The towers fell. In the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, more lives were lost. The skies were cleared of airplanes, all ordered to land as the nation rallied to protect itself from further harm.
Airplanes returned to the skies: first scheduled service; then IFR; then, days later, VFR flights, which resumed, with restrictions, on Sept. 19, 2001. Security was tightened, the terrorists hunted. Eleven years have passed since the awful day that changed everything, and a community of aviators once forced to prove small airplanes were not the problem has now regained some of what was lost, including the respect, and attention, of policy makers, lawmakers, and the public. This has been at the core of AOPA’s mission these last 11 years. Pilots, like all Americans, will pause to remember the day, and honor those we lost, and then the mission to protect general aviation, an industry that generates $150 billion a year and sustains 1.2 million jobs, will continue.
There is work still to be done, but the nation’s relationship with a community that also provides countless acts of charity—disaster relief, medical mercy flights, animal rescue, to name a few—continues to change for the better. Tom Zecha, AOPA manager of aviation security, said there has been a shift in the last three years or so on the part of officials who once simply dictated restrictions on the freedom to fly that pilots hold dear. Working as an industry—manufacturers, flight schools, maintenance professionals, and interest groups—the aviation community has established an ongoing conversation with the alphabet soup of military and civilian agencies, all parties determined that what happened on 9/11 will never be repeated. At the same time, the aviation community still hopes to ease the proliferation of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) that can force costly deviations, and too often land the unwary, whose intentions are innocent, in legal trouble.
“Industry has done a good job of working with all the government agencies, mitigating these longer-term TFRs and allowing GA access,” said Zecha, who regularly joins industry and government representatives to discuss the issue. He noted the federal agencies are more willing to consider alternatives that preserve both security and access. “They tend to listen to us now, and discuss things.”
Zecha, and colleagues from other GA organizations, are also working toward easing airport access restrictions that have had the largest impact on aircraft owners and pilots, and in turn, the wider community. Security directives SD-8F/G, enacted by the TSA in 2008, require background checks and photo identification at airports with commercial operations, even if those operations are relatively limited. AOPA has voiced many specific objections, and Zecha continues to work hard on the issue. “We are chipping away and making progress,” he said.
AOPA is also working directly with educators, flight schools, and youth to expand the pilot population, having recently hired Adam Smith to lead the forthcoming Center to Advance the Pilot Community. That effort will be critical to reversing the decline in new pilot starts that has marked the post-9/11 era, affected by factors including the loss of many flight schools forced out of business by the uncertainty, imposition of new regulations, and the damage done to the public’s perception of aviation by the attacks.