In the 99-year history of powered flight it would be hard to pick the worst year, but these past 12 months are near the top of every pilot’s list. Frustrated is the word that sums up the way most of us feel.
Though much of aviation has returned to near normal, a cloud of suspicion hangs over airplanes and the people who fly them. The fact that a relatively small number of machines, and the tiny group of people who fly them, would become the focus of thousands of new federal government employees spending billions of dollars is amazing. Mention terrorism, or its flip side, security, and instantly a picture of an airplane and airport flashes onto television, and thus leaps into most people’s minds.
In two of the three major terrorist incidents in modern U.S. history, trucks were the tool used to deliver the weapon. But is anybody being searched and harassed by security types to drive or ride in a truck? See what I mean about pilots’ frustration?
But then we always knew-even if we were too modest to proclaim it-that airplanes are different. Pilots enjoy the glamour and mystique of flying, knowing that we can do something that only one-quarter of one percent of the people in the United States are qualified to do. We are now enduring the downside of our special position. There are barely more than 600,000 of us, a number easily exceeded by the combined federal, state and local authorities who are paying attention to aviation security.
Adding to the irony is the fact that pilots are the most patriotic and law-abiding group in the nation. And I can’t think of any other activity or profession that requires such constant personal review by the government as the price of participation even before the September 11th attacks.
But enough whining. Tilting against public and government opinion of aviation gets us nowhere. Grounding airplanes and sealing off chunks of airspace without notice, consultation or even an announced reason, has happened over the past year and will continue to happen into the future. The only path open to us is to fly high so as not to frighten the public and police and keep our heads down in order to draw as little attention as possible.
In this year of aviation crisis EAA’s AirVenture at Oshkosh was more important than ever. And the EAA, the FAA and pilots came through perfectly when needed most.
It was the 50th EAA convention and, in view of the events of September 11th, the most important ever. AirVenture is the national showcase for aviation, and it was crucial that we not screw up. And we didn’t.
By all quantifiable measures, participation in AirVenture was up from 2001. There were more show airplanes and camping airplanes registered. Exhibits by manufacturers were up. And aviation operations of all types were greater in number than the year before. It takes time to tabulate the total number of people who attend the event over the seven days, but overall attendance appeared to be up.
Nobody at EAA knew exactly what to expect given the uncertainty that wracked aviation for the past year, but at AirVenture everything appeared to be back to normal. And the government didn’t interfere. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is responsible for so many aviation restrictions, stayed away, leaving it to the EAA and FAA to conduct AirVenture in the efficient, friendly and patriotic way we have all come to expect.
Good fortune played a small part, but I know that it was extra effort by everybody participating in AirVenture that led to a totally incident free week. There were no accidents at or near Wittman Field, or even around the country involving pilots on their way to Oshkosh. The weather covered the usual range of summer possibilities, including thunderstorms, drizzle, heat, low clouds, and, early in the convention, spectacular weather with crystal clear skies and highs in the 70s. If an excuse for a mishap had been needed, the weather could have provided it. But the best efforts of the EAA, FAA and all of the pilots who participated meant that Oshkosh didn’t attract a single negative story.
AirVenture did, however, generate some of the most positive and widespread publicity in years.
The first was a front page story in The Wall Street Journal that detailed the unique air traffic procedures that the FAA and EAA have developed to move thousands of airplanes in and out of Oshkosh. The story focused on the volunteer controllers and told how Oshkosh was their Super Bowl and Olympics rolled into one. Many, many non-pilots commented to me after reading the story that they knew Oshkosh was special, but they had no idea how creative the EAA and controllers have been to make it possible. And the Journal was careful to note that there hasn’t been a collision between two airplanes under FAA control at Oshkosh yet. And that’s the product of pilots and controllers all playing at the top of their game.
The other positive publicity for AirVenture was done by CBS News for its Sunday morning news program. The networks have stopped by Oshkosh many times, but this was the first lengthy feature that covered the show, from homebuilts to warbirds to powered parachutes, and the people who love them and fly them. The report was sensitive to aviation’s unwarranted notoriety following September 11th, and every pilot interviewed came through perfectly with the sensible attitude toward flying that we know to be the norm among pilots and true aviation enthusiasts.
As I write this, the actual anniversary of 9/11 approaches, and I can’t predict what restrictions may be placed on pilots on or near the actual date. But as one of aviation’s most trying years neared its end, it was comforting to wrap it up with a perfect performance by all at Oshkosh.