Ed Stimpson A Modest Giant In GA

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If the average pilot knew Ed Stimpson at all, they knew only a name in an occasional news story. Everyone who knew or worked with him, however, embraced this modest giant of the aviation world.

From 1970, Ed was the heart and soul of manufacturers' collective efforts to build and protect the General Aviation industry, to help consumers use its products safely and to prevent "Washington" from doing "stupid stuff."

He was not the first president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. He hired on as PR director. Then, when the former head of the (GAMA-predecessor) Utility Aircraft Council died suddenly, Ed won the top job just nine months in. The rest is history.

Ed never took the spotlight but was always at the center of things. He built coalitions. He promoted as mantra the "GAMA family," a concept countless industry executives still honor. He was effective. While a Democrat, I'm sure, he thrived during decades of post-Johnson administrations. Why? Because influential people knew he was honest, intelligent and fair.

That's not to say there weren't "Ed" moments. His most famous peculiarity was really down-to-earth: So long and lanky was he, his shirt tail usually hung out the back of his trousers. How could the swells on Capitol Hill doubt the honesty of a guy so devoid of vanity?

People loved him. Former GAMA counsel and early-days Stimpson sidekick Stan Green regaled us with tales of pretty secretaries and Congressional aides competing for Ed's attention. Dottie Stimpson won his heart, however. They shared an incomparable devotion to public causes.

The author with Ed Stimpson and his wife Dottie at Friday Harbor, Wash. in 1981.

Ed came from a remarkable family in Bellingham, Wash. "Community leader" hardly covers their story. So the work came naturally. At times, it seemed a little overboard to me – as when a cash-strapped GAMA had to move to "14th and K," DC's long-time red-light district. Ed promptly created the Franklin Square Association to clean-up the neighborhood. Everyone got into the act. (One Saturday, there on CNN was my secretary whitewashing dirty words off Franklin Square buildings on her day off.)

Today, Franklin Square hosts DC's newest top-notch business locations. No task was too big or far-fetched for Ed's indomitable optimism. Thus: career-long accomplishment on product liability reform, fair foreign trade, campaigns to get Americans flying and so much more. Being Washington's expert on the FAA budget didn't hurt, either.

For me, he was an exemplar of the 1950s college grad emerging into a prosperous, growing 1960s economy. For much of my age group, in contrast, the 1970s stunk. For Ed though, those were just challenging times to be conquered. Take the 1973 Oil Embargo. After wise lobbying for fuel allocations, unprecedented demand emerged for GA as the alternative to gas-guzzling sedans and a national 55-mph speed limit. Ed really showed his stuff here; the industry followed his lead for decades after.

His successes and collaborative style are symbolized in a painting at GAMA. In it, two "lions" of late 20th Century General Aviation, Ed Stimpson and Russ Meyer, are shown testifying to Congress. Such advocacy began with the legendary Mr. Piper and others who were not only businessmen but also "true believers." Later, heroes arose in centrist positions not directly in the now-mature manufacturing sector.

Most pilots today think of Phil Boyer's recent, landmark tenure at AOPA. Fewer understand Ed Stimpson's three-and-a half decades standing up for GA through GAMA, as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), or most recently as chairman of the Flight Safety Foundation.

He could literally open any door in DC. Now, let us remember he opened many hearts. Young aviation professionals got their start through Ed. He encouraged and counseled many more. And he chaired the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University board during ERAU's many struggles to become the institution it is today. He was good to me through thick and thin, long after he realized I wasn't (and would never be) a "Washington type."

I admired his life story, his talent and his good fortune back when opportunities seemed boundless. Not that long after Harvard, he was tapped to re-purpose Seattle World's Fair facilities into The Pacific Science Center. He then became Congressional liaison at FAA headquarters, creating influence among policymakers that later served GAMA so well.

No doubt, it helped to be on a first-name basis with two great home-state senators, one named "Scoop" (Jackson) and the other Magnuson (of the Moss-Magnuson Act on consumer products, another early GAMA "win" as it exempted airplanes from regulations meant for toasters and washing machines.)

He and Dottie were also cultural heroes in my book, all the way back to those two new Washingtonians "being counted" at Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" March in 1963. Aside from personal philanthropy and humanitarian causes, they reaped just benefits from their working careers. But in retirement, as ever, they were far from "retiring."

Ed served the Flight Safety Foundation until lung cancer struck down another non-smoker. Tragic and puzzling. He was the healthiest guy I knew. On a single-engine transcon flight in 1981, for instance, I'd conclude 7.5 hours in the left seat each day with an early seat at the bar. Ed, however, was out jogging until dinner as religiously as ever.

Now we've lost one of the most important people in aviation you probably never knew—unless you were inside the industry fighting for GA's rights and opportunities even as our influence in American life decayed with each passing year since World War II.

Then there's that 1981 photo of Ed, Dottie and me arriving from DC in little Friday Harbor, Washington. We were picking up some of Ed's many siblings, to whom he had become "father" after his own father's untimely death. That family stewardship was so symbolic of Ed, seeming always to do "the right thing." And that included his fair, principled and sincere advocacy for GA and its industrial base.

Returning to aviation in 1980 in the PR field, I feared someone would ask me to lie for some manufacturer or product. Under Stimpson, I was reassured. He was like my own father, a stand-up guy with a few peculiarities. But they were endearing, like that shirt tail thing. He was just being "Ed."

There are countless people in our business remembering that modest giant… and perhaps that shirt tail. Many, like me, are smiling through tears for an unforgettable guy -- and the end of an era.