Aero Club Luncheon Remarks

Former Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen (April 1, 2022 – June 9, 2023)

Thank you, Jana [Denning]. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s good to see so many friends and colleagues. 

Before I get started, I want you to look around the room at all of the familiar faces. We get together on a pretty regular basis, and it’s always great to catch up with one another. But I have a question for you: How many new faces do you see?

The reason I ask is because it has to do with the very fabric of aerospace. If you look at the big milestones, most of them started when somebody from the outside threw away conventional wisdom, and dared to try the thing that the established community said could not be done.

Kitty Hawk. The jet engine. Radar. The sound barrier. Apollo 11. The Concorde. And reusable rocket boosters.  

Today, we are on the cusp of another new era — drones, electric air taxis and other kinds of innovations that promise a future where Science Fiction is more like Science Fact.

But we’ll never make the next Big Leap unless we set a place at our tables for the disruptors, the ones outside asking “Why can’t we do it this way?”

I know that sounds pretty funny coming from the FAA, where we find a lot of comfort in moving deliberately and incrementally. Air travel has never been safer, right? Why change!

It’s true — the Jet Age shrunk the world. It’s been a great age, but it is a loud and polluting one, and one that brought massive opportunity to many, but not to all, and not equally. 

I get it. Change is always uncomfortable. But in aviation, nothing ever moved forward without someone challenging the status quo.

My challenge to us today is that we must commit ourselves to thinking differently, so that we can make REAL breakthroughs. Breakthroughs that will unlock solutions to our toughest challenges … including the ones we’re not even aware of today. 

How do we make the safest mode of transportation in human history EVEN SAFER, when the risk of a fatal accident is already so low? And while we do that, how do we make this system more efficient, equitable, and sustainable? These are the things we must work together to achieve.

But making this happen requires us to think about – not just what’s on the horizon – but what’s beyond the horizon. Or to use a term that’s become familiar in recent years — “what’s beyond our visual line of sight?”

Let’s take safety. Over the past 25 years, we’ve established a preventive-based approach. Safety Management Systems have been a big part of that, and we need to expand that safety net to manufacturers and charter operators. 

What about the new hazards, and new challenges, that are lurking out beyond the horizon?  

We have to be able to predict and address these things in advance. Preventive is no longer enough. We need to evolve to a predictive approach to safety. Do we have the tools, talent, and training we need to do that today? Are we sharing this data with the stakeholders who need it? 

Within the FAA, we’re building toward using artificial intelligence to yield quality, consistent streams of safety data. For example, we have a new program that gives us a more comprehensive risk picture. It includes a predictive analytics engine that detects possible safety events, combines them with models, and estimates the likelihood that a string of events could lead to an accident.

And when it comes to electric air taxis and advanced drones, how do we move quickly to embrace new technologies when there is simply zero tolerance for an accident? 

We know that when the Los Angeles Olympics get underway in 2028, air taxis will be in high demand. We may see some of them in the years leading up, but nowhere near the scale in 2028. All of these Advanced Air Mobility companies will expect to be there.

Our job at the FAA is to make that possible. Next May, we will have an implementation plan that will allow us to match industry’s tempo. 

2028 is roughly when the agency’s next Congressional reauthorization will run through. The legislation will be consequential. I know you’ll need to look out for your interests, but the legislation should not be used to entrench the past.

It should accelerate the next era of aviation and take big leaps.

We can no longer think of aviation as a no-fly zone for outsiders. We must engage other industries -- like the 5G network providers. Or the electric utility industry, whose partnership we need to charge eVTOL aircraft. 

Sometimes to think differently, we need to leave the past behind. Right now, the FAA is managing essentially three National Airspace Systems. The classic; the modern -- that we have created with NextGen; and the future -- which we need for space vehicles, drones, air taxis and whatever comes at us next. Sustaining, implementing and planning all of it takes resources, and while the crowd is getting bigger, the loaves and fishes remain the same. 

So how do we achieve all of this? 

We need to think differently, and invite new people to the table.

I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger.

Steve Rogers – the guy who goes on to become Captain America – is training on an army base with his unit. But he’s the slowest, smallest, and shortest one in the group. One day, they’re out on a long run, exhausted, when they come to a tall flag pole. The drill sergeant tells the trainees that whoever can bring him the flag from the top of the pole doesn’t have to run anymore. 

But in 17 years, no one’s ever been able to get that flag!

Several soldiers tried to climb up the pole – none of them could get even halfway up. But then Steve Rogers thinks about the problem differently. He pulls the pin holding the pole up. When the pole falls to the ground, he retrieves the flag. Victory!

What I just related, is not a story about a comic book hero. It’s a story about how sometimes we find solutions when we THINK differently. And that sometimes that thinking comes from people you’d least expect.  

Look at me. I grew up in a small town in Alabama. And look at where I’m standing now. I fell in love with aviation when I heard the sound of a rotor in the distance. I became a helicopter pilot in the Army. Then I became an airline pilot and went on to become an airline safety executive. Now, I’m in this room.

And speaking of being in the room, I want to acknowledge the high school students who are here today. I’m proud of you for being here. You made your interest in flying known. And you got the right people’s attention. That’s why you’re here.

And when you’re in the room, you get a chance to make a difference. 

I want to thank Aero Club for having them hear, and for supporting young people with scholarships and through your Runway program. 

We want the best, brightest, most diverse group of people to be in the room. This room!

But if we keep seeing the same faces here – luncheon after luncheon – then we’re limiting ourselves.

I’ve got news for you: The people who are going to help us solve our toughest challenges are not sitting here today. In fact, they are probably going to be playing Fortnite tonight while their parents think they’re upstairs doing homework!

But it’s possible to reach them now. Take it from us: The FAA went after gamers to recruit them as air traffic controllers. And we went to Tiktok influencers to get the word out. 

Turns out when you go outside of the normal circles, big things happen. 

We hoped to receive 10,000 applications. We ended up receiving 58,000! Not only was the number the biggest in FAA history, it was the most diverse. We had record-high percentages of Black, Hispanic, Asian and women applicants. 

In fact, we have someone with us today who has championed bringing in different voices: Steve Alterman, who will receive the Donald Engen Award. Steve has connected with young people from underserved communities, to prepare them for skilled positions in the aerospace field. He’s also been an advocate for people with disabilities.

And Steve has also been a strong advocate for making flying more sustainable. The climate crisis is the world’s greatest existential threat. 

We are attacking it on many fronts – from scaling the development of sustainable aviation fuels, and the development of more fuel efficient aircraft. But fundamentally, the improvements are incremental. Eventually, we will no longer be able to squeeze efficiency from the swept-wing frame. 

We need transformational change. 

And we need to think beyond the jet engine. 

We must seek major improvements to hit our 2050 net-zero goal. Just imagine if we committed the same level of focus to this goal, as we did 25 years ago, when we set out to drive down the risk of fatal accidents within 10 years -- and we DID it.

Sometimes the future can feel far away; it can be hard to sense that urgency. But the Aero Club can’t make the mistake the one in Paris did 120 years ago. The Parisians were comfortable—enamored!—with ballooning. 

When Octave Chanute, a French-American engineer warned them that two bicycle mechanics were about to beat them to powered flight, the crowd scoffed, offended that French superiority could be overcome! 
By the end of the year, people the world over were talking about what happened on a no-name beach. 

If we’re going to seize the promise of this new era in aviation, then we must move with a sense of urgency. We must think in new ways, bring new people to the table, and bring the kind of innovative spirit and integrative thinking that will help us achieve major breakthroughs.

I can’t think of a more exciting challenge. 

Thank you.