November 1, 2005
By Bruce Landsberg
Bruce Landsberg, ASF executive director, has reported on the safety of general aviation since 1992.
Inform and engage or inflame and enrage? The general media's some-times-schizophrenic personality periodically affects aviation safety. Some of us from the Walter Cronkite generation have this quaint, naive view that people in responsible positions to inform, monolithically referred to as "the media," also should behave at least somewhat responsibly. That means having some understanding of the nature of the topic they are covering and, perhaps more important, of the motivations of those who would so freely provide information to them in hopes of shaping the message. What a silly notion!
We've all seen hatchet jobs done by newspapers, TV, Web outlets, and others that portray general aviation as a maniacal pursuit that will rain destruction on the populace from above. We're not talking about terrorist acts, but routine flight. What triggered these thoughts was a screaming front-page headline of a small-town newspaper. "Fatal Flights" and the tagline of "A closer look/airborne danger" purported to be an objective review of GA safety at the local airport. There were four pictures of destroyed aircraft and interviews with local "experts" to make the point that flight is dangerous and that the airport had shortcomings that ostensibly contributed to the carnage. Hold that thought — we'll get back to it shortly.
The opening paragraph described a foggy night when an inept instrument pilot attempted to land. The pilot's adult son noted that his father really shouldn't have been flying, and after I looked up the accident in the AOPA Air Safety Foundation accident database, I decided he was right. The weather was reported at 300 overcast and two miles — low but adequate for an ILS flown by a competent pilot. According to the accident report, the pilot flew the wrong way on the localizer and missed the approach. The airport was in a nonradar environment and when the pilot popped up again on the approach control frequency, the controller suggested a procedure turn to reverse course. Approaches always work better when flown in the proper direction. The pilot was cleared back to the advisory frequency, and the aircraft was then observed to turn right over the outer marker. It crashed a mile from the marker, well west of the localizer. The newspaper implied this accident could be an airport problem.
Mark Twain said, "Get your facts first and then distort them as much as you wish." The paper, apparently having difficulty with the facts, went straight for the distortions. Its "investigation" revealed the following: The airport had suffered more safety problems and complaints than comparable airports. There was no explanation of what constituted a safety "problem" or "complaint" or how it was determined what a comparable airport was. It was pointed out that five people had died in three crashes at the airport over the past 19 years. There had been no fatals in the past 13 years.
Now put this into perspective with car crashes, household accidents, medical mishaps, and the innumerable other risks of everyday life. We're talking losses on a monthly basis that likely exceed aviation losses for a decade. The risk in aviation is negligible compared to some other common activities when exposure is considered. On a per-mile or per-trip count we might not fare as well as we'd like, but most of us aren't aloft with anywhere near the same frequency compared to traveling in automobiles. The threat is the greatest, by far, to us as pilots and passengers — not to innocent bystanders — the newspaper's readers.
There was a modest attempt to explain the statistics by saying that 14 crashes dating back to 1966, mostly nonfatal, "involved planes taking off or landing at the airport but not all are attributed to the airport because they didn't happen there." Over the past 39 years there were 55 fatalities, but that included an Air Force KC-135 transport that blew up in midair at altitude while en route seven miles north of the airport, killing 21. Now remember, the premise of the article was about the safety of a small-town airport, but these last two statements have no bearing on the topic at hand. It does fill column inches and might sway opinions of the uninformed. Perhaps we're getting to the heart of the matter.
Another accident cited the pilot of a single-engine Cessna who had obtained a weather briefing the day before the flight but "forgot" to get an update when fog covered the airport, and the aircraft crashed somewhere in the county. The airport was to blame, obviously.
The article also grimly pronounced, "Future demands on the airport will increase safety risk," with no explanation as to why. A local pilot and self-proclaimed "expert" said that he understood the "danger." He referred to a near midair collision (NMAC) in which he was involved that might be loosely described as a formation takeoff about 200 feet behind the lead aircraft when another aircraft nearly landed on him. I always thought landing aircraft had the right of way and the federal aviation regulations seem to support this view, but somehow the expert seemed to have overlooked that. Another revelation: We are deluged with experts who aren't.
The bloodbath continued when two trainers collided on a taxiway at night, both with instructors and students on board. There were no injuries — but obviously there was another airport design flaw. Then follows an authoritative citing from the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) of 72 incidents, but they included numerous airspace infractions having nothing to do with the airport. The previously mentioned expert's NMAC is not to be found because, according to him, "The system is voluntary and many pilots won't file a report for fear of an administrative action." As a member of the NASA ASRS Advisory Subcommittee and having reasonable familiarity with the system, I find this distortion, despite Twain's recommendation, truly magnificent. We're talking The Pulitzer Prize for best fictional account in a news article.
Now we get to the politics. The article meandered for nearly two full pages before the real issue surfaced. It appears that the proponents of a control tower at this nontowered airport had found fertile ground at the local newspaper. These advocates needed a vehicle to project their views and the paper needed some breathless "facts" to stir up the local populace, if not the paper's circulation.
Towered airports certainly have their place as traffic reaches certain thresholds and safety is critical, but the reality of economics also has a place in the equation. It was noted that a tower would cost between $3 million and $5 million to erect, with an operating cost of about $500,000 annually. That would have to be made up in significant part by local funds through fees, tiedown and hangar rent, and fuel flowage taxes. There is no airline service nor is there likely to be, but there is a healthy mix of traffic including corporate, flight-training, glider, and experimental aircraft. A tower might be advisable but knowledgeable people should debate that on its merits. The various agendas should be out on the table in plain view. Let's have full disclosure, not "Fatal Flights" when there hasn't been one in recent memory.
Opinion and editorial pages are the places to have partisan and even reasonable discussion. It's entertaining, frequently maddening, and occasionally thought provoking. But when opinion masquerades as fact and a supposedly hard-news story is shot full of irrelevant supporting myths, the balance tips toward bias, untruth, and hidden agendas in the name of informing the public. That's not the way to make intelligent decisions on aviation or anything else. It's been said we are all ignorant, just on different subjects. My skepticism toward the general media is increased when intentioned editors start with an outcome and fit the story to it. Even if the public is largely apathetic, it doesn't want to be misled. There is, for sure, no safety in politics and we should strive to keep politics out of safety. Has anybody seen Walter lately?
AOPA's Airport Support Network is an excellent resource for local pilots to combat distortions as is the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's annual Joseph T. Nall Report on GA safety. It's available free online and in limited print quantities to educate pilots and media alike. There is also a link in AOPA's Airport Directory online that allows members access to the ASF accident database reports associated with an airport.
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