William C. Withycombe
William C. Withycombe

When some San Fernando Valley residents wanted to complain about helicopter noise last summer, they approached the regional office of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Part of the job of listening fell to William C. Withycombe, the agency's top administrator on the West Coast, a man with more than four decades of experience in the aviation industry.

His colleagues say he treated the situation like just about every other he has handled since joining the FAA in 1971 - with diplomatic aplomb.

"Bill never got flustered," said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA Pacific Division. "He listened patiently. He sincerely acknowledged everyone's concerns and pledged that we would do what we could do address those concerns."

At the next meeting, someone else will have to take the job of hearing out upset residents. Withycombe is retiring Thursday after 16 years as the FAA's lead administrator for Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and a collection of Pacific islands that include American Samoa and Guam. His colleagues say the job is known for being high stress and for having high turnover - the FAA's nine regional administrators usually switch every few years - but they say Withycombe has shown an unusual talent for leading the division's roughly 5,000 employees.

At 75, the Torrance resident has worked long past the age at which most administrators retire. But he said there's no great secret to why he has been able to last so long.


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"I wish I knew the secret myself," Withycombe said. "I think communication is what people relate to. If you tell the story well enough, people relate to it."

Since Withycombe joined the agency as an aviation inspector, there have been great changes in flight, many of which have involved advances in safety and technology.

He remembers when the flight crew of a Boeing 707 en route to Hawaii could only communicate with controllers using high-frequency radio, which did not always work well. And authorities on the ground could not always pinpoint exactly where the airplane was when it was flying over the ocean.

"Today, we can talk to that aircraft wherever they are," Withycombe said.

Locally, one of the Withycombe's greatest successes was working with officials at Los Angeles International Airport to increase the distance between two parallel runways on the south side of the field, allowing the airport to construct a taxiway between the two runways.

Officials say the new center taxi lane made the airport considerably safer, dramatically limiting the number of runway incursions at LAX.

"It made the airport more efficient and more safe," Withycombe said.

In retirement, Withycombe said he plans to continue to live in Torrance and will ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, travel more often to see his two grandchildren and work on his golf game. He'll also maintain memberships with the Lions Club and the Aero Club of Southern California.

Darlene Donahue, an administrative staff specialist who works directly with Withycombe, said her boss of three years will be missed.

"It's bittersweet," Donahue said. "We are happy for him he is retiring. But those are awfully big shoes to fill."

Mark McClardy, the FAA region's manager of airports, said Withycombe has a particular ability to show members of the public he understands their concern.

"I've never seen him get upset," McClardy said. "I'm like, `You have to get upset about something.' He's just a great leader. He's going to be missed. No doubt about it."

brian.sumers@dailybreeze.com

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