John Baker was an Air Force fighter pilot who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in Korea. When he came to Washington a few years later, he kept firing.

As the chief spokesman for general aviation -- the little guys in aviation -- no one ever had to ask his opinion or wonder what he thought. He was always direct.

Baker recently retired after 14 years as president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). That ended a Washington career that began in 1962 as an aviation trial attorney in the Justice Department and progressed through a career as a Senate staff member, Transportation Department congressional liaison and Federal Aviation Administration assistant administrator before joining AOPA in 1974, becoming president in 1978.

During his tenure, AOPA became known for doggedly protecting the rights of the private pilot. Few have escaped his ire, often delivered with cutting wit. As retirement approached, he gave a farewell talk to reporters, allowing him some parting shots at official Washington.

"The staff really felt I needed group therapy before I left town," he said.

Here is a sample of Baker's remarks:

An overview: "Those of us in aviation, in all segments of aviation, have done a lousy job and we're leaving a poor legacy for those that come behind us. And that for me is a kind of soul-crushing posture. . . . We've been lousy advocates for a wonderful product. . . . When I look back at the last 10 years, in terms at least of infrastructure investment, I see nothing but a myriad of lost opportunities. We've essentially wasted 10 years. We've wasted 10 years with a nonworking air traffic modernization {program}. We've wasted 10 years in terms of airport expansion. We've wasted 10 years in terms of selling aviation to the American public."

Air traffic control modernization: "Unfortunately, the plan that was put together was superficial. The plan that was put together was oversold. And clearly the FAA lacked the competence to manage a plan of that magnitude.

"It was sold as being the second-largest governmental undertaking in the history of man, second only to the moon shot. It was a $11.8 billion program. We have spent $10 billion of that $11.8 billion. We have bought nothing. We've seen the completion date of the system slip into the '90s, and that's being charitable. Most of this program I don't believe will be in place by the year 2000. . . . "

Congress: "Congress is also at fault because they are the only vehicle for oversight on this particular program. And when it became apparent early on that we were on the way to making the $700 toilet seat over at the Department of Defense look like one of the all-time great bargains, no one on the Hill exercised the stewardship necessary to protect the public's interest and the users' interest."

The Transportation Department and Secretary Samuel K. Skinner: "If there has ever been an operation that epitomized amateur hour, that's got to be it. As far as I know, we've got not one aviation professional in the management side of the department. . . . "

The administration's national transportation strategy report: "Two and a half years ago, or three years ago now . . . I started a push to try and create a national aviation policy. When Sam Skinner came along and we were still talking to each other, he thought it was a hell of an idea, and he went me one better. He attempted to fold that into the masterful national transportation policy, which we currently have.

"I went to the White House when the president announced that policy, and it was the only announcement I've ever been to at the White House where the president held his nose with one hand and the report at arm's length with the other. Because it's never been heard from since. And the reason it's not been heard from is because it's not a strategic plan for the future. All it is is a patent attempt by the administration, very transparent, to transfer federal responsibility to the localities and the states. . . . What DOT has become is nothing more than a conduit from the OMB {Office of Management and Budget}."

The Federal Aviation Administration: "I happened to be in the FAA when we went from the independent agency to, to, I'm not quite sure how you describe what it is now -- a wart on the rear of the Department of Transportation. Because it's no longer an autonomous agency. . . . It's been politicized to the point where it lacks the courage and the confidence to stand up and say anything . . . . "

Himself: "I guess the biggest disappointment I've had is my inability to influence some of the things I feel so strongly about. . . . By and large, I'm leaving town with the belief I gave it a pretty good shot. . . . I'm retiring early at my option. . . .

"My song has been sung so often that I'm sure I'm tuned out in a lot of quarters, even if I'm right. They've just heard it so long and I say it so stridently and sufficiently ugly that it offends people. So I think you ought to go before you wear your welcome out."