December 21, 2011
By Alton K. Marsh
There were changes in latitude, attitude—all sorts of changes as longtime general aviation leaders disappeared from the scene. In some cases, personnel changes were driven by the economy, but for others, it was personal misfortune.
Unfortunately, the most recent event is always the first to be remembered, so we lead off with the departure from the FAA of Administrator Randy Babbitt, who resigned after a long and productive career in aviation following a charge of driving while intoxicated. He was stopped by police in December while driving in Fairfax City, Va., a few miles from his home. That left someone he hired, Michael Huerta, as acting FAA administrator. Babbitt faces a court appearance on the charge in February. Complicating the process, and contributing to his departure, was his failure to inform his superiors of the charges until they were first reported in a Fairfax City police press release.
Babbitt had termed incidents of sleeping air traffic controllers a “professional embarrassment” in the spring of 2011 as incidents at Washington, D.C., Knoxville, Tenn., and Seattle were reported. There were additional incidents in Lubbock, Texas, and heads rolled as controllers asleep at the mic switch were fired; but the incidents also led to the resignation of Hank Krakowski, former COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. There were other shuffles in management and staffing changes in towers that were criticized in Congress for “doubling up” on high-paid controllers.
Now, we come to important general aviation players who had surprising shakeups at the top.
Brent Wouters left as chief of Cirrus Aircraft this year after carrying the firm through the worst of its financial troubles and overseeing the sale of the company to the Chinese. Wouters joined Cirrus in 2002 as the financial head, and took over as president in 2008. Company officials said it was a planned transition, but it took the industry by surprise. Replacing him is company co-founder Dale Klapmeier, who founded Cirrus with his brother Alan in 1984. Alan Klapmeier now runs Kestrel Aircraft in Maine.
Another surprise was the sudden retirement of Jack Pelton, former Cessna Aircraft chairman, president, and CEO. There was no successor in place, and Textron Chairman and CEO Scott C. Donnelly ran things until new President and CEO Scott Ernest was named to head the company. Ernest, a Kansas native, came to Cessna from GE Aviation where he was vice president and general manager of the global supply chain. His experience with supply was expected to help lower the cost of parts for new aircraft, especially the popular Citation CJ4. That cost-cutting was actually in progress two years ago, and is producing results.
If those were surprises, then it was a shock when Piper Aircraft changed presidents and declared its prize project, the renamed PiperJet Altaire, on indefinite hold. It was not only a very bad market for single-engine jets, but for CEOs that built them. Geoffrey Berger’s departure as CEO was surprising, given that he came from the same company that bought Piper on behalf of the Sultan of Brunei—Imprimis. Berger, a Harvard Business School graduate, did not return to Imprimis after his departure. Replacing him is Simon Caldecott, former Piper vice president of operations. The company was hiring engineers for the Altaire program just 30 to 40 days before announcing the program’s suspension. Many were laid off. While the project is not dead, it is at best cryogenically stored. Also gone, along with Berger, was Piper Executive Vice President Randy Groom, who had briefed the AOPA Pilot staff on the rapid ramp-up of factory equipment needed to build the PiperJet Altaire. A newly modified building was complete and trucks were arriving nearly daily. The equipment is generic to manufacturing and can be used for other Piper aircraft.
Finally, on a more positive note, Gary Kelley, longtime vice president of marketing at Garmin, retired from that company after personally being recruited in 1992 from Bendix/King by Garmin founders Gary Burrell and Min Kao. Both Burrell and Kao were also former Bendix/King executives, leaving that company to form Garmin in 1989, a company named by the combinations of their first names. Kelley led the company from its infancy to being an internationally recognized GPS powerhouse in aviation, marine, automotive, and consumer electronics.
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