Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), a fierce general aviation advocate whose efforts ranged from maneuvering in the early 1990s to clear the way for passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) to making a deal with pal and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) on a pilot bill of rights, is retiring after a 36-year congressional career.
On Friday, Inhofe, who is 87, confirmed his decision to retire on Jan. 3, 2023, saying he had written a letter to Oklahoma Secretary of State Brian Bingman announcing his plans. Since he is retiring with four years left into his term, Oklahoma will hold a special election for a successor.
He called the decision bittersweet but one made “with a clear heart” and recalled that entering public service “was never in my plan.” He planned to build a family business, but said, “then, one day, I needed a dock permit. I had to visit 27 government offices to get a single dock permit and realized if we wanted the government to work for the people, not against the people, it was up to us to make a change.”
Currently ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe has long been a pilot who remained focused on the general aviation industry.
First elected to the House of Representatives in 1986, He propelled into the forefront of the general aviation community in 1993 when he used a little-known discharge petition procedure that brought transparency to the handling of GARA, forcing lawmakers to openly declare their support or opposition. This cleared the way for a full House vote.
In 1994, he moved over to the Senate, but his support for general aviation continued, fighting battles for airport infrastructure, against user fees and raised taxes, and for aviation workforce initiatives, among many other issues.
He made headlines in 1999 when he lost a propeller on his Grumman Tiger while en route to an event in Oklahoma City with then-President Bill Clinton and was forced to make an emergency landing in Claremore, Oklahoma. In a twist, after the propeller was discovered, a person brought it to the airport to find the owner; that person turned out to be an old high school buddy of Inhofe’s who hadn’t seen him in years. While staff teased Inhofe that he was just trying to get out of an event with Clinton, they didn’t realize he was flying in his single-engine Tiger. They thought he was in the twin Cessna T303 Crusader. When that was raised, Inhofe quipped that he would’ve flown on to the event if in the twin.
Inhofe again made headlines for another mishap, this time when he allegedly landed his Cessna 340 on a closed runway at Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport in Port Isabel, Texas. He ultimately agreed to remedial pilot training in lieu of an enforcement action, but the chain of events surrounding the landing—he claimed there was no notam and it took him four months to get the voice recording—led Inhofe to fight for pilot rights. That culminated in two pilot’s bill of rights measures to bolster protections in face of enforcement cases, among other measures. The first to be passed was a stand-alone bill in the Senate, a rarity for the chamber, but one enabled by Reid, Inhofe’s political rival but personal friend.
A third more tragic incident occurred in 2013 involving Inhofe’s son, Dr. Perry Inhofe, who died after his Mitsubishi MU-2B crashed near Owasso, Oklahoma.
While on a national stage, Inhofe has been known for his outspoken stances on the environment and steering national defense issues. But lately he has been fighting spectrum issues, including efforts against Ligado’s intended us of L-Band near the specturm used by GPS. This has raised concerns over potential for interference. He has also jumped into the fight to protect flight training involving warbirds.