Back to the Future: The Winged Gospel

Former Administrator Stephen M. Dickson (August 12, 2019 - March 31, 2022)

Remarks As Delivered

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for attending today.

You know, watching that video makes me appreciate all the progress we’ve made in aerospace in a relatively short few years, and how fast we’re moving into the future.

It occurs to me that children born today, when they become teenagers, will think that getting their prescriptions or pizza dropped off at the house by a small delivery drone, is just the way it’s always been.

And when commuting into the city, or across town, they’ll do what they think folks have done forever—order up an autonomous electric flying taxi on their smart phone, and hop in without a care in the world for their safety.

Same goes for one day booking a regional flight on an ultra-efficient hybrid-electric passenger plane, taking a supersonic airliner to Europe, or perhaps a suborbital commercial flight to Singapore.

What we’ll see as amazing progress, they’ll write off as the everyday travel grind.

But that’s a good thing! If you can thoughtfully and safely integrate new forms of transportation into the national aerospace system—and hardly anyone takes notice—that is great news.

We as regulators, however, have to notice everything. That transportation future—which we know is no longer just in the realm of science fiction—keeps us awake at night. There’s so much promise from innovation and technology, but at the same time, so much potential for problems if we don’t get it right. So we have no choice—we need to get it right. 

Our job at the FAA is to strike the right balance. We have to integrate these fast-moving, sometimes breathtaking, technologies that are transforming the aviation sector in a way that meets our mission—to provide the safest, most efficient aviation system possible for the American public, one the world will continue to hold up as the gold standard for safety.

You’ll be happy to know that we’ve thought about this, deeply, and that we have many strategies in motion. At the 60,000-foot level, we’ll succeed by sticking to our cores values of safety, through integrity, innovation, and our workforce. At the ground level, we’ll be preaching—internally and externally—a “winged gospel” about how to take safety to the next level by following best practices in Just Culture, Big Data, Global Leadership, and People.

I mention the phrase “winged gospel” as an homage to Robert Hinckley, a distinguished aviation regulator from the early 1940s. Hinckley was responsible for the Civil Aeronautics Authority and foresaw a great demand for what aviation could offer.

The government at the time was, in many ways, in the same predicament then that we at the FAA are in today—on the bow wave of innovation and new entrants that could rapidly transform how we travel. How would they ensure safety? Where would they find a new generation of skilled workers to propel its growth?

A staunch advocate himself, Hinckley is said to have preached a “winged gospel” that tapped into America’s “near-religious” enthusiasm for aviation. “History has faced us with the plain alternative,” he would say. “Fly—or perish!” His solution? America had to become “air-conditioned.”

Now rest assured, we at the FAA are not looking to duplicate Hinckley’s fly-or-perish marketing campaign. But I do see some potential in reviving his call for the nation to become “air-conditioned.” He defined it as “a saturation of the American people in aviation skills and a general comprehension of the significance of aviation.” Not a bad idea at all, in my humble opinion.

Our country, right now, is on the arc of an aerospace renaissance similar to that on which the government found itself in the early 1940s.

Our predecessors at the time had just seen the first flight of the Douglas DC-4 Skymaster and the Lockheed C-69, which later became the venerable Constellation.

These four-engine piston-powered transport planes would become the founding fathers of today’s long-haul aircraft. Aviators then had also just witnessed the first flight of the Bell XP-59A, a wholly new type of aircraft – a jet. We all know how that innovation turned out…

Fast forward nearly 80 years and think about the kinds of “firsts” we routinely witness on the technology front. Rocket boosters dropping vertically back to earth, thrusting to a halt on the launch pad; Beth Moses, the first woman to go to space on a commercially launched vehicle—SpaceShipTwo; a drone delivering a human kidney, an angel flight that doctors described as “One small hop for a drone; one major leap for medicine.”

And let’s not forget first flights of several new commercial airliners that offer double-digit fuel reductions over previous generations. We all know that cutting fuel burn—and our carbon footprint— is a major design concern for everyone going forward.

I think it’s fair to say government and industry have made groundbreaking progress in fuel economy through aircraft and engine design, as well as through our air traffic management modernization initiatives and the approval of six drop-in alternative fuels for commercial use. Consider that today’s fleet of aircraft in the U.S. already has an average fuel efficiency of nearly 60 passenger-miles per gallon, on par with the Toyota Prius hybrid…but much faster.

Speaking of faster…airframers are eyeing a potential renaissance in supersonic civil aircraft, and startup civil space companies are looking to connect New York and Shanghai in less than 40 minutes. How many of those kids born this year will, in their lifetimes, take a suborbital ride, maybe as a 50th birthday gift, or heck, maybe even for their 21st! It’s coming. Commercial space launch activity in general has ramped up tenfold in just a few years.

In the unmanned sector, it’s a pretty safe bet there are first flights every day. And I’m not talking so much about novel aircraft, but first flights of new applications.

We are seeing these innovative applications in many cases through our Integration Pilot Program, which Secretary Chao launched in 2018.

Our “operations-first” strategy allows us to take the lessons learned from these initiatives and write better rules for integrating—not segregating—drones into our nation’s airspace.

Of course, the FAA has to ensure that these new entrants are safe before they can take part in regular National Airspace System operations, and sometimes that does mean new regulations.

The FAA recently issued two notices of proposed rulemaking, one that will require drone operators to provide remote identification for their aircraft, and one that proposes how we will certify package delivery drones heavier than 55 lbs. We plan to finalize by year’s end, the remote ID rule—a key enabler for beyond-visual-line-of-sight, or BVLOS, and the drone traffic management systems that we’ve been working on with NASA.

BVLOS is essential for Urban Air Mobility, or UAM, better known as flying taxis. According to my team, we are currently engaged with the builders of more than 15 electric vertical takeoff and landing UAM aircraft projects. In January, we saw North America’s first public demonstration of an autonomous two-seat flying taxi—an eHang EH216 taking flight in Raleigh, albeit with no passengers.

We’re using a crawl, walk, run approach as we mature the aircraft  technologies and air traffic management procedures to do this. And at this point, I’ll note that we’re still in the crawling phase for both but making rapid progress.

That’s a lot of action, and we’re arguably far beyond what Mr. Hinckley’s generation could have imagined. But just like back then, along with the promise, comes the potential challenges. Our job is to make sure that any aircraft or systems coming to market will meet the public’s sky-high expectations for safety. If the public perceives a new entrant as unsafe, that business is simply not going to fly.

How do we meet those expectations? Along with sticking to the core value of safety, we’ll be preaching the winged gospel of four themes—Just Culture, Global Leadership, Big Data, and People.

Just Culture: Done correctly, a Just Culture will generate the data an operator or business needs to figure out what’s really happening in their operation. If you know about safety risks you can mitigate the risks and fix the processes that led to those errors. I’ll explain later in our Fireside Chat how Just Culture and other best practices will play a role in our work going forward beyond the Boeing 737 MAX.

Global Leadership: We at the FAA will lead globally by working with other authorities around the world to ensure we meet the public’s expectations of the highest possible levels of safety.

Big Data: We must continue leaning into our role as a data-driven, risk-based decision-making oversight organization that prioritizes safety above all else. We do that in part by implementing Safety Management Systems supported by compliance programs.

And People: It’s now time to show the next generation what incredible opportunities lie ahead for them in our field, both personally and professionally. Let’s get them “air-conditioned.”

So that’s my winged gospel for today. I look forward to working with everyone in this room and throughout the industry to bring to fruition the incredibly bright U.S. transportation future as safely, efficiently and sustainably as humanly possible—while remaining a model for the world to follow.

Thank you again for coming and listening, and now I’ll answer some questions as we sit down for the Fireside Chat.