We're Doing Something Wrong

Tom says that pilots should think a little more about our place in the community.

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I don't often find myself in three-abreast seating on an airliner, but on a recent trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, it was unavoidable. So there I was in a window seat with a white-knuckled woman seated next to me and her macho husband on the aisle.

As the airplane accelerated for takeoff, the wife clutched her husband's hand in abject fear. I could tell this wasn't going to be a fun flight. Normally I wouldn't have said anything, but I felt the need to try to soothe her mounting terror. "In a minute," I said, "you'll hear a noise as the gear are tucked away. It's perfectly normal."

She relaxed a bit after we leveled off and perused shopping opportunities in the in-flight magazine. But then, when the pilot announced we were beginning our descent for landing, her husband leaned toward me and said, "It's true, isn't it, that the landing is the most dangerous part of a flight?" He was completely oblivious of the effect his question had on his quaking wife.

I tried to avoid answering, but felt I had to say something to head off a spike in her hysteria. "I guess it's true that more accidents occur during the landing phase," I admitted. "But typically they aren't as serious as accidents that result from loss of control at altitude. The airlines have a very impressive safety record and in terms of passenger miles, you're a great deal safer in an airliner than in a car. There's really nothing to worry about," I added, smiling confidently.

But he wasn't done.

"My ex-wife's new husband has a little airplane," he said and for a moment I thought our conversation was going to be more positive. I was wrong. "When I found out he had taken my kids up in his little airplane," he continued, "I told him I didn't want him to expose them to that kind of danger. When he insisted it was safe and there was no reason for him not to, I sought a restraining order to keep him from taking them flying in his little airplane!"

It was hard to know whether he was just being a hard-ass about his wife's new husband or really concerned about his kids' safety. I tried to reason with him, but he wasn't interested in listening. He knew how dangerous little airplanes were. There was no question everything he said, intentionally or not, made his current wife more uncomfortable about flying. You can bet the two of them will continue to gladly spread the word about how frightening and dangerous small airplanes are.

Unfortunately, Mr. I'm-not-afraid-to-fly-but-you-should-be, isn't alone. Phil Boyer, AOPA president, speaking about the public perception of small airplanes at the SATS (Small Airplane Transportation System) demonstration last summer, asked, "How many of you have offered a plane ride to a friend, only to have them turn you down with a response like … you're not going to get me into one of those little things? Or perhaps you have heard the words … you mean it only has a single engine? Those of us who own 'small aircraft' are very proud of our investments-but how are they viewed by the un-aviation-savvy general public? Rich Fat Cats-Unsafe, noisy little airplanes. The public fears little planes falling out of the sky … all of these are issues and perceptions that must be changed …."

And then there was the published report from Crocker, Missouri, that related an incident where the school superintendent wanted to reward students with an airplane ride. A board member was quoted as saying, "We don't know anything about the planes. You hear about 747s crashing every now and then, but most of these crashes are small little airplanes. The liability is just too much."

If you don't think we have a problem with the general public's perception of our "small" airplanes, consider this: Last September, more than 50 people held a candlelight vigil in a parking lot across from Teterboro Airport. It wasn't a protest rally against the war in Iraq, but against noise and "health hazards" from the airport. One protestor was quoted saying, "What they turned this airport into doesn't belong in the most densely populated part of southern Bergen County."

Whether true or not, stories have circulated about parents of children in schools beneath the approach paths of airports wanting to have their children tattooed with identifying marks so when, not if, they say, an airplane crashes into the school they'll be able to identify the bodies.

How about the FAA's plan to create an AOPA-described "operationally unworkable" and expensive permanent ADIZ of 3,000 square miles-nearly twice the size of Rhode Island-to "protect" the nation's Capitol and government buildings from a perceived threat from small airplanes. A threat that has frequently been discredited.

There are other government efforts to curtail our flying. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) wants to keep helicopters over the water as they fly out to Long Island. His concern seems to be noise, but John LaVelle, the Brookhaven Town Supervisor, was quoted as saying, "We need to look at this from a perspective of homeland security. There is no question that it is an issue when we're dealing with things in flight."

But we, too, are to blame. Unfortunately, pilots-licensed or not-have unknowingly or recklessly contributed to the public's negative perception. A celebration in Logan, Utah, was rudely interrupted when the pilot of a low-flying airplane dropped water balloons on the crowd at the outdoor festival.

The saga of the inebriated man who "borrowed" an airplane from the Danbury, Connecticut, airport for a joyride with friends and eventually landed it on a taxiway at Westchester County Airport after the airport had closed, made national news and resulted in calls for security assessments of all airports in Connecticut.

As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us!" Every time the evening news shows an airplane that crashes short of the runway for lack of fuel the public's perception is reinforced. Every time there's a news story about an airplane that crashed because the non-instrument-rated pilot flew into clouds our image is tarnished. And we make the nightly news every time an airplane lands gear-up with eager news crews alerted and racing down the runway to catch the incident. Every time there's an incursion into the Washington, D.C., airspace and official Washington has to evacuate, there are further efforts to curtail our flying privileges.

So how do we repair the damage? Michael Baum, an attorney and pilot, has developed and published the Aviators' Model Code of Conduct. Subtitled, "Recommended voluntary practices to advance flight safety, airmanship, and the general aviation community," it's a great place to start. It's a document that all pilots would be well served to read, absorb and follow. Although much of it is a reminder of things we should have learned and remember from our training, there's a great deal more.

According to the Code its benefits include highlighting important practices that will help pilots become better, safer aviators; addressing individual pilot's roles within the larger general aviation community, by examining issues such as improved pilot training, better airmanship, desired pilot conduct, personal responsibility, and pilot's contributions to the general aviation community and society at large; encouraging the development and adoption of ethical guidelines; advancing self-regulation by the general aviation community instead of burdensome government regulations, and; promoting general aviation and making flying a more rewarding experience.

The Code is intended to supplement and complement what is merely legal and consists of seven sections: General responsibilities of aviators; Passengers and people on the surface; Training and Proficiency; Security; Environmental issues; Use of technology; and Advancement and promotion of general aviation. Each of the seven sections includes "principles," an "explanation" and "sample recommended practices."

While all of the sections are valuable for making better and safer pilots, the final section, "Advancement and promotion of general aviation" is the most apropos for changing the public's perception of general aviation and our "little" airplanes.

According to the "principles," pilots should advance and promote general aviation, safety, and adherence to the Code of Conduct; volunteer in and contribute to organizations that promote general aviation, and use their aviation skills to contribute to society at large; demonstrate appreciation for aviation service providers; advance a general aviation culture that values openness, humility, positive attitudes, and the pursuit of personal improvement; and promote ethical behavior within the general aviation community.

As "explanation," of the "principles" the Code states: General aviation has a well-recognized (and undeserved) public relations problem that is, in many respects, worsening. Vigilance and responsive action by the general aviation community are essential to ensure general aviation's vitality and to enhance the general aviation experience for both you and for others.

The "sample recommended practices" include:

Strive to conform fully to the Code of Conduct.

Serve as a general aviation ambassador to the public by providing accurate information and refuting misinformation concerning general aviation activities, and by encouraging potential student pilots.

Volunteer in support of general aviation.

Make charitable use of your aviation resources (for example, by transporting persons seeking medical care or donating flight time to youth and environmental programs).

Express appreciation to controllers and service personnel for their assistance and good service.

Participate in aviation-related fund-raising events.

Invite constructive criticism from your fellow aviators (and provide the same when asked).

Adhere to the highest ethical principles in all aviation dealings, including business practices.

Seek to resolve disputes informally and congenially.

A number of organizations have already adopted the Aviator's Model Code of Conduct and there are versions specifically aimed at student pilots and seaplane pilots. It's also available in Spanish.

Avemco Insurance recently announced that it will be mailing the Student Pilots' Model Code of Conduct to every new student pilot. According to Jim Lauerman, executive vice president and chief underwriting officer, "It is important that students build good habits and attitudes early in their experience, and our intent is to introduce them to the culture, safety, security, and responsibility that aviators practice, even as those students are learning the basic stick-and-rudder skills."

General aviation earned some points in its response to the dual disasters of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And AirLifeLine, Angel Flight and Corporate Angel Network (CAN) have made a real difference in the lives of thousands of people with no previous connection to general aviation but who are now devoted supporters. The EAA's Young Eagles program has introduced literally more than a million young people-and their parents-to general aviation.

But, for the most part, we haven't done a good job of making people feel welcome at our airports. Chances are if you ask anyone in your town where the airport is they'll direct you to the nearest commercial hub. If someone does manage to find the airport and the FBO, how are they received? Are they made to feel welcome or are they ignored? A smile and a "How may I help you?" would be a good start to improving our image. There are a number of ways we can be proactive. FBOs can host an open house. Pilots or instructors can volunteer as speakers at service club luncheons. General aviation professionals can participate in high school career days. FBOs can sign up to pick up trash along a section of highway and have their instructor volunteers wear vests with their contact number or Be A Pilot's toll-free 800 number. Our local airport museum held a swing band concert for the public in its hangar that attracted people who otherwise wouldn't have known where the airport was-or even that we had one.

Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." It's not a great leap to believe that unless we do something, those who want to make our airports into shopping centers, those who want to ban airplanes over their neighborhoods, those who believe that our small airplanes are a threat to national security and those who would have us stop making noise, will triumph.

It's time for good men to do something. Download your own copy of the Aviators' Model Code of Conduct at secureav.com.