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President's position: Cherish your freedom to fly

A defining moment that forever changed everything.

September 11, 2001, is a day that I will never forget.

Watching the morning news over a bowl of cereal, I was planning my flight to Chicago for an afternoon meeting. Suddenly, everything changed. The memories of the events from that day still haunt many who watched the horrible aerial siege in real-time. A memory now, but one painted so vividly, it’s hard to believe 20 years have gone by.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a defining moment in history that forever changed our society and culture. Patriotism grew like we’ve never seen in modern times, and with it, a call for heightened security. In the aftermath of the attacks, our nation’s first and foremost duty was to protect its citizens—ensuring that our country and people were safe. And with that, ensuring our skies were safe.

Within hours the world’s busiest, most complex airspace system went quiet. Watching the live flight map that morning was incredibly unsettling.

In the days and weeks following 9/11, the future of aviation—especially the future of general aviation—remained uncertain. Even after commercial traffic was cleared to resume, GA remained grounded. Top government officials considered undue restrictions and limitations on GA, leaving a large population of safe and conscientious pilots left to defend themselves from government overreach. General aviation never had an argument against safety and security; it was one against unnecessary bureaucracy. There needed to be a proper balance.

While parts of the world may not be much safer after 20 years, we should be proud that we have worked very hard to keep our skies safer than ever.In what can only be described as controlled chaos, AOPA worked around the clock alongside the Department of Defense, the FAA, and other security stakeholders to get GA off the ground. Slowly and incrementally, we reclaimed our freedom to fly (see “The Day Aviation Stood Still,” p. 66).

Reflecting on those dark days 20 years later, I am amazed at what we were able to accomplish. It’s made me more cognizant and appreciative of the freedoms we still have. Our industry has worked hard over the past two decades with a vested interest in keeping the skies safe—not only from threats, but by being the safest pilots we can be. Safety wears many hats.

Some of our most important security initiatives grew from a post-9/11 world. In 2003, our AOPA Airport Watch program was established by AOPA in coordination with the Transportation Security Administration, which uses more than 600,000 pilots as the eyes and ears for reporting suspicious activity at airports. The program has been a significant model for educating security agencies and government officials on the value of partnering with GA.

Unfortunately, increased security came with consequences for GA. Fences, badges, and new restrictions at some airports weren’t exactly the welcoming environment pilots want for newcomers or our neighboring communities (see “GA Under Siege,” p. 68). But fighting to ensure a vibrant future for GA has been part of AOPA’s mission since its founding in 1939. That didn’t fall to the wayside.

To confront these challenges, we had to try harder to break down barriers to entry and make aviation more accessible and affordable. From introducing young students to our high school aviation STEM curriculum and awarding a range of scholarships, to helping pilots start flying clubs and bringing pilots back through our Rusty Pilot program, we’ve made progress in fueling a passion for GA. We know that we are stronger in numbers. For the first time in decades, the number of pilots is increasing.

On this anniversary we will relive and remember the tales of heroism, tragedy, and resilience that tested us as Americans. As a nation, we will always have our guard up, and while parts of the world may not be much safer 20 years later, we should be proud that we have worked very hard to keep our skies safer than ever. We are lucky to live in a country where this freedom is protected and preserved. Let’s always make sure we cherish this freedom to fly.

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Mark Baker

Mark Baker

Mark Baker is AOPA’s fifth president. He is a commercial pilot with single- and multiengine land and seaplane ratings and a rotorcraft rating.

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