This year's return of a live NBAA-BACE comes shortly after the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. NBAA had delayed its annual convention that year, pushing it from what should have been a show in New Orleans a week after 9/11 to one that was held in early December. “In that year, NBAA had a much smaller convention than usual, but it was an enormously successful event for exhibitors and attendees,” recollected the association's president and CEO, Ed Bolen.
To Bolen, that success spoke to the resiliency of the industry and the importance of the community. “When we are in enormously challenging times—and 9/11 was an enormously challenging time as our way of life was under attack—one of the things we instinctively knew is that we needed each other. We needed a human connection. We needed to share our experiences and our strengths.” The convention, he said, enabled the industry to have that connection.
At the time of the attacks, Bolen was still heading up the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Like most who lived through them, he remembers the day clearly. It began for Bolen with a tennis match against a Capitol Hill staffer at East Potomac Park along the banks of the Potomac River.
These matches were routine for the two. Oftentimes an aircraft would fly over as it headed toward Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) and the match would be interrupted. “One or the other of us would stop and stare at the airplanes going into DCA.” And on 9/11, it was no different. “It was a stunningly beautiful day. We did watch a lot of airplanes and kind of talked about how blessed we were to play tennis and be in this city and this industry.” Then Bolen arrived at GAMA shortly before 9 a.m. and learned of the first airplane hitting the World Trade Center.
“We did not know a lot about that first one," he said. "And then, as we were watching, the second plane went in and it became clear that our country was under attack.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about what this meant not just for aviation, but the American way of life,” Bolen said. “It was a period when...you saw all of the best attributes of our industry and our country...A lot of work was done by everyone in our community to try to figure out how we could resume what aviation can do.”
Commercial aviation came back first, and it took about six weeks for general aviation to nearly fully return, but with new security restrictions. “We tried to find ways to have protocols in place that would allow for business aviation to operate, like temporary flight restrictions at DCA,” Bolen said. “I think the event created a renewed commitment to being safe and secure in all of our operations. It caused us to reevaluate what we did and why. In some cases, modifications were made. But I think most of all what you saw was an awareness that we needed to work together to ensure mobility and security.”
The community came together to educate the government, and this has produced successful collaborations. “It's been a long journey," Bolen said. "It's an ongoing process and an evolutionary process. 9/11 certainly was a seminal event for our industry, nationally, and everyone around the globe.”
It also underscored the importance of aviation and how it connects the world, he said. "It's a responsibility, it's a value, that we all carry with us. I think we as a community recognize that we need to constantly think about security and evolve and adapt. That’s part of aviation's DNA.”