Oct. 17, 2023

The Day 1 Keynote at the 2023 NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) offered important lessons about perseverance against seemingly insurmountable challenges to reach higher levels of excellence, inspiration, sustainability – and, literally, altitude.

NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen led off the presentation with details about the newly launched Climbing.Fast. campaign, which emphasizes both the significant contributions from business aviation and the industry’s work toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

That is daunting task, but one Bolen believes the industry is well-suited to achieve. “We have an important story to tell because business aviation is, and has been, on a mission to net-zero,” he said. “We’re climbing fast, and we need each and every one of you to get involved.”

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy and FAA Deputy Administrator Katie Thomson

Safety is another important focus, as seen through the Single-Pilot Safety Standdown, the National Safety Forum and other safety-focused sessions at NBAA-BACE. Further demonstrating the industry’s safety commitment, Bolen welcomed two key safety proponents at the federal level, FAA Deputy Administrator Katie Thomson and Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB.

“I just want to thank the [NBAA] community for everything you do,” Thomson said. “To bring safety to the forefront every day, we have to keep it top of mind and continue to focus and execute.”

Since 2017, the NTSB has collected accident and incident data to better inform its findings and safety recommendations. “We must at some point really get beyond the data and start implementing safety measures that can save lives,” Homendy noted. “[We will] soon start a very comprehensive data program at the NTSB that will inform every decision we make.”

Both agencies also face challenges in staffing and resources, with Thomson pointedly noting the importance of a multi-year reauthorization bill for the FAA. “We need adequate, sustainable, sufficient funding from Congress,” she said. “Annual appropriation just isn’t sufficient to meet our needs, particularly on the facilities and equipment side.”

Award Recipient Jared Isaacman

Next, Bolen presented NBAA’s highest honor, the Meritorious Service to Aviation Award, to entrepreneur, pilot and commercial astronaut Jared Isaacman, who then sat down for a brief interview with past NBAA-BACE keynote speaker and Inspiration4 orbital mission pilot, Dr. Sian Proctor.

Isaacman recounted how two movies from his childhood, “Top Gun” and “Space Camp,” steered his interest in aviation and aerospace. However, he initially stayed earthbound and focused on data systems, founding payment services provider Shift4 when he was just 16 years old.

Four years after that, however, Isaacman found himself drawn back to aviation as a way to rise above an increasing sense of malaise. “I started flying,” he said, “which led to extreme air show flying and formation flying in ex-military aircraft.”

That, in turn, spurred Isaacman to co-found contract tactical flight training provider Draken International, and ultimately drove his interest in commercial spaceflight. “I was looking for the next greatest challenge,” he noted, which led to the September 2021 orbital flight aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Isaacman commanded Dr. Proctor, physician’s assistant Hayley Arceneaux and data engineer Christopher Sembroski on the three-day Inspiration4 mission that raised more than $250 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Isaacman’s next spaceflight challenge is the Polaris program, with the first of three flights poised to launch early next year. The Polaris Dawn mission will fly to a higher orbit than any crewed spaceflight since Apollo 17 and is slated to also include the first-ever spacewalk by a commercial astronaut.

Ultimately, Polaris aims to fly the first crewed mission onboard SpaceX’s Starship, which Isaacman noted, “could very well be the [Boeing] 737 of human spaceflight.”

Stefanie Graf and Andre Agassi

Those attitudes are also embodied by tennis superstars Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf, who have more than 160 international titles between them. “Every day was a challenge to be better,” said Graf of her time playing professionally. “It was about challenging myself and I constantly felt that challenge. It wasn’t the challenge to stay No. 1, but to get better at what I was doing.”

While Graf played at a high level throughout her 17-year professional career, Agassi spoke about the challenge he faced after his own rise to the top in the mid-1990s, only to plummet soon after in global rankings.

“I thought getting to No. 1 would be the moment where it would all be worth it, and that it would reconcile my demons,” he said. “It actually highlighted them, and I went on a spiral and fell to 141 in the world [in 1997]. I was probably the only person on the planet who knew exactly why.”

That led Agassi to “take ownership of my life.” In addition to rising again to a top ranking in 1999, he also founded the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education that today has 130 charter schools in disadvantaged locations nationwide.

“I found my reason [to excel] through impacting others through education,” he said. “I was still connected to something, but it was much larger than me.”

Married since 2001, the couple remains engaged in multiple philanthropic endeavors – many helping children living in poverty and conflict areas – as well as several entrepreneurial efforts and investments in businesses as varied as real estate to water parks.

Graf noted that business aviation enables them to keep up with it all. “We’ve grown up in airplanes in our sport and traveling around the world,” she said. “So being in airplanes was something I always loved.”

Agassi shared that sentiment, noting “it’s about efficiencies. I can do what I need to go and be back home for dinner, or to take the kids to school … But I’m always comfortable [up] there, too. While we jumped from continent to continent, literally sometimes from week to week, that part was always more enjoyable for me.”

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