The doctor is in

October 1, 1993

It takes a certain amount of confidence to fly. Many pilots will take on turbulence, a hot new aircraft, and tough weather without flinching, but taking a test on the changes in the airspace we fly in proved to be daunting to many intrepid souls.

The venue was the AOPA tent at Oshkosh where the AOPA Air Safety Foundation offered pilots a chance to sit down, get a cool drink of water, and test their knowledge on the new ABC labeling of airspace. The procedure was as nonthreatening as could be: Take a multiple-choice, open-book quiz such as the cloud clearance requirements in Class B airspace — it's changed from the 500 below, etc., to clear of clouds. When is Class D airspace in effect? When the associated control tower is in operation. Then it was time to see the airspace doctor over at another table. There, the quiz would be graded, and the patient's knowledge diagnosed, followed by some friendly counsel and a prescription if the new system was giving the pilot heartburn. Typically, a 15-minute review on how to fly in the new airspace was enough to get the patient feeling better, if not fully cured.

The really serious cases were given a prescription to see "Operation Airspace," the foundation's new two-hour seminar on how to fly in the VFR system, which will be offered this fall and winter around the country.

For a surprising number of pilots, you would have thought that a proctological examination was the penalty for not knowing the basics of VFR airspace. For many, the thought of rapping about airspace with an anonymous instructor was too painful to even contemplate.

There were procrastinators who said they'd get to it before the change took effect. The word has been out for more than a year, and the charts have been reflecting the changes as they were republished. Learn it in the last month? Yeah, sure.

There was the "I fly IFR wherever I go" crowd — "I never touch the VFR system; colored charts give me hives." I used to do that until I started flying in a nonradar environment where, on a beautiful day, another IFR inbound to the departure airport could easily cause a 20- minute delay. Wasting time and avgas under those conditions gives me hives.

There were the bluffers who said, "I know all that stuff." When a companion of the opposite sex challenged the omniscient one to prove it, there were a few gaps that needed to be filled in. That person stayed with the airspace doctor for nearly 45 minutes and came away with a whole new understanding. Presumably, the ego was not damaged irreparably.

There were the political activists who wanted to reopen the negotiations with the FAA and ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization). They were mad as hell about the new system. How could this have come to pass?

There were some old-timers who were still mad as hell about the old system and hadn't heard about the changes. The Rip Van Winkle approach to learning the airspace has seldom proven to be effective, but they weren't dissuaded.

There were the technology buffs with loran and GPS gear who swore the resident onboard database would save their bacon from airspace transgressions. The Feds have already disproven that theory, but who's to argue with a $3,500 piece of avionics except a government lawyer?

Finally, there were some honest folk who plainly admitted that they didn't know the airspace and didn't want to embarrass themselves. Confession is said to be good for the soul, and in aviation, admitting ignorance before getting into a trying situation is an excellent tactic.

The average score was about 70 percent on the quiz, with the grade curve skewed heavily toward the low side. Only five pilots out of about 225 aced the test. And there must have been at least 100 who declined the opportunity to be diagnosed.

One can indulge in some philosophical arguments on the merits of the changes. In some areas, there really have been significant improvements to make this business of separating VFR and IFR traffic a little easier. For example, the invisible airport traffic area is gone — replaced by a segmented blue line that shows the boundaries and the attitudes below which communication is required. We call it Class D. The old vocabulary may have been more descriptive, and it dies hard, but the underlying reasons — avoiding collisions — haven't changed at all.

Places like San Diego and Cerritos, California, are burned in the memories of many of us. The political fallout from airline and light aircraft collisions is very bad for general aviation, regardless of who may have been at fault. Learning the airspace and knowing how to interact with the system goes a long way toward achieving satisfaction. It's not perfect, and there are places for improvement. AOPA and the ASF continue to explore new methods, just as medical science continues to look for better cures.

If you're still uncertain about airspace and, from the Oshkosh experiment, many of you are, there are three suggestions to ease the pain: (1) Send a 6 x 9-inch, self-addressed, stamped envelope with 52 cents postage to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Attention: Airspace Doctor, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick Maryland 21701, and we'll send you a free booklet on airspace. (2) When "Operation Airspace" comes to a city near you, invest a few hours. It will be advertised by direct mail through the FAA Accident Prevention Program. We think you'll be entertained and guarantee a better understanding of how the system works. (3) Visit your local CFI or accident prevention counselor.

The medical analogy is appropriate. Many people who feel ill avoid professional help for fear that the doctor may find something. It sure appears that the pilot population has the same fear. In both cases, it is self-defeating, and reality doesn't change just because we choose to ignore it. Appearing naked before a doctor, physically or psychologically, may seem embarrassing to the patient, but the doctor sees hundreds of us in various states of undress. His or her purpose is not to humiliate, but to help whatever affliction, if any, is bothering the patient. The airspace doctor will see you now.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.