Rod Hightower: Build, Volunteer, Fly

An interview with the President and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Rod Hightower in the Boeing PT-17 Stearman he restored. (Jim Koepnick)
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What threats are private pilots facing and how does the EAA help them?

The number-one threat that all of aviation has to guard against are user fees. I have a personal experience flying and operating an airplane in Europe, when I lived abroad on an ex-pat assignment. And user fees are very prevalent in Europe.  If user fees come to this country, they will reduce safety and significantly curtail the economic opportunity that aviation enjoys today.

We address user fees by fighting additional fees throught the regulatory agencies such as the FAA; we leverage our strengths and relationships with the FAA to help craft the best rule-making possible, always with the mission of enhancing safety. We also leverage releationships in the legislative process. That legislative process is really critical; that’s where the battle over user fees will be won or lost. We’ve engaged a very powerful and capable aviation caucus that has grown to be one of the largest caucuses in the House. And that particular capability will be there for all of us in aviation to ensure that user fees never come to this country.

Can you explain how you believe user fees would impact safety?

If you have user fees for air traffic control services, such as filing flight plans and getting weather briefings, pilots will find a way to avoid those fees. Under certain types of flights, you can avoid using some of those services. Well, we really don’t want that. If you want to enhance safety in aviation, we want to encourage aviators to use those services.

User fees come in other forms as well: landing fees at airports. If you want to enjoy flying as a recreation, but every airport you land at has a series of user fees, you’ll stop going to those airports. And if it gets too expensive, it will curtail recreational flying.

One other thing I’d mention is what people refer to as the BARR fight: The Block Aircraft Registration program, where you can block your N-number, your aircraft registration number, from being visible, reviewed, and tracked by anybody in the world, through access to an internet connection. We, along with other industry organizations led by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aircraft Association, successfully filed a lawsuit to reinstate the BARR program.  The FAA had decided unilaterally to disband it. And what they would have done was give aviators less privacy rights than the average citizen because you could track aircraft registration movement anywhere in the world. The industry was successful in preserving the pilots’ rights to privacy, and I would call that a significant win for aviation.

I always tell people that if you’re an aviator, there are always two membership cards you need in your wallet.  You need an AOPA membership to protect your freedoms to fly and you want the EAA card in your wallet to inspire and create the next generation of aviators.

What else would you like people to know about EAA and AirVenture?

When we had the tragic accident at Reno last year, it changed the public perception about large aviation events. Every one paid attention to the accident. It was a landmark event in aviation. But it’s very important to remember a couple of things. If you look at the statistics, it had been more than 60 years, until the accident last year at Reno, that a spectator was killed at an airshow or at an air racing event. That was an air racing event; we have still not had a spectator killed at an airshow in the past 60 years. The other part that’s important to remember is there was a very extensive review done by the NTSB. The industry leaders of all of the major airshow and air racing events in the United States were called to testify before the NTSB. And that testimony showed that the safety practices at large aviation events went far and above regulatory requirements. That was recognized by the NTSB and the FAA. So I think that it was one of the truly tragic events but was also an example of where the best-in-class practices shared among the industry leaders have yielded positive results and a perfect safety record for 60 years.

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