ATCA Mourns Tragic Loss of Richard McSpadden, Passionate Aviation Safety Leader

October 6, 2023

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — As the aviation community continues to mourn the sudden and tragic loss of decorated pilot and aviation safety leader Richard McSpadden earlier this week, the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) joins the outpouring of sympathy for McSpadden’s family and friends while vowing to move forward with the guidance provided by his passion for safety.

McSpadden, 63, was appointed executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Air Safety Institute (ASI) in 2017 and was promoted to senior vice president in 2020. He is survived by his wife, Judy, and his children, Annabel and Grant.

"Richard's steadfast guidance will be sorely missed in the aviation community, and we send our condolences to his family and friends,” said ATCA President and CEO Carey Fagan.

For McSpadden, flying was a more than 40-year love affair and he went on to log more than 5,000 hours flying both civilian and military aircraft. It left him with a feeling of gratitude, he wrote in one of his AOPA columns, for the opportunities it provided. He started flying as a teenager and his father and brother are pilots. He also taught both of his children to fly.

McSpadden also served in the Air Force for 20 years and held the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, completing a full circle journey from a day as a child when he watched the Thunderbirds perform with his father. McSpadden led 126 Thunderbirds flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft, “one of the best fighter airplanes ever built,” he said.

At AOPA, McSpadden was a master educator and energetic motivator, extolling the joys of flying while bringing a fresh voice to the messages and methods used to promote safer flight. He sought to provide pilots with engaging and educational safety material using outlets such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

But his influence extended beyond general aviation. He was proud to expand on the collaborative and positive relationship between pilots and air traffic controllers in recent years by facilitating more opportunities to come together, share information, and build trust.

Melissa Rudinger, a member of ATCA’s Board of Directors, spent 30 years with AOPA including several years as a colleague of McSpadden.

"In the world of aviation, Richard McSpadden was not just a seasoned pilot and leader, he was a testament to the highest standards of professionalism and a valued colleague,” Rudinger said. “Richard's contributions will be missed, but his passion for aviation safety will continue to guide us as we strive to make our skies safe for all.”