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Speech – "Our Finest Hour"

"Our Finest Hour"
Stephen M. Dickson, Virtual Event
December 11, 2020

Aero Club of Washington


Thank you TJ, and thank you to the Aero Club of Washington for inviting me back again this year. Now, that could mean you were happy with me the first time around, or more likely you’re just nice people giving me one more chance. Or maybe you’re just curious about how all of this will work from a ZOOM rectangle.

Just think about how the world has changed since I last talked with you—heck, just since March. The upshot for me has been 12 months of on-the-job training—putting in some rudder and cross-control inputs to keep the agency and the aerospace sector on course in gusty winds. The hand flying has required a lot of energy, and taken precedence over strategy.

It reminds me of something former Administrator Marion Blakey once said: “When you become FAA Administrator, you end up fielding fastballs and curveballs all day like a catcher with two mitts.” I know what she meant. Actually sometimes I feel more like I’m digging into the batter’s box after the pitcher just threw a 100-mph fastball at my head.

But I am very proud to say that—despite all the cross-control inputs to stay on course—we have continued to accomplish much of our strategic flight plan, and we are well-positioned to lead the aerospace sector into a bright future—one that is full of opportunity. 

Before I go any further, I’d like to offer my—and the FAA’s—congratulations to Michael Quiello for being presented with the Aero Club’s Donald D. Engen Trophy for Aerospace Excellence. You could not have selected a more deserving, consummate aviation professional for this prestigious award.

Michael is a dear friend and we have worked together for many years. He has devoted a lifetime to making our industry the envy of the world when it comes to safety. Using his years of military and airline operational experience, he’s become a fixture in the CAST and ASIAS movements, helping us transition our safety mindset from forensic to data-driven and proactive…working toward being predictive.

Most recently, Michael was instrumental in leading CAST to develop, and publish globally, a consolidated list of key safety elements for aviation organizations to monitor during the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency. This work has been foundational to FAA’s efforts to continue its role as the standard-bearer for aviation safety around the globe, even in the midst of a global health emergency.

Michael’s expertise and willingness to take on new challenges has directly contributed to establishing a higher standard of excellence in aviation safety, both domestically and internationally. Michael – you’re an inspiration to us all.

Inspiration is a very relevant theme right now. Our supply of it can run short in times like this, when so many are sick and dying; our industry is struggling for survival, and most of us not able to come together for a shoulder to lean on.

But I’ve experienced a lot of things these past 16 months as FAA Administrator that have inspired me and, quite frankly, left me energized and optimistic for the future of our industry. Out of crisis comes opportunity for those who look for it—and are able to adapt. And we are doing just that.

I’ll start by saying I’m inspired by the safety pioneers who put us in a position to be as successful as we have been in creating an unparalleled level of safety.

We can thank Michael and all of the safety advocates in government, industry, labor, and academia for that. Their work over many decades has saved countless lives in accidents avoided, and will continue to do so.

Because of their landmark efforts—through groundbreaking improvements like Safety Management Systems, CAST, ASIAS and data analysis methods—we now have the safest form of transportation ever created—our U.S. airline industry.

Thanks to them, we have tools that the FAA and industry routinely use to evaluate any new—and potentially dangerous—hazard to the aviation system. Let’s just say we’ve used these tools a lot this year…. I’ll talk more about that later.

By dedicating their lives to this profession, they’ve made our lives safer, and they’ve left us with an aviation system that has made the world smaller—and will do so again when we come out on the other side of this virus.

And that’s vital, because aviation will be the key to jumpstarting our economy again, in part by getting COVID-19 vaccines from factories to people. And once we’re freely moving about the world, aviation will again fundamentally redefine geographic boundaries and connect people and cultures from every corner of the planet. 

There’s a caveat though: Our safety record and the aviation system we enjoy can never be taken for granted. You’ve probably heard me say it before: Safety is a journey, not a destination, and it’s a journey that we are on together. We must lead with a passion for excellence and always strive to improve, but we must also lead with humility.

We will continue to chart a course that will position the FAA to continue paying safety forward for the benefit of future generations.

I’m inspired by an FAA workforce that is simply civil service at its best. Those who know me well, know that I am a history buff. Recently I’ve been working my way through a three-volume set about Winston Churchill, and although I could never hope to match his rhetorical prowess, I might say we may someday look back and call this our finest hour.

Our people have risen to challenge after challenge, using creativity and innovation to find new ways to complete our mission 24-7-365, never stopping. You know your people are dedicated when you have to force them to take a day off every now and then to recharge their batteries.

In October, we formed the COVID-19 Vaccine Air Transport Team to make sure the global pharmaceutical industry can safely speed vaccines to the people who need them most. Teams from multiple disciplines across the agency are seeing to it that airlines have the assistance they need to safely carry out the mission.

This is not an abstract concept for us—we know it will save lives. The FAA is grieving the loss of several of our own from COVID-19. They came from all walks of life, from all parts of the country, and from all specialties—a manager from Ohio; a technician from Cape May, an inspector in Oklahoma City, an airway transportation systems specialist, an aircrew program manager, an air traffic controller, a management assistant, a contractor, a janitor, a telecommunications expert.

Their untimely passing leaves a big hole in our workforce and in the hearts of their coworkers.

We honor their memories—and their families—by continuing the agency’s important work, particularly as it relates to COVID-19 response and recovery and, now, vaccine distribution.

As you know, one of the vaccines has to be kept at very cold temperatures during transport, which is no small feat. Airlines will typically do this by packing the shipping containers with dry ice, but nowhere near the amounts necessary to move a large payload of this particular vaccine across continents at these temperatures.

Our team is enabling these efforts scientifically and in a disciplined but innovative fashion, by using the Safety Risk Management tools that are part of our Safety Management Systems.

Rather than trying to obtain waivers or modify the shipping equipment—time consuming and expensive propositions—the first airline to approach us was able to put controls and mitigations in place to significantly increase the amount of dry ice they carry on board for these flights, boosting the number of vaccine doses in the cargo hold, while guaranteeing the safety of the crew.

The result will be more vaccine, delivered faster, with more lives protected or saved. In fact, on November 27, the FAA supported the first mass air shipment of a vaccine using these controls.

We are working with other airlines tapped to move millions of doses of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines and related supplies around the globe, some with much less restrictive temperature controls.

The aircraft is only part of the equation, however. We’re also working with manufacturers and airports to make sure this precious cargo is moved safely, and within the regulations. And we’re making sure that our air traffic services are available and efficient around the clock to support these flights.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how much we have accomplished in such a short time since all of this started in late January.

We stood up entirely new elements within the FAA from scratch, without the luxury of time to research and carefully plan our approach. There simply was no time. We had to act and adapt quickly—remember that 100-mph fastball?

Repatriation flights; working recovery plans with interagency and international partners; splitting controllers into dedicated teams to minimize COVID-19 risks; distributing $10 billion in CARES Act funding; rolling out COVID-19-related exemptions to air carriers—like relief for medicals and recurrent training—to keep people and critical goods—like PPE and now vaccines—moving by air.

And these activities are still ongoing today.

Outside of our COVID response, my admiration for our people would not be complete without mentioning the Boeing 737 MAX team. For 20 months, this large team of safety workers vigorously followed a methodical and deliberate process to address the issues that played a role in the tragic loss of 346 lives in the Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302 crashes.

Their mission was crystal clear: to identify the causes and develop the solutions that prevent these accidents from ever happening again. My mission was to fly the aircraft and evaluate it for myself. When I met with the families, I always pledged that we would work our hardest to honor their loved ones by improving the margins of safety for aviation around the world. And with these fixes we have done so.

As you know, I rescinded the grounding order on November 18th, and I am 100% confident that this aircraft is safe.

We’re not done yet, though, and part of the remaining work is to advance safety globally by putting systemic process improvements in place and with our partners in the international aviation community, take a new look at foundational safety capabilities, such as pilot training, that will enable us to continue to raise the bar on aviation safety around the globe. 

I’m inspired by what we are seeing with the developments in new technology and innovation. The opportunities are limitless and I don’t think we could have imagined where we are now just a few short years ago.

When you combine innovation with collaboration, you get breakthroughs. With Gen. Chuck Yeager’s passing this week, we remember the quantum leap that put his name in the history books—breaking the sound barrier, arguably one of the greatest aviation accomplishments of the 20th Century. By his own admission, there were “no undue difficulties” with the flight, highlighting the amazing work from a dedicated team of designers, engineers and technicians who collaborated and did the quiet work behind the scenes to make it all happen.

That collaborative spirit continues today, and that to me is what makes this the most exciting—if not the most exciting—time in aerospace history.

The week before Thanksgiving, I stood on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center and gazed up at the future. A commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 booster and Dragon capsule that was set to take four astronauts to the International Space Station—and later I looked on with pride as it did just that—flawlessly.

And because it was a night launch and the weather was perfect, we could actually see the re-entry burn as the first stage booster decelerated and a few seconds later “stuck” the landing on the drone ship in the Atlantic. Incredible.

I was watching much more than one vehicle—I was seeing the metamorphosis of an industry that used to be government-operated into a commercial venture that will—in the future—allow any one of us to purchase a seat to space.

And I had the privilege of watching the launch with about 30 middle and high school students, some of whom will no doubt be the future leaders of our aerospace industry.

As you know the FAA licenses those launches, where our role is to protect the public, national security, and the airspace. And while airspace activity has been depressed during COVID-19, commercial space operations are anything but.

We recently issued our new Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements final rule, aka SLR-2, which replaces old-school prescriptive requirements with flexible, performance-based criteria to support the needs of this fast-moving sector while ensuring the safety of the public.

And it couldn’t come at a better time. We’re forecasting as many as 56 commercial launches and reentries next year, up from the mid-30s this year.

And we’re taking the next step in the work that Chuck Yeager and his team accomplished in 1947.

The FAA recently initiated two rulemaking activities that will enable the reintroduction of supersonic aircraft into the fleet, starting with supersonic flight over water. Breaking the speed of sound over land would be restricted until technologies are developed to mitigate sonic booms. For that, NASA is doing research and as you know, industry is working on “low boom” technologies.

Much closer to the ground, the aerospace world is just as exciting.

At the FAA, our certification experts are already working with several Urban Air Mobility applicants—aka flying taxis—who have applied for type certification of full-scale aircraft. Dozens more companies are discussing conceptual prototypes and components with us.

As an agency, we’re making sure the policy and regulatory landscape welcomes exciting new entrants, while keeping safety as our North Star and ensuring that the National Airspace System continues to operate efficiently as it becomes more diversified. We’re focused on operations, aircraft, airspace, infrastructure, and community.

We’re taking cues here from our ongoing work with unmanned aircraft, which we’ve got a great deal more experience with, in part from Secretary Chao’s Integration Pilot Program, or IPP, which has now evolved into a new program called BEYOND.

A key finding during the IPP was that drones can be of great benefit to society. Drones are literally, “here for good.” In fact, our first certified drone package delivery carriers, Wing Aviation and UPS Flight Forward, retooled their food and supply delivery models to include medicine deliveries for a variety of at-risk communities when COVID-19 struck.

From the regulator’s standpoint, we’re strategically guiding this promising industry with existing regulations where possible, but with updated or new rules where necessary.

In other words, we fly first, in a safe fashion, to gain experience. Then, write the rules. That’s how we will take these public-private partnerships and scale them to broader, system-wide operations.

I’m inspired by the young people I’ve been meeting. Last week, I was interviewed by a young man, Malik Senegal, for an upcoming episode of the FAA’s new podcast, The Air Up There.

Malik is 23, an air transport rated pilot, who at that age, not surprisingly, is between airline jobs.

But what is inspiring about Malik is that instead of falling into a funk when COVID-19 shattered his airline dreams as he was furloughed from his job at a regional carrier, he instead kept his head up and looked for opportunities.

One of those opportunities resulted in him becoming one of the youngest pilots in the U.S. to earn a Boeing 777 type rating.

You can’t help but be inspired by his positivity and drive when you talk to him. Remember that name—I think you’ll be seeing it again in the future.

I’ve also been meeting with other young people, such as the group of middle and high school kids at the Cape when I was there for the SpaceX launch, and another group of drone enthusiasts of about the same age in Baltimore over a ZOOM call.

The future of aerospace rests in these bright eyes and big ideas. The FAA is heavily invested, both internally and externally, in finding ways to ensure that we have a robust pipeline of students like those I have been meeting. They are passionate, well trained, and ready to take the aerospace industry into the future.

Working with Secretary Chao, we appointed a 20-member task force comprised of representatives from industry, non-profits and academia that will make recommendations on how to bring more youth into American jobs in aviation.

We also just recently approved our first ever agency-side STEM AVSED strategic plan, and we built a new FAA organization to support the work here in DC and throughout the country.

There are so many new and exciting opportunities, jobs that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. There couldn’t be a more exciting time to get into this business, and it’s up to us to help them along that path.

I know there are challenges at the moment—we all recognize that. But with every challenge, there are always opportunities. It’s up to us to find them. I remember something my father told me long ago, when I’d have the occasional challenges in school or elsewhere. He’d say, when you wake up every morning, it’s another chance to excel.

Let’s excel, and let’s be inspired by all that’s good in this industry, all that awaits us and the opportunities we have when we emerge from the IFR of COVID into clear blue CAVU skies

Last year when we were together, I spoke about how aviation makes the world smaller, fundamentally redefining geographic boundaries, providing economic opportunities and connecting people and cultures in ways that were unimaginable not too long ago.

Well, we’ve had to find new ways to stay connected for the time being. But I am convinced that as a result of this past year, we will discover that our bonds are stronger and we’re standing together, better prepared for the future. Soon, once again, we will be able to find comfort in being closer to those who share our common vision and goals for this fascinating industry.

Aviation will play a central role—maybe even THE central role—in our recovery. Let’s make it our finest hour as an industry.

Finally, as we approach the holidays and a new year, with new opportunities, and some new challenges, I wish you all health and happiness. Stay safe and take care.

Thanks again for inviting me.

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