Farnborough Royal Aeronautical Society Remarks

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

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good evening.

It is great to be with you to celebrate our shared passion and commitment to aviation, and I am particularly honored to rejoin you as a Royal Aeronautical Society Fellow.

You know, we often like to think that we invented flying in America, but the pursuit of the skies has always been an international enterprise.

Where would global aviation we be without the contributions of Britons such as George Cayley, the father of aviation, or Geoffrey de Havilland, who designed revolutionary aircraft in his day? Or pioneer Amy Johnson, who deserves a place in history alongside Amelia Earhart for helping women see a future in the skies.

There are so many that I could go on all night.  Prince Philip, Prince William, Peter Pan, The Lost Boys…

In all seriousness, I am sure that many of you have been looking forward to an “in-person” Farnborough Air Show for months.

It has been a long pandemic. I think we can all agree that while much of our time was spent meeting virtually, the challenges to aviation were anything but virtual. 

I am happy to say that we took on the safety and business challenges posed by a global health crisis and are emerging not only intact, but, in some ways, stronger.

One of the things that we missed, though, was the opportunity to gather as an aviation community to share ideas and to recognize, in-person, the progress we have made. After getting a chance to look at some of the exhibit halls and static displays at Farnborough, it’s apparent that the pioneering spirit of aviation is alive and well.

Today, we are on the cusp of an evolution that could turn out to be as exciting as Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic … or when Frank Whittle – another Briton – invented the jet engine.

It seems like during the pandemic, concepts that a couple of years ago appeared to be on the distant horizon are beginning to look like reality.

It’s no longer laughable to think that a rocket booster could hurl a capsule into space and then land safely a few minutes later, ready to be used again – or that “Captain Kirk” might make it into space in real life.

We find ourselves asking what we can do to make sure we are ready for whatever comes after the Jet Age. How can we help these new entrants benefit from more than a century of lessons learned while also giving them room to innovate?

I was thinking while flying here from the U.S. about how safe aviation has become. Not for a second did I – nor probably anyone else on that plane – need to worry about the flight arriving safely. But we all know that that safety can never be taken for granted.

Before coming to the FAA in January, I spent a full career as a pilot, flying everything from helicopters to jetliners. I know firsthand that most things in aviation that appear to happen seamlessly are indeed the result of a tremendous amount of work. 

We have checklists and procedures. Redundancies and safety nets are built throughout the system. Every morning, those of us in the aviation safety business wake up knowing that no matter how good of a job we did yesterday, we must do better today.

It’s against that backdrop that I look at the challenges ahead.

Today, we are deep into conversations about subjects such as Advanced Air Mobility and how to make commercial aviation more sustainable with new fuels and methods of propulsion.

Not many people remember this, but shortly after Henry Ford revolutionized the mass-production of automobiles in the U.S., he turned his sights toward making a “poor man’s airplane.”

The resulting product was a single-seat contraption called the “Air Lizzie,” after the iconic nickname for the Model T.

The aircraft never caught on, but the dream never died. Through the years, inventors tried time and again to make a small, personal aircraft a reality.

In the not-too-distant future, it’s possible that an air taxi powered by electric motors could land in your neighborhood and shuttle you across town in minutes for a meeting. That same trip would have taken an hour to reach in a car.

As I mentioned earlier, the technology is on its way. In the U.S., a couple of the most promising players are expecting to earn their certification by the FAA as early as 2024.

While the inventors are working on the technical aspects of the machines, we working on operational rules and pilot training. But we’re also considering the best ways to integrate this new type of aviation into our existing airspace system.

It is a challenge that requires all of us to think differently – to question conventional wisdom, if you will.

As with all aspects of aviation that came before, this new era will be an evolution, where advancement to the next step will be based on safety. As safety regulators, it is the job of the FAA and its counterparts around the world – to help strike that delicate balance between safety and innovation.

We must see safety as an enabler, because nothing will ground these innovations faster than serious incidents or accidents.

At the same time, we must also find ways to help traditional aviation move into the future. Around the world, nations are grappling with climate change and looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Aviation faces some particular challenges, but we are serious about addressing them head-on. We’ve been encouraged by some of the latest trials of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, and we know that chemists and botanists are hard at work to make fossil fuels a thing of the past.

I can tell you that the U.S. is committed to its goal of being net-zero by 2050. Regardless of the political climate, I we will achieve this because the aviation community has seen the wisdom of doing its part to protect the world while still staying connected.

And, of course, engine manufacturers and airframers continue to pursue designs that promise greater fuel and aerodynamic efficiency.

In the U.S., we have been working for more than a decade to build more fuel-efficient routes between major cities and to eliminate wasteful holding patterns.

Before I conclude, I want to return to our No. 1 priority – safety.

We are extremely fortunate to be in a period when aviation is safer than ever. No mode of transportation in human history has ever been safer. But that does not mean we can – or should –declare victory.

Every day we must challenge ourselves to find even more ways to reduce and eliminate the risk inherent to an industry that spans the globe and has little tolerance for mistakes. 

Rather than responding to incidents, we are getting better at predicting them through the careful analysis of data. But we need to do more of this, and we need to get better at it. Being preventative is no longer enough; we must become predictive. 

Safety Management Systems have proved their worth, particularly during the pandemic. Airlines have embraced the discipline of a culture that prizes a free exchange of information and the willingness to drive process and discipline into the farthest corners of the operation.

We are now expanding this methodical discipline into manufacturing, with the same prospects of building additional safety into the system.

I am excited about the future. Every time I meet a young person who is entering aviation with big dreams, I tell them to go for it.

If you think about it, aviation is a business that has always been propelled by disruptors – people who have the audacity to question conventional wisdom.

That’s one of the reasons why I believe so strongly in strengthening the diversity of our workforce. Organizations perform better when they benefit from new views and experiences that come from different backgrounds.

This is true whether we are talking about ethnic and gender diversity, or intellectual diversity – and we must strive to do better on all counts.

People ask me at least once a week what we are doing about pilot shortages, or controller shortages, or trained technical experts. It’s a valid question. The answer is that we must do whatever we can to encourage new talent to enter the field of aviation.

I think these emerging players in aviation can help show us the way. Despite having been around for almost 120 years, aviation as we know it continues to change.

Some people look at some of the headlines about our daily struggles and they wonder whether aviation’s best days are behind it.

I don’t see it that way. As far back as we can remember, humans looked to the sky and dreamed of flying. The same was true for me, growing up in a small Alabama town … building paper airplanes after hearing a helicopter in the distance one day.

I believe that in the end, that is something that will never change.

The question is what form it will take, and what will aviation look like a few years from now?

I can tell you that Charles Lindbergh and Frank Whittle – both of whom lived well into the Jet Age – would be surprised at what has happened even in the last few years.

Imagine what they would say if they knew what was on the horizon.

Thank you.