As the new head of the Federal Aviation Administration in Alaska, Kerry Long is focused on one word: safety.
The fact that other topics sometimes overshadow the agency’s core mission of promoting safe flying is a testament to how effective the FAA is and should not be forgotten, he said.
“I’m pleased that we can focus on issues of efficiency, on issues of getting somewhere late, where we don’t have to worry about if we’re going to get there,” he said. “I think that gets lost in translation. Aviation is still by far the safest mode of transportation.”
Long took over as the FAA Alaska Region Administrator July 28. Since then, he has immersed himself in the unique needs of the state’s aviators and how the federal agency with oversight of those needs can best meet them.
First and foremost is making sure new and existing users of the skies can operate side by side, as well as advancing how they are monitored.
“My priorities here are NextGen and the UAS test site,” Long said.
The UAS, or Unmanned Aerial System, test site sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Long referred to is one of six nationwide chosen by the FAA to help the agency meet its congressional mandate to develop regulations to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by the Sept. 30, 2015.
The Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, headquartered in Fairbanks, includes not only the vast tracts of airspace above Alaska, but also areas of Hawaii and Oregon that afford industry the option to test technology in the Arctic, tropics or somewhere in between.
Long said the uniqueness of the Alaska test site, combined with the support, financially and otherwise, it has received from the state, has helped push it to the front of the group.
The Legislature appropriated $5 million to UAF’s Geophysical Institute in fiscal year 2012 to advance UAS testing. With continued state support, he wants to do whatever the FAA’s regional office can to help keep Alaska at the forefront of UAS testing, Long said.
“We can, I think, significantly support UAF and the test site, to be specific, in how we think they ought to be staffed to be able to effectively run this dispersed program they have in Hawaii and Oregon and here,” he said.
It will be a challenge for the FAA to do much more because the federal regulation mandate did not come with money.
“Our goal at the FAA is to support these test sites the best we can, but unfortunately we have a mandate but no funding, which is a tough combination,” Long noted.
FAA test site evaluators that visited Fairbanks in August were impressed with the safe and efficient operations going on there, Long said from his Anchorage office Aug 29.
While the UAS test site evaluation group was in Fairbanks, the test site staff was able to show first-hand the capability of small unmanned aircraft in a practical setting, he said.
“There was a traffic accident and we happened to have the evaluation team that has been going from test site to test site making sure that everybody is following best practices and that sort of thing,” Long described. “One of the folks was the gentlemen responsible for approving any emergency requests for a (certificate of authorization) and he was able to approve the use of a UAS to demonstrate to the team how it would be used with a traffic accident and how much more efficient it is to use a UAS to do the photography work.”
Prior to taking the regional administrator position, Long served as the FAA’s chief counsel under President George W. Bush from 2007-09. More recently, he was a lead ethics official with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Before his public service began, Long was a large aircraft transaction attorney, working primarily for Boeing and Rolls Royce, he said.
He emphasized that communication is key in his new position.
Long met with Rep. Don Young, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, state Transportation Department Deputy Commissioner of Aviation John Binder and private industry representatives to gain perspective about what the state needs from the FAA in his first weeks in Alaska.
Long said he assured the congressional delegation members that, “I will be as candid as we can be as an agency with what’s going on.”
His experience in other parts of the federal government will help him bridge the gap that all-too-often exists between Alaska and Washington, D.C., he said.
“Not only do you need an effective advocate for the FAA in Alaska, you need an effective advocate for Alaska at the FAA in Washington,” Long remarked. “I’ve been to Washington; I’ve spent my time there and I’ve cut my teeth there on many of the issues we face up here.
“I’ve learned what fights can be won.”
He plans on hosting as many Outside federal officials as will travel to Alaska so they can better understand what the state’s aviation industry needs, he said.
A visit from FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker, who is leading implementation of the agency’s NextGen air traffic monitoring program, was scheduled for early this month.
NextGen, the “next generation” of aircraft tracking, is a satellite-based system that is designed to update aircraft location quicker than radar, allowing for more efficient flight paths and safer operations at crowded airports.
Within five to 10 years, the FAA hopes NextGen will be installed across the country.
“The bottom line is we are all counting on NextGen into the future to be the answer to the inefficiencies of dealing with ground-based navigation,” Long said.
“It’s one of the most massive programs undertaken by the government, certainly ever by the FAA.
Beyond engaging with other federal officials, Long said he is happy to talk about the agency’s mission in Alaska, whether that’s with a group of school children or state leaders. It’s a vital part of the job he enjoys, and best of all, it hardly costs anything, he said.
“I’m free. I’ll go anywhere and I’ll talk to anyone about aviation safety and the role of the agency and there’s lots of people around here that will do that with me,” Long said. “As far as I’m concerned no group is to small as long as they’re interested and can help us promote aviation safety.”
Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.