Road trip

April 1, 2000

There are those who would, under the guise of safety, legislate light aircraft out of the skies or severely restrict the freedom to fly. Questions are asked by the ill-informed about whether light-airplane pilots are sufficiently trained to operate in the same sky with heavy iron. When general aviation can point to ongoing training and education that is available to all pilots, it is much easier to defuse those arguments. One of the most visible activities of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation is its national public service safety seminar program. Over the past decade, ASF has conducted literally thousands of free seminars designed to help pilots learn some of the finer points of aviation. The seminar program is one of the finest offensive weapons in our education arsenal. It is also generally underused.

The John F. Kennedy Jr. accident last summer occupied a significant part of the media's attention and many questions were asked about the training of GA pilots. I was pleased to point out that in the five years preceding this accident, ASF had conducted more than 1,000 free seminars on the topic of weather decision making, which was one speculative cause of that accident. The point was, and is, that the information is there for those who want to take advantage of it. In aviation, ignorance is most assuredly not bliss.

Based on our statistics, it is safe to say that the majority of pilots have not attended a safety program in the past year or three. Reading about safety is popular, either in print or electronically. The ASF Web site has thousands of hits each day, but for pure enjoyment, interactivity, and sometimes gripping suspense, a live ASF seminar is not something to miss. Sometimes it's good to get out from behind the keyboard or look up from a book to interact with real people.

The topics are chosen by analyzing accident statistics and surveying pilots. The balance is in providing programs that people want to attend with information that they need to know. Recent topics have included weather decision making, low-level maneuvering flight, understanding airspace, using GPS, and IFR procedures. We use video segments to set up a scenario and then encourage the audience to participate. Lecture seminars convey much information, but many people aren't engaged — nor do they learn as well. Everyone in the audience has something to contribute — some more than others. It is not a time to be judgmental but to allow people to learn from each other. Typically, there will be more than 50,000 flight hours of experience in the room. You can be sure that someone has likely made the same mistake, or at least contemplated it.

Putting on a live program means putting yourself at risk in a variety of ways, and all our instructors have stories to tell. One airline misplaced a presenter's luggage, so she conducted an instructor refresher course in a borrowed maid's uniform, with the name of the hotel and the maid's name embroidered on the front. Most of the attendees wisely avoided any remarks about housekeeping.

Another staff member spent an all-expenses-paid week in South Dakota in February. South Dakota has some beautiful scenery, especially at other times of the year, but he didn't get to see much of it. He became well-acquainted with blizzards and a local phenomenon known only to those who inhabit windy Snowbelt areas. Snirt is a mixture of snow and dirt that will overpower almost any rental car windshield washer in existence. The local radio station broadcast a snirt alert to prepare the populace.

One program in 1998 was a classic snafu. We can laugh about it — now. ASF was conducting several courses in Newark, New Jersey, one weekend, and one set of slides was inadvertently left behind. A former employee, to whom I am still indebted, strapped on a Cessna 172 and flew them up from Maryland in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, the lead instructor hurt his back moving equipment and was taken to the hospital because they thought he was having a heart attack. He wasn't. The doctors gave him a muscle relaxant, which made him a bit loony, but he presented the course anyway. Someone pointed him toward the audience and propped him up on a stool, but he got through it. A few critiques mentioned that the instructor didn't seem "quite fully engaged" in the subject. A wingman in the form of a second presenter was standing by. It's not the way we like to do business, but the show did go on.

One place where the crowds do turn out is at AOPA Expo. ASF frequently debuts major new programs there. One year the auditorium was packed with more than 400 people. The house lights went down, and the music came up with the thundering soundtrack from Top Gun. The 20-foot screen filled with a cockpit view of an F-16 rolling in on a target. This mutated into a Beech Bonanza buzz job of a house. The scene was set for disaster, with some nearby power lines that the pilot failed to consider. The electricity of the moment became much less when the power in the entire convention center failed. Our seasoned team went into manual mode, noting that we really hadn't planned to take down the convention center. It was a coincidence, honest. That show, with heavy audience participation, was a rousing success in discussing the dangers of low-level maneuvering flight — particularly in the dark.

In the early 1990s, the 35-mm slide projector was the workhorse. It was simple and almost bulletproof, except for an occasional blown bulb. In recent years, the programs have transitioned to computer graphics and video. The potential for gremlins goes up exponentially, but this allows us great flexibility in programming. Presenters travel with an arsenal of adapters, and usually carry our own video projectors because the industry standard is not yet standard. Rentals are very expensive, and borrowed equipment is fraught with peril unless it is tested well in advance. VCRs eat tapes, the house lights won't dim properly, public-address systems sound as if they are crammed with marshmallows, and sometimes there is a revival meeting or bagpipe recital going on in the next room. Hallelujah! Safety does put people in the spirit. When you're alive, the possibilities for adventures are limitless — just like flying.

Anyone who has ever produced videotape knows the effort and expense that goes into making a quality product. When ASF was creating "Weather Tactics," a program that provides pilots with some pointers on flying around thunderstorms and other weather phenomena, we needed considerable cloud footage of big ugly ones. A business trip to the Midwest, with a camcorder on board, coincided perfectly with a week of convection. There were storms on every leg of the trip. To sidle up to the edge of a 40,000-foot CB at a safe distance, admire the cauliflower, negotiate with ATC, fumble with the camera, and remember that the safety of the airplane took priority was a great education for me.

When local pilots walk into an ASF safety seminar, they are seeing the culmination of months of effort. ASF, frequently working with state and local aviation organizations, begins the planning process months in advance. The auditorium has to be scheduled, and notification of the pilots must be coordinated. ASF has a great partnership with the FAA's Aviation Safety Program that has spanned the past two decades. It plays an invaluable role by advertising the program and helping on-site. Volunteers for both the FAA and ASF contribute substantially to the process by helping to move equipment, usher in attendees, and even provide refreshments on occasion. There is usually an opportunity to win door prizes donated by some safety-spirited corporate friends. Not bad for a "free" program.

Alas, the free lunch isn't quite. Each year we invest about $650,000 to produce and conduct the programs, but ASF receives only about 10 percent of its annual funding from AOPA. The voluntary member dollar covers about $355,000 of a $4.5 million budget. So we must raise much of the rest from individual pilots who are willing to make a charitable, tax-deductible contribution. About 10 percent of AOPA's membership donates, but this program is beneficial to all pilots directly and indirectly.

A few states and some corporate sponsors participate in matching-grant programs with ASF, which really help to stretch donor dollars. We're working to add more, since this is one of the most cost-effective ways to deliver high-quality safety information. Proceeds from the ASF holiday card program and the online auction all go to fund seminars, but without pilot support, the number of programs must be limited. The demand for seminars always outstrips our economic ability to provide them. The most populated areas generate the biggest audiences, so like Willie Sutton, the bank robber, we go where the pilots are. Sometimes scheduling and funding will allow a smaller venue.

The GA accident rate has been dropping steadily. Coincidence? Perhaps. It is hard to tie seminar attendance to accidents that didn't happen, because there is only anecdotal evidence. But the reactive or "tombstone" approach to safety leaves a lot to be desired. It's much better to tell the world, the media, and the legislators that our industry offers hundreds of free safety seminars every year as a preventive measure, open to every pilot. I hope this has sparked your interest and that you'll watch for a flier in the mail when ASF comes to town. If you are a seminar regular, bring along pilot friends who don't have the seminar habit. Check out a seminar program and plan to include ASF in your philanthropic plans this year. Every dollar helps.

The ASF safety seminar calendar and a wealth of other safety information are available on the ASF Web site or by calling 800/USA-AOPA (800/872-2672). See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.