What The DC Flyover Meant

The spark of the idea took place more than two years ago—the concept that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association could organize and execute a mass formation flight over the nation’s most restricted airspace. In commemoration of its 85th birthday, the association did just that, with the “National Celebration of General Aviation DC Flyover” on May 11.

A strung-out gaggle of 54 aircraft—cached in eras and genres from the most classic Beech Staggerwing to the recently debuted Piper M700 Fury—launched from the Frederick Municipal Airport (KFDK) starting at 11:38 a.m. They flew in a distinct trail straight to the heart of Washington, D.C., into the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) and through prohibited area P-56 overlaying the National Mall. They took three routes back to Frederick and landed without a hitch.

A secure area had been established on the flight line, with all pilots vetted by the Secret Service and put through extensive background checks. Most aircraft carried at least two people, also having gone through preliminary and on-site TSA screening. I took up friends on the invitation to watch from their hangar near the flight line, and we positioned the golf cart with a good view of the runway—as close as we could get.

The spectacle alone—and the formation logistics—would be worth a round of applause. Just to have 54 aircraft show up and fly, and have the weather completely cooperate, made it a banner day. But after a few days’ reflection, I can’t help but say it goes much further than that.

A number of GA classics, like this 1944 DGA-15P Howard, joined the aerial parade. [Credit: Julie Boatman]
  1. For someone who was working at AOPA on September 11, 2001 (like me), to watch nearly 23 years later a string of former colleagues and friends from around the country fly right into the heart of the “no-fly zone” that has existed ever since that awful day….well, it made me realize what is possible. It took a lot of “trust but verify” to put 54 GA aircraft into that string of pearls—but with concerted effort and the integrity of those making the “ask,” it came to pass.
  2. We’re celebrating another anniversary this year: 30 years since the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) was passed, paving the way for the restart of GA aircraft production by Cessna, Piper, Beech, and others. A tip of the hat to Russ Meyer (former president and CEO of Cessna) and Ed Stimpson (then president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association) for figuring out the way to make that bill a reality. A “post restart” Cessna 172 took its place in the Flyover—not the fanciest airplane on the lineup, but one of the most poignant.
  3. This week we also saw an amazingly bipartisan effort to pass the FAA Reauthorization bill so desperately needed to free the gridlock in bureaucracy and funding to keep the FAA running. That will support not only those GA manufacturers now producing 4,090 aircraft in 2023, but also the pilots, airports, and technological advances like unleaded fuel that are critical to a healthy GA ecosystem. This time, it also produces a title for general aviation, preserving its seat at the table, for the first time in a bill. And rare for the current state of affairs in Washington, both parties came together to pass the bill through Congress and to the president. It’s still possible to collaborate across the aisle.
  4. And so much more is possible if we keep working together, dreaming big dreams, and innovating our way to solutions. My friend Carlo flew the Hatz biplane he built in his hangar at Frederick past the Washington Monument, the White House, and over the top of DCA on a sunny Saturday in May. You just never know where GA can take you when you believe, and you put in the effort to make it happen.
The open-hangar lunch let us linger after the formations returned. [Credit: Julie Boatman]

Collaborate Into Action

I’ve spent much of my aviation life with one foot in the future, and one foot in the past.

Most recently, I spent a year and a half working with new pilots just starting their studies towards an airline transport pilot’s license, young people from all over the world, in a new country (to all of us), fighting to perfect their English along with puzzling through General Navigation—one foot in the future, one foot in the past.

At the same time (along with a team of real aviation history geeks), I brought into life the biography of a man, Donald Douglas, who changed our world a hundred years ago, as he graduated from the dewy-new MIT to establish the Douglas Aircraft Company and build the iconic DC-3.

As I continue to field DMs from students, as they struggle and succeed, and as I read news every day of the latest innovations trying to solve our questions of future propulsion, economy, and environmental care—I can’t help but be struck by the parallels back to similar questions Donald Douglas grappled with in the 1920s and 30s, as his wily band of engineers competed, collaborated, and convinced a wary public that flying around the world was not only possible, but safe—and should be something we must keep doing.

Clearly that general public took the bait, because we’re still building airplanes, we’re still needing pilots, and so much of the world’s commerce can happen because it’s possible for me to get on an airplane in Lisbon this afternoon and be in Singapore 26 hours later (with a few hours cooling my jets in Dubai).

A couple of weeks ago, the FAA hosted a symposium in Washington, D.C., seeking to loosen the hairy knot that’s choking the development of the aviation workforce. Because we live in a connected world, I participated in it livestream from my couch via Facebook. 

After conceding that the opening panel reflected the current state of affairs (and politics)—and deftly illustrated that we haven’t yet tackled diversity in our upper ranks—I was encouraged as the day moved on with a variety of thoughtful leaders from around the community floating up idea balloons that deserved more time than the space provided. It reminded me of the similar Pilot Training Reform Symposium hosted by SAFE (Society of Aviation and Flight Educators) in Atlanta in May 2011.

At that conference, we outlined a host of problems to address. Coming off of the worst recession many of us had witnessed firsthand, we discussed the lack of student starts, drop in aircraft sales, and diminishing flight hours all around that hung a dark cloud over the industry—but we were determined to fight these issues. 

The ideas that came from that 2011 event (increase flight instructor professionalism, revamp the testing process, find new ways to market to the next generation) felt solid, but only through the collaborative effort between industry, government, and user groups did we come up with real change. Regardless of how you feel about the new Airmen Certification Standards, they reflect the substantial transformation that can happen when folks set aside their fiefdoms and work to create something new.

And that was the overall message I heard from the Aviation Workforce Symposium this September. We have a new landscape, with airlines around the world clamoring for personnel—not just pilots—and willing to pay for training and better wages to bring them on board. Turns out that when the real pain strikes you, what was once a nagging ache turns into an emergency you must address.

At the symposium, the people who found success in recruiting diverse new entrants into the aviation community (be it pilots, technicians, or the host of support personnel making airplanes fly)—these folks brought up repeatedly the partnerships that had energized the process. The collaborations make it happen. 

Case in point—and one I can relate to, given my recent experience: Students that have come into our training programs in Portugal typically do not have the same experience with the mechanical world that I had as a teenager. When I turned 16, more than 30 years ago, I had a car, and I learned how to change a tire, and an air filter, and the bulbs for my headlights. Today, even in the U.S., where a similar teen could also have access to a car, it might take dropping the entire front end of the car to get to the headlights—we’re so advanced, we’re no longer meant to service our own machines.

As for the young people I’ve mentored in the last two years: They not only may not have ever driven a car before coming to Portugal—some have never ridden a bicycle. It’s far from a lack of intelligence (that same kid could build an app for my iPhone), but a difference in exposure. At the same time, the airlines need more relevant skill in their initial candidates, though there may be less skill coming in the front door, a point brought up by several voices at the symposium.

We fiercely need to innovate and collaborate to attack this lack of exposure. If the flight school, and, subsequently the airline, notes this lack, and in partnership brings training into the high schools, we can solve this pervasive problem—and at the same time the industry gets to take advantage of the inherent marketing that occurs when a child encounters aviation in a natural, practical, relevant way.

We innovate in aviation in a stunning variety of ways, and I feel in my bones we’ll address our issues about fuel, noise, cost, comfort, and safety through evolutions we can’t yet visualize. The first flight around the world, in the Douglas World Cruisers in 1924, resulted from the innovation of the new aviation industry, backed by the support and investment of the Army Air Corps. Doug had witnessed the ineffective (at best) way government worked when unchecked, through his year with the Signal Corps in World War I—but he also knew that serving the greater good through this government contract could have a large financial payoff for his private-sector business.

I’d like to see the action list resulting from the Aviation Workforce Symposium—and determine the project to which I’ll sign my name. If each of us does the same, we can direct the innovation to address our problems.

One action item we can each put into play? Take a cue from entities as diverse as Boeing, Redbird Flight Simulations, and AOPA, and—using the work they’ve done in creating STEM curricula and other programs—help them find traction in our local schools and youth clubs. Supplement this greater action with other gestures to enhance it, such as donating materials and subscriptions to a local youth program or technical college. 

My personal action has been giving support to our local air museum, and mentoring past students (our diverse “flock”) as they navigate their own specific course to an aviation career. Parallel to this? To counter any lack of opportunity, purposefully seek out young people who wouldn’t otherwise get a ride to the airport, and go to them where they are—maybe that kid isn’t watching airplanes from outside the fence because he or she can’t physically get there.

Collaboration wins, but it takes each of us to move the needle forward.