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Leaving a Legacy

Sam Oleson


In the 35 years since he was first elected to Congress, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), EAA 179992, has continually fought for the rights of pilots and the general aviation industry as a whole. After three-plus decades in Congress, Inhofe has decided to retire at the end of the 117th Congress, which concludes on January 3, 2023.

For his many years of service and advocacy in support of general aviation, Inhofe will be presented with EAA’s Freedom of Flight Award today. The Freedom of Flight Award is EAA’s highest honor, bestowed annually to recognize contributions to aviation that closely mirror the integrity, entrepreneurship, and innovativeness of EAA members.

“I think it’s great. It’s really something when you think about the number of people who’ve done some good things [who also earned the award],” Inhofe said.

In his final trip to Oshkosh as a sitting U.S. senator, Inhofe reflected on the two aspects of attending AirVenture that he enjoys most — the friends he sees and the aviation-related legislation he gathers support for.

“People will ask, ‘What rewards you the most?’ There are really two things,” he said. “The first is the people. There are people that I’ve known all my life, and I only see them once a year. I look forward to it. They know me; I know them. It’s just fun spending time with them. The second thing is probably the most productive thing, and that’s getting things passed.”

The legacy Inhofe leaves when it comes to legislative wins for general aviation is impressive. As an avid pilot with more than 11,000 hours, Inhofe’s passion is aviation, and it shows with what he’s been able to accomplish in Congress.

When legendary military, test, and air show pilot Bob Hoover’s medical certificate was revoked by the FAA, Inhofe helped shepherd legislation through the Senate to protect FAA certificate holders from bureaucratic overreach by providing pilots the ability to immediately appeal emergency revocations of their certificates to the National Transportation Safety Board.

“Nothing was more significant than seeing the look on Bob Hoover’s face that he was back in the air,” Inhofe said.

To match the international standard for commercial pilots, Inhofe helped pass legislation to raise the mandatory retirement age for American pilots from 60 to 65 years. Inhofe was also instrumental in helping to create the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, which creates a level playing field between individual pilots and the FAA by ensuring pilots have access to all the information required to appropriately defend themselves during an FAA enforcement proceeding or NTSB review.

Inhofe’s involvement in third-class medical reform also cannot be understated. The result was BasicMed, which eased the medical certification process for pilots by cutting bureaucratic red tape and encouraged pilots to disclose and get treatment for medical conditions that may affect their ability to fly.

To address the shortage of pilots and aviation maintenance professionals, Inhofe created the Aviation Pilot and Maintenance Workforce Development Program that supported career development, as well as directed the FAA to modernize the mandatory curriculum for aviation maintenance technician schools for the first time since the 1960s.

Recently, Inhofe was vital in defeating the ATC privatization movement, which was an effort to take away the freedom to fly from GA pilots by privatizing air traffic control. Additionally, he’s helped in designated pilot examiner reforms, which ensured the FAA updates regulations and policies related to the selection, training, and deployment of DPEs to ensure commercial and recreational pilots have access to an adequate number of examiners.

As someone making his 43rd straight trip to AirVenture (excluding 2020’s cancellation), aviation events like Oshkosh are close to Inhofe’s heart, and he’s passed legislation that directs the FAA to provide air traffic services for these types of gatherings without additional cost to participants.

In his remaining months in Congress, Inhofe does have some legislative goals when it comes to general aviation, particularly when it comes to the transition to unleaded avgas.

“On top of my mind this year is how we can provide a safe and smart transition to unleaded aviation gas so that pilots can keep flying,” he said. “We must all work together to provide the smoothest transition to an unleaded aviation gas. One of the ways we can ensure this is to make sure airports continue to make available for sale 100LL aviation gas until there is an unleaded fuel solution approved for use and available, enabling pilots to keep on flying. Second, we can provide airports across the nation with additional flexibility to use Airport Improvement Program funding to make the infrastructure upgrades necessary to quicken the transition to unleaded aviation gas.”

In addition, Inhofe supports a number of other initiatives to help general aviation. The National Center for the Advancement of Aviation (NCAA) ensures the development and sustainability of the civil and military workforce via the promotion of youth aviation programs and the availability of aviation-oriented curriculum for students of all ages, and empowers collaborative and cross-disciplinary efforts between private sector organizations, higher education, and other relevant entities to develop cutting-edge aviation materials, technology, and avionics. The PLANE Act ensures tax receipts from all aviation fuel sources are deposited in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund so all aviation user fees go to support aviation infrastructure and the aviation community, as well as empowers DPEs and DARs by giving them necessary civil liability protection and designates qualified GA airports as “disaster relief airports” so they have the needed infrastructure. The Certainty for General Aviation Pilots Act provides certainty that pilots engaged in flight training and flight testing are not considered as “carrying persons or property for compensation or hire,” while the HANGARS Act funds the construction of hangars at general aviation airports to address the growing aircraft hangar shortage.

While Inhofe is retiring from the Senate, this won’t be the last time he’ll be back at Oshkosh, as this event is his passion and he won’t stop advocating for aviation even when retired.

“It’s the most enjoyable thing I do every single year,” he said. “When you have the job that I have, there’s a lot of misery. I come here because I know a bunch of people. I have friends here that I see once a year. The second thing I do, we’re passing laws and all that, and the best place to get support is to do it here.”

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