Mark Baker, head of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), reached the point in his flying and professional career in 2019 when he could choose any airplane he wanted. He chose a Beechcraft King Air F90.
“If I were to go eeny, meeny, miny, moe on the ramp, I would have always wanted to go for a ride in the F90,” he said. “I always thought they had the coolest ramp appeal.”
That’s saying a lot for a pilot who has owned more than 100 airplanes and has logged in the neighborhood of 15,000 hours during 40 years of flying aircraft ranging from helicopters to light seaplanes and turbines. Among his ratings and certificates, he has his commercial pilot certificate, single- and multi-engine seaplane ratings, rotorcraft rating, and type ratings in the Cessna Citation 500 and 525S.
Since stepping into the top role at AOPA nearly seven years ago, Baker has flown about 500 hours a year between recreational flying with friends and family and work missions involving time at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, attending fly-ins and meeting with AOPA members across the country. AOPA is a nonprofit membership-based organization providing educational and advocacy to more than 300,000 general aviation pilots and aircraft owners. He also leads International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA), a federation of autonomous, nongovernmental, national general aviation organizations in 80 countries.
A lifelong love of aviation
Aviation intrigued Baker as a kid, although nobody in his family was a pilot. His grandfather had worked through World War II putting spark plugs in B-24 bombers at the St. Paul (Minnesota) Downtown Airport, and his dad worked as a cleaner for regional North Central Airlines while in school.
It was the 1970s when Baker started ground school while a high schooler and figured out a way to get to the airport most Saturdays. He worked on his license in college and earned his private certificate in a 1968 Cessna 150 that he and a friend bought from a farmer for $4,200 in 1977.
“I was taking ground school at the University of Minnesota and flight lessons at Anoka County Airport, and drooling out the window looking at cool Barons and other planes that I thought ‘Geez, one of these days…’”
His first job allowed him to put the Cessna 150 to use and he’s been mixing business and recreational flying ever since.
“I grew up with a company called Knox Lumber in the Twin Cities and two of the three founders were aviators,” Baker said. “One was a B-17 navigator and another was a flight instructor during World War II. They mentored me along and allowed me to use my little 150 to run up to stores in Fargo or Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or over to Billings, Montana. When we sold the company to Payless Cashways in Kansas City, I was getting my instrument rating and I belonged to a flying club out of the Twin Cities. I would go back and forth every week between the Twin Cities and Kansas City, initially in a Warrior, then an Arrow.”
Forty years later, Baker has owned more than 100 airplanes. Not only did he get that Beechcraft Baron he drooled over, he has owned 13 different Barons – “basically every model made” – including two he has owned on two different occasions and one he’s owned three times.
He’s also shared his love of aviation by encouraging many within his family to learn to fly. Baker was in the left seat for his grandfather’s first plane ride and he helped his dad get his pilot’s certificate when his dad was 63 years old. He’s also persuaded his son, sons-in-law, a brother and a sister-in-law to become pilots.
His first King Air
Of those 100 airplanes, many were chosen based on the work he was doing at the time. That included seven or eight Cessna Citation jets for commuting to work from his home in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. In 2008, a position as chief operating officer for Scotts Miracle-Gro Company based in Columbus, Ohio, finally made Baker a King Air owner.
“I’d been in King Airs a lot and flown them quite a lot but this was my first time owning one,” Baker said. “I had gone up to the Citation world for a while because of the range I needed. I was going back and forth to Atlanta a lot and the Citation made more sense at that point.”
He helped a friend shop for a King Air when the friend needed an airplane that could land on gravel airstrips in the western U.S. When that friend later was ready to sell, Baker traded for the 1975 King Air C90 to use to commute between the Twin Cities and Columbus once or twice a week.
“Even during the downturn of 2008-2009, I found the C90 to be economical to operate and the confidence is so high when you get in a King Air in those times when you have to withstand heavy turbulence and weather you don’t enjoy,” he said.
Jobs change, which leads to mission changes, which affects the fleet needed. Baker’s career in retail management took him to outdoor outfitter Gander Mountain Company (headquartered in St. Paul), The Home Depot (Atlanta) and Orchard Supply Hardware Stores Corp., a leading retailer of home improve-ment and garden products with corporate offices in
San Jose, California.
In September 2013, when Baker became the fifth president since AOPA was formed in 1939, he had returned to commuting in his own Citation.
The F90: A coveted airplane
Baker has a personal fleet of five aircraft: a 1983 Cessna 185, 1953 Piper Super Cub, 1967 Beechcraft Baron 55D, a partnership in a 1998 Cessna Caravan, and the 1980 Beechcraft King Air F90, joining the fleet in June of last year as the most recent addition.
“AOPA has a Citation M2 now so I got rid of my CJ and bought an airplane that I’d always wanted,” said Baker, who estimates about 1,000 of his 15,000 hours are in a King Air, including 200 in his F90.
The F90 was an airplane that had caught his attention in the early 1980s when he was a young professional traveling the country. Over the years he had become friends with at least half a dozen F90 owners who all loved the distinct look and feel of the model that was produced from 1979 to 1985. Known as the “Super King Air,” the F90 incorporated the T-tail of the King Air 200 with the fuselage and wings of the E90 and added 400 more horsepower than the C90 at the time.
“I was inspired by a friend, Jim Krivida, who has had his F90 for 25 years, and I’m the only other guy he’s ever let fly it,” Baker said. “I looked at it over and over and knew I loved the look and feel of that airplane. I had decided one of these days I would buy one.”
It wasn’t an easy decision to give up the extra speed of the Citation but the King Air fit his current commuting needs better. He uses it to commute to the Washington, D.C., area from homes in Florida and Minnesota and uses it often for recreational flying. He’s flown it to the Virgin Islands, pheasant hunting in South Dakota, a winter trip to the Bahamas, and he took it for a ski trip in Colorado with his sons in early March.
“We get there just a little slower but I really like the way people in the back like riding in the King Air. They rave about it,” Baker said. “Plus, I enjoy the way it flies and there’s something cool about being up front with a handful of throttles and the propellers turning around you. It’s a nostalgic feel and I kind of consider this a retro airplane.”
It might feel retro but it doesn’t look it. In the nine months he’s owned it, he’s put in a new interior featuring rich, brown leather and repainted the exterior with the modern scheme of a black tail and big red ‘B,’ which he jokes stands for Baker. While the King Air was in for paint, he had Raisbeck aft body strakes installed.
“The strakes took quite a bit of the wag out that these short-body models are known to have,” Baker said. “It was a big job but it was well worth it. The passengers are happier and I’m happier. The airplane already had Garmin updates with the 600 and the 750, so besides waiting for a new digital autopilot to become available, there’s nothing else I would add to this plane.”
Though leading AOPA’s efforts keeps him busy, he’s flying more now than ever before.
The 185 stays out west as a backcountry airplane; Baker is in the process of building a hangar home in Idaho near Wyoming’s Jackson Hole valley. The Super Cub gets moved between an airpark in the Florida Keys in the winter and Baker’s summertime home in Wisconsin, which features a 2,500-foot airstrip. The Baron is in his Twin Cities hangar for when he needs to jump around, and the Caravan splits time between Minnesota and summers in Alaska. The King Air is the way to connect all those airplanes and to get to AOPA headquarters.
“Flying is still my favorite pastime and it’s a wonderful way to get around North America,” Baker said. “You can go anywhere in an airplane and I never get tired of going different places, seeing different airports and communities, and being engaged with how we can help as an aviation community.”
Photos courtesy of AOPA