The aerospace and aviation industries turned out at the Washington Hilton Saturday night to honor former Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board chief Marion Blakey, who turned the occasion into an opportunity to praise public service. After becoming only the second woman to accept the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy award, Blakey, now president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, offered hope to any low-level federal worker who has ambitions to rise to the top.
“I literally started at the bottom of the Civil Service,” she said of her start 30 years ago. “I was first hired as a GS-3 clerk.” She said that humble beginning made her appreciate the people “who make a vocation of government. I never forgot this as I transitioned from communicator to administrator, from civil servant to political appointee.”
After several smaller appointments during the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Blakey got her first big job in 1992, becoming administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within the Department of Transportation. Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she was named head of the National Transportation Safety Board. Later, President George W. Bush put her in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration, where she served for five years until 2007, and, during that time, launched the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).
What is the secret to her success? “The foundation of a good career in Washington is often proximity to independent, creative minds and talents and in this regard I have been very blessed,” she said. Some of her “mentors” were there, including former Congressman and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. He won the award in 2006, joining a list of astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn; politicians, including Barry Goldwater; industry leaders such as Fred Smith of FedEx; and notable aviation enthusiasts like Harrison Ford. It has been awarded by the Aero Club of Washington since 1949.
“Public service is becoming a gated community, with ever-rising walls, barriers that too often repel talented citizens from serving their country,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to move in and out of government, to the private sector and back, and each time my public service experience exposed me to new challenges and prepared me for what’s to come.”
The room was a sea of tables, and Blakey knew most of the people sitting at them, but she singled out a few in particular. She said the award should be inscribed as “we” because it represented “the work of teams of colleagues and mentors.” But, she said, her “largest debt of gratitude is to the smallest team of all, my family.”