When L. Welch Pogue was born, the Wright brothers were running a bicycle shop in Dayton. But as Franklin D. Roosevelt's aviation point man in 1944, Pogue cobbled together the compromise regulatory scheme that governs international aviation to this day.
On Monday, the 100-year-old Pogue--aided only by a cane--walked to the podium in the same hotel ballroom where the world's fledgling aviation nations reached their historic agreement on Dec. 7, 1944. He brought down the house with his wry memory of 1944, and his vision for aviation's future.
He had a prediction for the representatives of 93 nations gathered here to search for ways to improve on the 1944 Chicago Convention: The next great leap forward in aviation will be to find a way to treat passengers with honesty and dignity.
"In some ways, Lord, we need it," he said.
Few of the millions of passengers who fly the world each year have even heard of the Chicago Convention, but it is one of the postwar world's most enduring agreements, opening the skies of most of the world to peaceful passage of aircraft and setting up rules for air traffic control and the formation of aviation treaties between nations.
With Germany and Japan clearly losing World War II, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill saw that commercial aviation would dominate travel in the new world order. They invited representatives of 55 nations--not including the Axis powers--to the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, now the Chicago Hilton.
The war had proved the worth of aviation, and FDR wanted to create a world where commercial aircraft of one nation could fly to any other nation without restriction.
"He wanted a world agreement right now, establishing air routes all over the world," Pogue said. But "the times were out of joint for such a leap into the future."
For five weeks, the delegates haggled.
Australia and New Zealand came up with a plan for a single worldwide airline. That went nowhere. Britain came up with the idea of an international civil aeronautics board that would determine routes, conditions of service and fares. Nope, not that either.
In the end, the American side came up with the final compromise: The commercial aspects of international aviation would be governed by bilateral treaties, and international aviation safety standards would be set by the new International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal.
The International Air Transit Treaty was agreed to, allowing peaceful flight through the airspace of any country, even if there is no treaty allowing flight to and from the country.
"I can't take the time to tell you how chaotic the world was before that treaty," he said.
There were many side agreements. For instance, the international language of air traffic control became English. After all, this was a conference dominated by the United States and Britain. To this day, a French pilot landing in Moscow, for instance, converses with the controller in English.
Pogue, born in Grant, Iowa, on Oct. 21, 1899, was well on his way up the legal profession, when aviation caught his attention. One of his clients was Bell Aircraft Co. He moved to Washington and joined the staff of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, later the Civil Aeronautics Board. Roosevelt appointed him chairman in 1942.
In 1946, he returned to law practice and retired in 1981. He lives today in suburban Maryland and frequently attends aviation events.
He takes his notoriety in stride. When the applause died down after a lengthy introduction by Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater on Monday, he said, "I just wish Mom and Pop was here."
He told the delegates, basically, that it is time to get working on Roosevelt's dream. First, he said, must come an end to nationalistic claims of sovereignty over airspace. "The sovereignty of airspace stands in the way of all liberalized agreements," he said.
Pogue predicted that, as an interim step, the world would divide itself into regions for air traffic purposes. It will be slow, he said, but "don't give up in despair. Turn to those things that are possible."
CAPTION: Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater, left, and L. Welch Pogue at Chicago aviation event Monday.