aviation, without a central champion, usually came out last.

Enter Max Karant, champion of the little guy–and one of them himself. Astride his white horse, in the form of his own personal airplane, he charged along, tilting at bureaucratic windmills armed with pointed pen and jabbing away at public apathy. Unlike Don Quixote, though, Max often scored, knocking over some of the windmills and poking holes in several gasbags he met along the way.

Max’s favorite windmill was the FAA, and how he did love to jab his lance into the bureaucrats who would dare to dictate unctuous regulations or fees. He would rail that the government wanted to snuff out general aviation by demanding that it meet the same costly requirements as the “rich airlines and the taxpayer-funded military.”

The guy both looked and acted like the quintessential curmudgeon. His broken nose, jutting, crooked-toothed jaw and what may have been an affected grumpiness meant that you did not want his growling countenance thrust in your face while his gesturing finger jabbed for your chest. Abrasive? Frequently. Effective? Enough to have made a difference.

When Max “was retired” from AOPA as first senior vice president in 1978, there were some who said that he had outlived his usefulness, that it was time for smooth talkers and “let us sit down and reason together” to become AOPA’s way of working with the outside world. Could be–but his consistent efforts got the organization the recognition and respect that opened the doors and the ears of those who previously had shut out the general aviation crowd.

Max’s crusade was a sincere one. He believed absolutely everything he said or wrote–no phoniness for the sake of publicity there. His honesty rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but that didn’t deter him from sticking to his beliefs until his dying day in February 1997. Max left a legacy of scrappiness in support of an honest cause, and a reminder that those who don’t stand up together get stepped on together.

I have known and worked with both Max Karant and his biographer, Charles F. Spence, since at least the 1960s. I first joined AOPA when I gained my U.S. Air Force pilot’s wings in 1957, later becoming an employee in Max’s editorial department in 1972 and staying on for another 17 years. Along the way I learned that when you got to know him, Max was a charming teddy bear after all–so long as you didn’t tell him that.

Spence spent 15 years at AOPA as the public relations head, and he often went head-to-head with the mouthy Max to smooth feathers his comments had ruffled. But the two also were good friends and worked closely with each other. Spence had the honor of being given Max’s 2,000 pages of scattered notes and beginnings of his autobiography (encouraged by Spence and others) by Max’s widow, Katherine, to finish the job. This book is the result. It is a labor of love that well reflects another man’s labor of love.