In the nearly seven years that have passed since Wilson Felder became the public face of the William J. Hughes Technical Center, the Federal Aviation Administration’s operation has received national and international recognition for the work done there.
That ranks as Felder’s chief accomplishment as he prepares to retire at the end of this week from his position as director of the nation’s only federal laboratory for air transportation systems.
“We no longer can say that we’re one of the best-kept secrets in South Jersey,” Felder said. “We have definitely succeeded in increasing the local, national and international reputation and stature of the center.”
The 66-year-old part-time Somers Point resident will leave the Egg Harbor Township facility with the second-longest tenure of any director in the center’s history. He has been at the forefront of the center’s operations as officials work to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System, a highly publicized program that has seen difficulties in maintaining a steady funding stream. The new, more efficient, satellite-based system is expected to cut fuel expenses and lessen air travel delays.
Felder said a recent nationwide demonstration led by the center exemplifies the publicity the operation has seen in recent years. The collaboration allowed federal officials from all over the country to use the center’s simulated servers to take part in a joint flying experience. A locally based air traffic controller could see all those taking part and communicate instructions to all of the pilots based from Virginia to California.
Felder said his choice to leave the center was prompted primarily by his personal life. Since joining the tech center in 2006, he and his wife, Laura, have spent a great deal of time apart as she’s continued to live in Chevy Chase, Md., where the couple resided prior to his appointment.
“She decided it was time for me to come back,” he said.
As Felder prepares to leave, the New York City native and son of a magazine editor said there’s no shortage of things remaining on his “to-do” list, many of which he said hopefully will be accomplished under a new director. A search process for Felder’s successor is under way.
“The problem is life goes on. There’s always a list of unfinished business,” Felder said. “I don’t regret anything; that would be silly. But there are a number of things that still need to be completed.”
His list is long. Felder mentions equipping U.S. Coast Guard helicopters with NextGen equipment, moving the U.S. Marshals Service into a larger space, and seeing the eventual development of a hotel and conference facility by the South Jersey Transportation Authority, all without missing a beat. Each of those organizations is located on the campus of the tech center, with the FAA serving as the landlord.
The FAA is also landlord to the planned NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park, a project that has faced a number of hurdles since the 2005 announcement that the park would bring 2,000 high-paying jobs to the area.
Construction has yet to start on the first of seven planned buildings following revelations earlier this year that the South Jersey Economic Development District at the forefront of the project had fallen into significant debt, and working relationships with the six other stakeholder entities had deteriorated.
In recent months, the park’s board has made progress on several legal and financial steps that need to be taken to ensure the project can move forward. Felder, who is a nonvoting member of the park’s board, said he has been encouraged by the progress that has been made and said he believes the project is very close to taking significant steps forward.
“One of the interesting and frustrating things for me has been to observe the way in which the divergent interests that make up the park deal with each other. There has been progress, but I’d like to see even more progress,” Felder said. “It’s going to take a little bit of an act of faith ... There’s certainly not a lack of resources or drive.”
A project such as the park will go a long way toward growing the region’s economy, stressed Felder, adding that be believes aviation industry growth will take the region further than growth in other industries.
“Hospitality and health care are economic engines that can be put anywhere. They’re important, but they’re not unique,” Felder said. “There is not a place like (the tech center) anywhere else. It’s my belief that if this community could get behind aviation, good things could happen economically.”
Ron Esposito, executive director of the NextGen park, said Felder’s support of the project has been key.
“He believes in the vision of the park. He believes in the values of joint research in efforts to advance the aviation sciences, and he hasn’t wavered from that vision,” said Esposito, who was acting director of the tech center prior to Felder’s appointment.
Prior to his time with the FAA, Felder spent more than two decades in the private sector with TRW Inc., where he finished his tenure as vice president of aviation services. A jump from the private sector to the public sector isn’t often seen, but Felder’s career path has hardly been predictable. He earned degrees in geology and environmental science and penned a doctoral dissertation on beach erosion before spending four years at sea with the U.S. Navy.
But he promises that he won’t stray far from the aviation community in his retirement. He said two Washington, D.C.-based part-time jobs, one in academia and one with a consulting company, are likely in his future, although he was not able to release details.
“I think you will find I will continue to have a voice in aviation, and I will continue to have a voice in the state of New Jersey,” Felder said. “I’m physically moving to Washington, but I’m not emotionally moving. I’m invested in things that are going on here.”
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