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A Passionate Pilot Charts FAA's Path

Mary Peters, transportation secretary, with acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell at a news conference in April. Sturgell addressed a report last month that said a manager had covered up mistakes made by air traffic controllers in Texas.
Mary Peters, transportation secretary, with acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell at a news conference in April. Sturgell addressed a report last month that said a manager had covered up mistakes made by air traffic controllers in Texas. "A higher standard is expected of us," he said. At right, Sturgell with son Ben, 6, during a break in lacrosse action. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
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By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Robert A. Sturgell, like many busy parents, tries very hard to make it to his son's lacrosse practices and games after work. He and his wife, Lynn, work to keep up their old farmhouse in Owings, as neighboring farms turn into subdivisions.

However, Sturgell, 48, has had to delay his plans to coach 6-year-old Ben's team. His schedule as acting chief of the Federal Aviation Administration -- testifying on Capitol Hill, traveling to Oklahoma City to oversee air traffic controller training, among other duties -- has made it difficult to take on coaching.

"It is hard work, but it is nice when you actually enjoy it," Sturgell said last week in his FAA office, where nearly every surface holds a model airplane. "There are parts that you don't enjoy, but at the end of the day and in the big scheme of things, it is a great job to have."

Sturgell said he has been intrigued with flying since he was a boy in Deale, but it wasn't until he attended the U.S. Naval Academy and became a Navy pilot that his interest in flying became serious.

"It is just pure fun," Sturgell said. "It is challenging. It is always dynamic. No flight is ever the same. It involves a lot of skill."

With 20 years of flying military planes and nearly six more piloting commercial airliners, Sturgell has an extensive aviation résumé. He said that he has not flown a plane for two years but that he hopes to take one up this summer.

Sturgell graduated from the academy in 1982 and was a member of VF-51, an F-14 squadron, until 1991. He was a graduate of and later an instructor at the Top Gun program, the Navy's Fighter Weapons School. When he left active duty, he enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia and served until 2002 with a Navy reserve squadron based in Oceania, Va.

After graduating from law school in 1994, he joined a D.C. firm that focused on aviation law. He practiced for about two years before deciding flying was more fun. He took a job with United Airlines, serving as a flight operations supervisor and a line pilot until 2002.

In 1998, Sturgell ran unsuccessfully for the Maryland Senate, challenging Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

On Sept. 11, 2001, Sturgell was flying for United. His wife, Lynn, was working for American Airlines at the time.

"Like many others, I was looking for a way to contribute after 9/11. I reached out to some folks in town and ended up at the National Transportation Safety Board, working as the senior adviser to the chairman," Sturgell said.

Six months later, the chairman, Marion Blakey, was selected to be the administrator for the FAA and Sturgell followed her there, where he was appointed deputy administrator. When Blakey left, Sturgell moved up.

"It is funny," he said. "Some people have careers for 45, 30 years with the same company or organization. . . . I never planned my life that way.

"When opportunities come," he added, "I take them. When this opportunity showed, I figured it would never happen again."

He works with Congress, the White House, the U.S. Department of Transportation and 46,000 FAA employees on an agenda that includes bringing modern technology to commercial air travel, handling the growing volume of air traffic and addressing the rising cost of jet fuel.

"There will be disagreement on the right way to do it, but at the end of the day you have got to be able to work out those differences in order to improve the safety and efficiency of the system," he said.

Disagreements over the FAA's performance surfaced very publicly last month after disclosure that an agency inspector general's report concluded that managers had covered up mistakes by air traffic controllers at a Texas facility. That controversy followed criticism of the FAA for lax oversight of airline maintenance programs and their compliance with safety mandates.

Sturgell described the inspector general's report as "disturbing" during a news conference. "A higher standard is expected of us," he said last month.

Airline mergers, new aircraft and the changing face of security are all part of his agency's responsibilities.

"Public service, I think, is something everybody ought to try and do at some point in their lives, in one way or another. You can do a number of things to help out," Sturgell said. "I think when you are in government, you truly do have opportunities to make a difference."

When he does get time to himself, he wants to get back on the golf course with his wife and son. He said he looks forward to catching a few rockfish this summer with a captain from Happy Harbor in Deale, taking a stroll on North Beach's boardwalk and spending an afternoon in Solomons.

"I grew up in Southern Maryland, and I haven't found a better place to live," he said, noting that Calvert County is close to the water and to major cities, but still has its country roots. Most of his family members still live within five miles of one another, he said. "It is just a nice atmosphere."

In the fall, he plans to get Ben into a football uniform.

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