Legend of ATC Development passes
Made FAA-MITRE relationship more effective
Highly qualified engineer brought “political” skills to project
By Joe DelBalzo
Dr. John J. Fearnsides, “Jack”, who recently died, may not be a household name outside of aviation circles but is a legend recognized by aviation leaders, in government and out, as having had a major influence in the modernization of the ATC system in the United States.
Jack and I first met in early 1990 when I arrived in Washington to serve as FAA Executive Director for System Development. At the time he was Vice President and General Manager of the MITRE Corporation and Director of its Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, CAASD.
Together we faced three challenges):
- Tension between FAA and MITRE about failures in the ATC modernization program, the cause and who was to blame.
- Tension between Congress and FAA about FAA’s lack of progress.
- Tension between Congress and MITRE about the independent oversight provided by MITRE over the FAA modernization program.
( quote from
Moving from Complicated to Complex: An Organizational Transformation Marc Narkus-Kramer April 2019)
“MITRE, and thus CAASD, is a non-profit Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation (FFRDC). Its responsibility is not to shareholders 2 but to Congress and the American people. It is expected to provide independent assessments regardless of our immediate sponsor’s positions. We failed to uphold the responsibility of oversight and assessment and that was the genesis of the crisis of MITRE/CAASD. Congress concluded that money shouldn’t be spend on MITRE/CAASD since we had been so ineffective. Congress was ready to zero out our funding”.
Jack’s insights on all three issues were incredibly accurate; ego and arrogance on both sides, MITRE’s willingness to please and not criticize the FAA client, distrust on both sides and lack of a working partnership.
What Jack brought to the table was more then simply technical credibility. Although trained as an engineer with a BS and a PhD from the University of Maryland, he was truly a man for all seasons. He brought with him political skills from his past assignments at the U.S. Department of Transportation, serving as Deputy Under Secretary and Chief Scientist, Executive Assistant to the Secretary, and Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs. Because he was softer, more politically sensitive, and more receptive, he was able to give people what they needed to think and behave differently.
As a result, over the course of two years Jack was able to make a major positive difference in the culture, the attitudes and the FAA/CAASD working relationship; all of which led to increased trust, continued congressional support of the MITRE CAASD role and most importantly a significantly better managed ATC modernization program.
He was a Partner and Chief Strategist, MJF Strategies, LLC. Until 1999, he was Vice President and General Manager of the MITRE Corporation and Director of its Center for Advanced Aviation System Development. He was a National Science Foundation Fellow and a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the National Academy of Public Administration. He served on numerous NRC and TRB committees, including the Committee for a Review of the National Automated Highway System Consortium Research Program and Committee for a Study on Air Passenger Service and Safety Since Deregulation.
If one needed a role model for whom JFK had in mind when he said, “One man can make a difference” no need to look beyond Dr. John J. Fearnsides. Thank you, Jack for making a difference.
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