Aviation loses truly an Ace of a Safety Expert John Kern

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John Kern recently died and aviation safety has lost one of its true experts. He mastered all of the disciplines needed to reduce airline safety risk by doing— decorated military pilot, airline pilot, ATC, inspector, regulator, FAA executive, airline senior officer and father. The term “master” connotes something mechanical and does not capture the enthusiasm, intensity and insight which John brought to his vocation and to his life outside of work. The name “Ace” used in the headline was not his job moniker; rather it is a nickname which his family applied to him for his exceptional caring for them, his friends, his hobbies, his country and his god.

ke22Kern was the son of a steel worker and a school teacher. Upon graduating from Moon Township High school, he enrolled at Washington College. There john started his flight training in the U.S. Army ROTC’s flight program. There the future pilot went to Washington County Airport and earned his pilot license. In 1964 upon graduation, he met his ROTC obligation by becoming a U.S. Army pilot in Vietnam.

There are lots of people who espouse that they have special insights into how airlines can reduce their risk exposure. There are few who can match John’s hands on experience:

    • MILITARY— low flying intelligence missions in Vietnam, where hostile fire was a constant threat, earned John a Bronze Star, an Air Medal with 21 Oak Leaf Clusters and a Distinguished Service Cross—those flights were lessons on how important attention to detail, training and strict adherence to procedures are critical to being available to fly again; [NOTE: at the time that John joined the service, the war was not very popular among his peers. The courage and sense of loyalty/duty it took to ignore his contemporaries and do the right thing are attributes which made him special.]
    • FAA INSPECTION OPERATIONS— where flying precisely is crucial to insuring that the landing, navigation, radar and communication systems are precisely calibrated; [NOTE: the author first met John when Kern was Manager NAFEC Flight Inspection Office. His work ethic and his singular attention to the details of that demanding job were extremely evident at this early point in his career.]
    • AIRLINE— Kern went through the rigorous flight training and then later flew the line as line pilot while an officer of the carrier;
  • ke99guiding flights as an AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER which underlined the critical safety and efficiency function of this position while personally experiencing the demands of the job;
  • INSPECTING AIRLINES during revenue flights, where he observed the interaction of exacting rules and demanding schedule and which helped formulate his future development of training programs like CRM;
  • REGULATING THEM FROM THE FAA HEADQUARTERS from increasingly significant positions, but doing so with the practical knowledge of the field as both an airline pilot and as a government inspector; the rules he wrote were uniquely practical in their articulation of standards as well as their application;
  • FLIGHT PROCEDURES and OPERATIONS SENIOR MANAGEMENT where he upgraded the airline’s cockpit and cabin performance by improving training, introducing new practices/creating a new safety culture (Cockpit Resource Management)
    • led a carrier with recognized serious problems to go for four years without a fatal accident and a 50% reduction of incidents
  • AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS AND CHIEF SAFETY OFFICER as an airline’s first senior officer for safety which allowed him to enhance all of the systems which support the professionals who are involved in flight.
  • REGULATORY COMPLIANCE AND CHIEF SAFETY OFFICER broadened his scope of responsibilities to include relations with safety regulators on a global basis, relations with industry to advocate appropriate standards and relations with the union and management on the Northwest Safety Committee.
  • ke11CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT OFFICE caused John to detract from his time in retirement in South Carolina and provide leadership for this intergovernmental body tying the Dept. of Transportation, FAA, the Dept. of Homeland Security, the Commerce Dept. TSA, NASA, Commerce and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the US military organizations together in a coordinated campaign to design and develop the technologies needed to build the ATC system for the future. So many different perspectives and priorities made the development of consensus difficult, if not impossible. John’s work on international safety matters contributed to his diplomatic skills, but the most telling attribute was the fact that everyone in the room must have acknowledged that Kern’s breadth and depth of experience exceeded all others. His voice, though never strident, was heard as the better view.

Those are not the achievements which one would find on an academic CV; that’s a track record of exceptional real accomplishments of which anyone would be proud, but only a very few can cite.

His service to aviation safety is exemplified by the following impressively long list of Boards and awards:

  • Blue Ribbon Panel on The Selection and Training of Pilots and Mechanics
  • Council of Aviation Accreditation, University Aviation Association
  • Northwest Aerospace Training Corporation, Board Member
  • Mesaba Airlines Board Member
  • Express Airlines Board Member
  • ARINC Board Member
  • National Aeronautics Association Board
  • International Association of Aviation Maintenance Professionals Board
  • MITRE Aviation Advisory Board
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, President’s Advisory Board
  • Washington & Jefferson College Trustee
  • Georgetown University Parents Council, School of Nursing and Health Sciences
  • Past Chair-Air Transport Association Safety Committee
  • Free Flight Task Force – Charter Member
  • Flight Safety Foundation
  • Member FAA and NASA R&D Advisory Committees
  • Executive Council NASA Aviation Safety Program
  • Member of various RTCA Working Groups
  • DOD-Military Airlift Committee Aviation Week’s 2000 L. Welch Pogue Award for Safety and Operations

If a biographer took the time to match the jobs which demanded so much from him with these collateral, yet critical contributions, the outline of his career would appear to exceed the normal hours of a lifetime. The resolution of that anomaly was the essence of this aviation safety professional. He attacked his inbox with extraordinary zeal and a passion to enhance the safety of aviation that he did more than meet these daunting challenges, but it is evident that his record exceeded what would be expected of mere mortals.

John had over 10,000 hours, both fixed and rotary wing flying the OV-1 Mohawk Intelligence Aircraft, the NW DC-9 and a B-757 for “therapy” while a VP at Northwest Airlines. He loved his time in the air and that enjoyment added to his dedication to his work.


His colleagues at the FAA and Northwest would have used the same nickname for he was an ace of a safety professional. In remembering John, I have carefully reviewed the 37 years during which we were colleagues. Every recollection of that time together is singular in the opinions of those who knew John—each and every person who associated with him only thought of John in positive, warm terms. The family dubbed him “ACE,” and to quote one of his progeny, John “was a loving, generous, devoted husband, father, grandfather, uncle, brother in law, and friend. His optimism and positive spirit will be greatly missed and never forgotten.” While the above chronology cannot fully capture John’s love of his family, this quote brilliantly describes in a few well-chosen words his impact on the segment to which John was most dedicated—his wife of 48 years, two daughters  son, daughter-in-law, four grandkids, brother and all he called dear. He was truly an Ace in his personal life.

Mr. Kern was an Ace in all dimensions of his life. His past contributions will be remembered; we are all better for having John as a friend and as an aviation safety expert.



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