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Remarks for College of Aeronautics Commencement, New York, New York
Marion C. Blakey
College of Aeronautics Commencement, New York, New York

Thank you, President Fitzpatrick.

I can't tell you what an honor it is for me to be here today.

Graduation ceremonies like this are always a time for excitement and possibilities and new beginnings … but they are also a time for questions.

You are heading out into a world that is full of opportunities for someone with the skills you have gained in your time at this college … but also into a world full of uncertainties, especially a world - for you - where the airline industry is still struggling to recover from the nightmare of September 11.

My feeling is that the industry may bounce back more quickly than we think. Americans are amazingly resilient, and if you take a look at passenger terminals around the country, it is possible to believe that pre-9/11 forecasts for the industry may still hold up. Of course, one more terrorist attack and all bets are off.

But then, any graduate of this college - no matter when he or she graduated - faced a world full of questions.

One of the top investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board for many years - - graduated from this school shortly after World War II. Born in Germany, Rudy Kapustin started his career fresh out of the US Army, and at a time when the jet airplane had only just been introduced at the end of the war by the Germans. He could hardly have imagined the jet-age that was then about ten years away, or the commercial air travel industry it would usher into being … or that he would spend his life investigating such an industry all over the world.

The man who spoke at this commencement ceremony last year graduated from this school in 1969, the year we put a man on the moon. Ted Gavrilis had moved to this country from Greece with the dream of working for NASA. Thirty years later he stood here to address last year's graduating class as the Executive Vice President at Lockheed Martin for Missiles & Space. The day he sat where you are sitting, though, I am willing to bet that he could never have imagined a world where something like a space shuttle flight would be so commonplace that it barely merits a mention on the evening news … or a world where a space station is not only an established fact, but is co-run by us and our former adversaries the Russians.

One person who listened to Ted Gavrilis' speech last year was Beauty Begum, who completed her degree in airport management in December of last year, only months after the September 11 attacks. Beauty moved here from Bangladesh at the age of 17 with the dream of becoming one of the first woman pilots from her homeland. She has a new baby now, and hopes to continue working her way through the programs at this college in order to reach her goal, but the events in her own life and in the world around her no doubt have her questioning what she may encounter as she makes her way toward that dream.

The political writer Peggy Noonan once said that "life, like politics, is a big interesting mess - it's hard to call." Therefore, the best strategy for life - or politics, or a career in aeronautics, for that matter - is this: expect the unexpected.

The field you have chosen to enter is one of mind-boggling innovation that takes place at time-warp speed. And all indications point to it being on the threshold of even more incredible breakthroughs in the very near future … breakthroughs based on new physics, new materials, new propulsion systems, and completely new ways of looking at the way we move people around this earth - and beyond.

So while millions of people head off to see the new "Star Wars" movie this weekend, you here are actually poised to join a world where many of those "movie-world" effects are not all that far-fetched … or even that far off into the future.

Next year we will mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. Two days from now we will mark the 75th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's first flight across the Atlantic. The time from that very first flight to Charles Lindbergh to a man walking on the moon was 66 years, within the space of one lifetime. The time between the launch of the jet-age and the launch of the Space Shuttle was less than half that time.

The year this school was started in 1932, one man - by changing planes several times - crossed this country in eighteen hours. His picture was in all the papers. Today, we may be only years away from enhanced supersonic aircraft that can travel anywhere in the world in two hours or less.

It sounds wild, doesn't it? But then, jets capable of carrying up to 800 passengers probably seemed pretty wild not that long ago, and yet the Airbus A380 is scheduled to arrive at airports only four years from now. And Boeing's Sonic Cruiser, capable of cruising comfortably at the edge of the sound barrier, is expected to be in service in the near future.

This is the world that is waiting for you when you walk out of here today with your diploma. And like Rudy Kapustin and Ted Gavrilis and Beauty Begum before you, you will have to prepare yourself to seize opportunities that may not even exist today … to expect the unexpected.

But how, exactly, do you do that?

I thought about that, actually, as I sat through a briefing at NASA recently.
That may sound strange, but I sat there knowing full well that I would be speaking to you … and I sat there knowing full well that commencement speeches are a tough nut to crack if you really want to offer something different as far as insight … when it struck me that many of the futuristic technologies they were describing to me contained the very qualities and attributes that would help all of you navigate your way through times of incredible change and uncertainty.

Morphing technologies, for instance, that can mimic nature and allow airplanes to change aerodynamic form in-flight, like birds.

I think all of us could use some of that, don't you? Morphing capabilities that will allow us to navigate the twists and turns that life inevitably throws our way?

Or new sensor and microprocessing systems that will constitute a plane's nervous system and allow it to monitor itself, to sense danger or impending failure and take steps to correct itself before tragedy strikes.

Each one of us already has one of these systems in place - it's called our conscience, and whether we use it or not will go a long way toward determining whether we crash or fly. All of you come from a wide range of backgrounds, and many of you have already had to navigate your way around difficult circumstances, around danger and temptation in order to be sitting here today. And you are going to have to continue to rely on that, to remain ethically grounded and centered in all that you do … because the questions and the difficulties don't get any easier as you get older, but a solid internal guidance system will definitely help you avoid danger - or at least take steps to make corrections before anything really terrible happens.

Other new technologies include exciting new precision aircraft positioning and digital terrain and obstacle maps could soon make limited visibility - which is today one of the single greatest risks in aviation - a thing of the past, providing cockpit displays that can produce a clear picture of the outside world no matter what the actual visibility may be.

I think in this respect - and with respect to everything I have said up to this point - the entire concept of "flying blind" contains a certain resonance. We never know exactly where we are going in life, and in aeronautics in particular, the future can be anyone's call. But every one of us does have a precision positioning system available to us, in the individuals we look to who have a wealth of life experience, who we can trust and who we can turn to for guidance when things get rough. This is a heady time in your lives - you have a new diploma, many of you will be starting new jobs, and the world seems to be in your pocket. But life is going to throw some obstacles in your path, and you are going to need to rely on those who can offer you a clear picture of the world when your own visibility is limited or momentarily impaired.

Another new technology that is particularly intriguing in the wake of September 11 is new refuse-to-crash technology, capable of taking over an aircraft as soon as something goes wrong, compensating for what has occurred and providing adequate information to the pilots as to what is happening. From a security standpoint, this technology can also refuse to hit known terrain features such as buildings or landmarks, other flying vehicles, or even refuse to enter restricted airspace. In the same vein, we are seeing revolutionary new composite materials that are up to 100 times stronger than steel and one sixth the weight - meaning we could one day have not only planes that are faster and safer, but also such things as blast-resistant luggage containers.

All of these new technologies, as you can see, tie into what it will take for you to succeed. Because the fact is, there are going to be times when things are not going as well as you would like. Quite honestly, there are going to be times when you make dumb, terrible mistakes, when you really mess up … and those are the times that are truly the measure of who you are and what you are made of.

At the same time - - these technologies are not fool proof. As I said, mistakes will happen. And you - - just like us at the Safety Board - - have to do everything you can to prevent those mishaps. Certainly, we want to advance - - but we must do our best to advance safely.

Safety, of course, has always been a cornerstone of the aviation industry. And, as your college president wrote recently, it is now the platform from which the industry will rebound. So, as you journey out in to the market place - - whether in the public (and we hope you would consider joining our ranks) or private sector - - you will play an important role in improving the safety of aviation.

And, at the same time - - by proceeding safely and employing the attributes that these new technologies represent, you will greatly increase you chances for success.

Having that inner refuse-to-crash mentality will give you the resilience to recover from an upset event in life … Having that blast-resistant make up - - so to speak - - will allow you to seize opportunities, no matter what other people may tell you is within the realm of possibility.

When I was a young girl growing up in Alabama, I was told I could either be a teacher or a nurse. So to find myself standing here today - well, obviously, I took some unexpected turns.

You have to, I think. You can't plan everything out. You have to expect the unexpected.

You have to develop the skills and the judgment and the imagination that will allow you to go places nobody has gone before.
And that has always been one of the great strengths of this college: to take a student body that is the mirror image of this diverse metropolitan area, and provide its students with the skills they will need to face an uncertain world … and thrive.

Charles Lindbergh once said, "What kind of man [or woman] would live where there is no daring?"

Indeed. Think about it: thirty years from today - when one of you could very well be standing where I am today - technologies that are so revolutionary they would be unimaginable today are likely to be state-of-the-art.

And I am confident that all of you - like Rudy Kapustin and Ted Gavrilis before you, like Beauty Begum in years to come - all of you are uniquely prepared with the confidence and the daring to take advantage of the opportunities that will come your way … even if you don't yet know what those opportunities will be.

Thank you so very much for asking me to be here today.