John Baker

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

John Baker

John L. Baker was born July 8, 1928, in O'Neil, Neb. He started flying at 15 and went into the Air Force five years later. He flew fighters in Korea then taught fighter gunnery at Nellis, Pine Castle and Luke. After his military career, Baker went to law school in Omaha, and graduated with honors. From college he went to Washington, D.C., as the U.S. Department of Justice's first air-crash attorney. After a stint as counsel to the Senate, Baker joined Grumman Corp as program manager on the A-6. From there he joined the FAA as Assistant Systems Administrator for General Aviation, and handled congressional relations. John left the FAA for ALPA, joined AOPA in 1977 and became its president later that year.Profile During his presidency, membership went from 180,000 to 300,000 and AOPA's annual budget went from $7 million to $30 million.

John -- who describes himself as a "shanty Irishman" -- wasn't shy about using his influence on Capitol Hill and at 800 Independence Avenue to protect GA's rights. During his AOPA tenure, he logged about 600 hours a year flying to meetings around the country -- "wherever they could gather a couple hundred people together" -- and he became a familiar face as he defended general aviation on TV. He owned a J-3 Cub and flew AOPA's Cessna 425 Conquest I. He was also President of IAOPA, representing 37 countries at ICAO. In 1990, with about 14,000 hours in his logbook, John retired from AOPA, and stopped flying when he was diagnosed with diabetes. He served on the AOPA board of directors until he turned 70, and is now a board member emeritus. He spent several years living in Palm Springs, then moved back to the Raleigh-Durham area to care for his wife's aging parents. He's a voracious reader and builds and flies RC airplanes.

What was your first experience with flying?

I was born on the prairie in the western end of Nebraska and started flying when I was 15 years old. All the ranchers had airplanes back then, and I soloed a J2 Cub the first time I ever rode in it. Nobody told me you had to talk to the government. I went to the University of Nebraska, and when they opened up Cadets in '48 I went into the Air Corps, which in '48 became the Air Force. I couldn't believe somebody would pay me to fly.

I was an honors graduate out of Cadets, got a regular commission, and I flew fighters for eight years. I flew F-80s, F-84s, F-86s, P-51s -- that variety of airplane. Back in those days that was novelty in the military. I was in the second jet outfit that went into Korea before the war. I was stationed on Okinawa in the 51st Fighter Group and I was one of the first to come back from Korea. I taught fighter gunnery then for five years at Nellis in Las Vegas and what was then Pine Castle, near Orlando, Fla., and finished my career in the military at Luke Field in Phoenix. I resigned in '55, went back to Nebraska -- my family was in the car business -- and decided after a couple of years that that wasn't for me, since even the minister felt free to lie to a car dealer, so I went to law school. Kind of going from the frying pan into the fire.

How did you get to Washington?

  John L. Baker
After I graduated from law school at the Creighton University in Omaha, I was hired by the Department of Justice under their honors program. I was the first full-time air-crash lawyer that the federal government had. After several years at the Justice Department I got an offer from the U.S. Senate, and I went there as Republican counsel Senate committee -- since my politics is somewhere at the right of Attila the Hun. I stayed there for three years then went to Grumman in New York. I probably would have stayed there as a career, but I got an offer from the Nixon people when he was elected, so I went back to Washington with Jack Schaeffer at the FAA.

Schaeffer used to call me the "Golden Throated Bullshit Artist of Aviation," and I worked hard all the years that I was at it to justify that. My maternal grandmother came from Ireland and my grandfather came from Scotland-- on my father's side it was half Irish and half English. I got the worst of all genetic traits -- I got the whimsical sense of humor and the melancholy from the Irish, a shitty disposition from the Scotch, and bad teeth from the English.

I believe Schaeffer was the best administrator in FAA history because he had great insight and great candor, and he never got mixed up in agency business. We recognized that we lacked the ability to do basic research and development, and we contracted it with NASA. When Helms came along, his ego wouldn't allow him to concede that anyone had wisdom beyond his, and, as a result, the FAA tried to do the R&D. When I objected to the airways modernization program, it was not because I was objecting to the need for a modernization -- that need was apparent. But, having gone through the first computerization of the program, which took six years to just get programming to do the basics on air traffic, I recognized that there was no way that the grand program that he put together -- which included some very forward-thinking things, plus all the crap from the bottom drawers of the FAA for the preceding ten years to bulk it out -- simply wasn't doable.

I was the only one that testified against it -- in front of Norm Mineta -- and I thought that was a great irony when he became the Secretary of DOT, because that year FAA announced -- with great fanfare -- another modernization program, which was program number 14 or 15. When Helms first announced it, it was a $11.4 billion program, which was the biggest single government program, other than the moon shot. Mineta announced another modernization program, which, interestingly enough, was $11.4 billion. So we've gone full circle and haven't moved an inch further down the road in 18 years, and the objections I raised when it was originally proposed in '81 or '82 still prevail. The FAA simply lacks the ability to manage a program of that magnitude.

When did you leave the FAA?

I stayed at the FAA until Alex Butterfield -- who had been a classmate of mine in the military -- came from the White House as the FAA Administrator, and I made the judgment that Alex couldn't walk and chew gum. So I resigned and went to ALPA with John O'Donnell, where I was an executive assistant to the president, and also got involved in air safety and the political side -- being conservative, they didn't let me near the union side. I stayed there until I was offered the presidency of AOPA, and that was in 1977. After I retired from AOPA, I did some consulting for a number of groups when they were looking at taking on pieces of the modernization program and my advice, universally, was "don't get involved" because it was not going to get there from here. Unfortunately, that $11.4 billion program at its inception is now a $60 or $70 billion program, and we haven't moved appreciably downstream since.

In the intervening years -- particularly during the Clinton era -- we had the compounding factor of FAA being taken over by non-aviation people, and that almost assures chaos and disaster. We saw people running flight standards who weren't aviators, we saw administrators who had no background in aviation. Then, of course, the most recent lunacy following 9/11, where aviation decisions were made by non-aviation people, have further compounded the problems regarding general aviation. It was already ailing in the sense that many of the FBOs and airports were in major jeopardy -- particularly the mom-and-pop FBOs -- which are the underpinning of general aviation as we know it.

And then the National Security people's faulty judgments, I think, drove another nail deep into that coffin, so I'm not singularly optimistic. I think the unfortunate victim is the 60 or 70 percent of the general aviation community who fly primarily for the enjoyment of it or the sense of self-satisfaction, and those few unfortunates who see it as a phallic symbol of some kind. That's the piece of aviation that's in jeopardy.

I quit flying for two reasons. One is because of the medical problem, although now I could go back and fly again -- my diabetes is controlled -- but, economically, it makes no sense; it's just simply too expensive, and that problem seems to be cascading.

Did product liability legislation give you any optimism?

  John L. Baker
It only fixed half of the problem. The damage the product liability suits have done to the manufacturer's profitability still prevails, and since we have become increasingly a litigious society and increasingly we've seen the know-nothing juries award damages on outlandish cases. The reason I left the litigation side of the law was that people who knew better were making major recoveries by misrepresenting the liability side of the industry, and that's continued and accelerated.

Who were the people that knew better?

When I was involved in it, there were very few practicing aviation law that really had an aviation background. That's now changed where everybody in the field's an expert -- or almost everybody is -- but the few that were experts were distorting facts and so forth to the point where it offended my sensibilities, if nothing else. So I quit practicing law -- primarily because I didn't like dealing with lawyers -- although I left the Justice Department undefeated, in that I didn't lose any of the cases I defended.

From the airline side of it, there were two unfortunate things that happened in aviation almost coincidentally. Bob Crandall retired about the same time I did, and we and Herb Kelleher at Southwest were kind of "the dirty dozen" in terms of bugging the world. There have not been, as far as I'm concerned, many effective spokesmen on either the air carrier or the GA side since -- not in terms of getting the kind of widespread visibility in non-aviation media. When I was there I could make the evening news most anytime I chose, and I don't seem to regularly see people any longer pleading aviation's case in the general media. They're seen only after a major disaster.

Are you saying that Phil Boyer is preaching to the converted?

I'm not going to criticize Phil. I left Frederick, Maryland on the day I retired, because I didn't believe that it was fair to him to have a dead hand on the throttle. I suffered through that in a number of jobs I've had prior to that at Grumman and at AOPA. I was determined I wasn't going to do that to him, so I have not made a public comment about GA or AOPA since, because I recognize it's a hell of a tough job, and 24 hours a day isn't enough to do it. He has a different perspective than I do, and approached it somewhat differently, and I think his interests are maybe a little less generic than mine were in terms of aviation.

I liked airplanes, period. When kids five years old wanted to go to the zoo, I wanted to go to the airport. I'm of that generation. Phil tends to see more the utility of the machine where I see the romance. As a result, a lot of the effort that AOPA and the other groups in aviation have made have been for the more sophisticated users, and the fuzzy end of the lollipop is going to the to the less sophisticated and the less prosperous in aviation.

I don't mean that as a criticism of Boyer, because I'm not close enough anymore to know the nuances. I see the general side of it and my feelings on that haven't changed a bit, nor my outspokenness, but there are a number of things. When I was in AOPA we were, for lack of a better description, the lone wolves in aviation. I didn't believe in partnering with other members of industry because we weren't a part of the aviation industry, we were part of the aviation community, and as far as I was concerned my responsibilities ran to the pilot member, not to the business side. Obviously, you can't survive without a healthy business side, but my judgment in that regard was most of them were beyond help anyway on the business side of aviation.

Are you talking about NBAA?

NBAA and others -- such as GAMA and NATA. Their perspective is very narrow. I have no problem with that. They represent who they represent and they do it very well, but they were not part of the general aviation community at that point, as far as I was concerned. I think AOPA probably has more business users than NBAA. Business aviation in the broadest definition is what you can write off on your taxes, and there were never a hell of a lot of us in aviation that were in that side of the business aviation field.

There's too much singing from the hymn book, and, and the one group that could have a major impact and for whom I have great regard is the EAA, and they have remained strangely silent through a lot of this, and have devoted very little in the way of resources to impacting on the public dialogue, and they represent the unrepresented.

In terms of the airlines, that's a hopeless case. You know, it's a boom/bust industry, and it has been from the Ford Trimotor on. They suffer from over-capacity, then under-capacity, over-regulation, then under-regulation. The same thing happened there that happened to a lot of the general aviation companies -- the accountants and the lawyers started running them. Even at the time I retired there were damn few aviation people left. They perceived themselves to be businesses, but not in the transportation business. They tended to get into economic problems from which they simply couldn't extricate themselves, then they came to the government, claiming to be public utility. We've gone through those cycles, and we're in another one now. In fact, 9/11 bailed out a lot of airlines that probably were going down the drain. The bailout of Boeing is just unbelievable. The government is going to lease airplanes from Boeing at more than it would cost if we were going to buy them.

Now we're back to politics.

  John L. Baker
And politics I loved. I set up AOPA's PAC. AOPA had the biggest lobbying effort of any aviation group in Washington. Currently I don't see that anybody in the aviation industry has the ability to scare politicians. That's unfortunate because lots of times it's not a question of whether they're with you or agin' you, but you've got to get their attention. If you don't have the ability to whack them upside the head and threaten them, oftentimes you get very little action. I was having lunch with the editorial board of the New York Times, trying to sell general aviation to them, and they were anti-PAC, and during the course of lunch as a flip comment I said something along the lines that "I don't know why you're so worked up about it; we aren't buying politicians, we just want to rent them." That showed up as the lead item in an editorial to the New York Times, and my P.R. people made me promise never to say that in public.

I wrote Mrs. Dole a note the other day telling her that I had some good news and some bad. The good news is that I retired, the bad news is that I now live in North Carolina -- she's running for the Senate here. She and I went at it pretty regularly when she was Secretary of Transportation. She decided she was going to be the safety secretary and she didn't know a relief tube from an aileron. We were back and forth at it all the time because there's nothing more dangerous than a well-meaning amateur in the safety field. I was particularly mad at DOT for some reason, and I needed a hook on a press conference we were having in L.A.. All the networks and wire services were going to be there. We were sitting in the hotel room ahead of time and I said, "Well, goddamn it, I'm going to demand that Mrs. Dole be fired since she's simply not competent to do the job." Well, that made the evening news. The funny thing was, within a week she resigned because Bob had announced he was going to run for president and she had a conflict. So I went around telling everybody, "Don't screw with me."

One function of the changing population is that there are fewer and fewer people with aviation backgrounds in Congress. The World War II generation and my generation, which immediately follows it, are moving on to our just desserts in one way or another and, as a result, the few that we have -- the McCains of this world -- for instance, are worse than having nothing but enemies. I am convinced, as a matter of fact -- having dealt with many Navy people -- that salt water causes brain damage. I think Daschle has been available to help. I'm not sure that he's been called on as aggressively as he should have been. Jim Inhofe is a hell of a good friend of aviation, but I see very little of him of late. Kay Bailey has always been a good friend of aviation. Oberstar has helped in some limited areas, but, again, he's really not a knowledgeable aviation guy, and now he's in the minority on the House side and the minority on the House side doesn't have enough power to blow their nose.

Aviation is small potatoes from a political perspective. Very few members of Congress or Senators get elected or beaten on aviation issues. As a result, very few are willing to go on-the-record one way or the other and take a major stand. They'll jump in on issues that have no significance where they figure they can buy a few votes, but finding someone that's a leader for aviation issues simply isn't the case any longer, and some of the people that should have helped over the years -- like the John Glenns -- never did. Nobody is going to take a committee assignment to get an aviation assignment because it carries no political payoff. When you look at airport issues, NIMBY is the byword. Everybody, and particular members of Congress, recognize you've got to have airports so they can get home on Thursday night, but damn few of them want to stand up and fight for an airport in their district because they know they're going to lose more votes than they're going to gain. As a result, airports are orphans, and we've seen that dilemma roaring down the road at us.

I'm not a major fan of Governor Ryan in Illinois, but I believe he almost single-handedly saved Meigs ... but I notice he's not running again. We're losing the friend we had there. I have a feeling there are other governors, particularly western governors, that will help us -- until you get to the West Coast, where they're more concerned about shutting down power plants than they are building airports. California is a disaster from an aviation standpoint, because there are no effective advocates in the political arena, and the other side -- the crazies -- are the dominant side out there.

If we can't scare politicians what can we do?

AOPA's Airport Volunteer Program is a good idea because early warning is the clue. I remember many times trying to save an airport when it was in trouble. By the time I got notice -- maybe three days before the hearing -- and came to testify, positions were already so firmly welded where you changed no minds. I was spit on and hollered down and never had a chance to talk, so early warning is the key. For most people that are involved in airport fights, aviation is an avocation. Maybe they earn their living in the plumbing business, so their first priority is staying afloat in the plumbing business, and the airport comes second. As a result, you just get into the fight so late that you're really rowing against the tide.

Read "Bakerisms" -- John's combination of insight, humor, and acerbit wit

What are some victories you pulled from the jaws of defeat?

We did that regularly. TCAs: We got them modified from the early proposals. Transponders: At one point transponders were going to be mandatory everywhere. We won that war for sure, although it may be lost now. ELTs: Senator Dominic from Colorado, who's long gone, stuck ELTs on an appropriations bill the night that Congress adjourned, and nobody even knew it was coming up. The next morning we woke up and found out they had mandated ELTs. There weren't any available and FAA had no ability to monitor them, and so forth, so we got that held off for years.

Why would a Colorado Senator be so concerned with ELTs?

He had a friend who was a scientist from Albuquerque who was in an airplane accident in the Rockies in the wintertime, and wasn't found and froze. It was one of those personal things that just became a crusade with him. You see that with a member of Congress every now and then. We successfully fought off the misbegotten MLS by ourselves before ATA finally joined us and we got it killed. It would have cost users billions in re-equipping costs. Another battle was DEA's demand to be able to shoot down airplanes coming on shore that weren't identified. Senator McConnell -- I started calling him Dr. Strangelove -- and I were on Larry King one night and Dick Cavett another night. We won that battle, and, in fact, we won it with the help of Carol Hallett, who is now the president of ATA.

Back when we had one of the severe fuel crunches we got fuel allocated for general aviation. I traveled to every goddamn refiner in the country to keep them refining avgas at that time, and I got that done by sticking a guy in the office that was making the allocations. He wasn't even a government employee, and he would throw in GA allocation on fuel. The fuel companies wanted to shut down because they can make more money making asphalt than they can avgas.

Another time I got into a knock-down, drag-out with Senator Schumer when he was a congressman from Brooklyn. He had ridden to New York with one of the airlines on Thursday night, like they all do, to campaign, and they were late getting in. He said something to the captain about, "What happened?" and he said, "Well, it was one of those damn little airplanes that slowed us down," so Schumer came back and put a bill in to eliminate the first-come first-served policy and give priority to air carriers. I went up to him and I said, "Congressman, this system can't function if that's the case. We're going to have to oppose you on this thing, and we can beat you," and he said something like, "Well, don't give me that shit. You know, you little airplanes don't belong there," and we murdered him on the vote. It was three hundred and something, and he maybe got 15, 20, 30 votes, and, he immediately thereafter filed a complaint with both the Department of Justice and the Elections Commission against me personally and AOPA for unfair lobbying because I had just hired Don Engen -- who had been the FAA administrator -- as head of the Air Safety Foundation. It cost me $80,000 in lawyers' fees to beat that son-of-a-bitch.

Don Engen was an aviator and he had a real problem at the FAA because Mrs. Dole was his boss. He and I became good friends, even though at that time it was kind of an adversarial relationship between FAA and AOPA. I used to stop in his office and sit and visit with him quite a lot, and regularly I'd tell him, "Don, don't put up with this shit. Quit. You don't have to take this crap from all those DOT gofers who are trying to manage the FAA from over there." When he finally did quit I wrote an editorial in AOPA Pilot and he got such a kick out of it that he had it framed and it was up in his office.

The Great Zamboni was a human cannonball in Barnum and Bailey Circus, famous far and wide. He flew higher, further, with a bigger explosion, the whole nine yards, than any human cannonball in history, and so one day he came in a little hungover and didn't do his walkaround on the cannon and they had a new guy loading it, and the guy that loaded it put way too big a charge in and when they fired it during a performance, why he went right out through the top of the tent, over the net, and out in the parking lot and killed a guy, and Barnum went up to Bailey and said, "My God, what are we going to do?" and Bailey said, "I don't know where we'll find a man of that caliber." I wrote the editorial on the basis that he [Engen] was the Great Zamboni and I didn't know where we'd find another man of that caliber at FAA. Don thought it was great, and his wife Mary, who's a great character -- her name was Baker, too, so we were allies -- just thought that was funnier than hell, and so we became fast friends.

Who did you like to fly with when you were flying 600 hours a year?

  John L. Baker
I flew by myself most of the time, but Dick Bush at AOPA and I flew together a lot. When I was at FAA -- which requires two pilots -- my keeper was a little guy named Dave West who had 23,000 hours in DC3s. He had been the administrator's pilot from the day the FAA was created in '58. I flew with Dave a lot. He was just sensational. I've flew with very professional people, and I always felt that I was very professional in the way I flew. I had five deadsticks in my career, back in the days of jets being somewhat less than reliable, and a 600-foot bail-out, back before we had quality stuff. In those days 1,500 feet was the bailout minimum, but I had one blow up. I had just shot at a truck and pulled my nose up and the engine blew. It was down in the valley in some mountains so I knew I wasn't going anywhere, and I pulled up and I guessed I got to about 600 feet, and fired the seat. Out I went, still strapped in, so I had to unbuckle and unplug the headset and the mast and pull the ripcord, and by the time I got all that shit done I hit the ground, broke both ankles, dislocated both knees, and broke my back and my elbow.

Were the five dead sticks all military planes? Were any of them in GA planes?

All military.

Were you involved in moving AOPA to the Internet before you retired in 1990?

We had taken the first faltering steps, but Phil Boyer brought that expertise. He's a computer geek anyway. I think his first staff meeting after I left he said a number of things, one is "I can't replace John Baker in the sense of personality, because he's become a bigger-than-life personality, so we're going to emphasize Team AOPA" -- which they did for a number of years -- "and the second is in these meetings around here there won't be any four-letter words." I thought it was funny because I was then on the Board and came back six times a year for meetings, and by about the third year he was swearing about the same rate I did. That job can get to you.

I love politics and I love politicians, and being a lobbyist, which, when you strip all the horse crap away, is what I did for a lot of years, at Grumman and at the FAA -- where I lobbied for the government -- and then AOPA. I had a great time, had a great career, got to play with airplanes up 'til the day I retired, and got to be involved in things I was interested in. When I was in the Senate I was involved with the '64, '5 and '6 civil rights acts, reform of the code of military justice, constitutional rights for Indians. I was the minority counsel on the Constitutional Rights Subcommittee.

Those don't sound like Atilla the Hun issues.

Contrary to what politicians concede, the '64 civil rights act was a Republican bill because Kennedy's bill was dead. When he was killed, Johnson had tremendous impetus, but the Republicans and southern Democrats had, for many, many years, been a coalition opposing civil rights legislation. Republicans wouldn't vote for cloture on civil rights issues if the southern Democrats would support the Republicans on other issues. Dirksen was retiring at that time, and he was my boss, he was the Republican leader in the Senate in those days and a great character, and he decided that he was more interested in history than partisan issues. The administration's bill -- which was a Kennedy bill but being pushed by Johnson -- was dead on arrival because they couldn't get cloture. Dirksen decided, well, "You sit down with us and we'll write a bill," so Nick Katzenbach and I -- Katzenbach was the attorney general then -- and I and a fellow named Neil Kennedy, who was on Dirksen's staff, wrote the '64 bill, and then we did support cloture on that bill. I spent 11 weeks sitting on the goddamn floor of the Senate. That's a lesson in humility. The other issues are not liberal issues.

Are you enjoying retirement?

I sit here and build radio-controlled airplanes, turn them out like popcorn. I'm running out of places to put them. My wife tells me, "For God sake, get out and crash some," but I'm a perfectionist by temperament, and so it's great tidy work for me. I also read a book every day or two. I alternate between books on politics, economics and mysteries.

Thanks to Jeb Burnside for suggesting Mr. Baker

Next: Bakerisms