Knee jerks: The selling of fear in America

All the usual suspects have responded to the crash of Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle’s Cirrus into a New York apartment building, Oct. 11.

Politicians, newspaper reporters and editors, and television talking heads jumped right in with their standard anti-aviation paranoia. A notable exception was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a pilot. Bloomberg, who helped to identify wreckage that fell into the streets, spoke calmly and knowledgeably. Nobody wanted to listen.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was among the first and loudest to call for a ban on general aviation aircraft over cities. Daley, notoriously fearful of anything with wings and piston engines, immediately raised the phony specter of terrorism, one of his pet gambits.

New York Governor George Pataki was almost equally shrill and every bit as uninformed, until Mayor Bloomberg got hold of him and calmed him down with some facts. The city’s former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, quickly agreed with Pataki that the FAA should severely limit GA flights around the city. He should have talked with Bloomberg first, his only flying being of presidential trial balloons.

At least Pataki listened to Bloomberg. Not so the New York Times, Washington Post and TV “experts” from major networks to the smallest station in Boondocks, USA. ABC News set up a weasel-worded poll asking for listeners’ opinions and not-so-subtly suggesting what they should be. Boy, do they know how to sell fear.

Not to be outdone, Congress weighed in the moment the news hit the nation’s capital, New York Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer among the first and most vocal. Schumer long has wanted to clear the New York City air of general aviation aircraft and even commercial helicopters, and saw the Lidle crash as justification for his irrational fears. He was far from alone. Fellow senators and representatives from both political parties were quick to sniff the possibility of votes by pandering to paranoia – indeed, more than pandering to it, actually creating it. Considering that only one senator is an active pilot and few representatives do their own flying, their aviation expertise is highly questionable.

On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal ran an excellent piece by Scott McCartney, a Cirrus pilot, who analyzed “The Mind of a Weekend Pilot” as it relates to GA accidents in general and Lidle’s in particular.

Perhaps the best takes so far, and not surprisingly, are the ones by James Fallows for Atlantic magazine’s Web site. You can read them at TheAtlantic.com/doc/200610u/lidle-crash, /lidle-crash-2 and /lidle-crash-3, and you should – particularly if you don’t understand Cirrus handling characteristics. Fallows is an experienced pilot who was among the first widely published writers to recognize the promise of Very Light Jets. His credibility is undeniable and his popularity gives GA valuable entrée to the public or, at least, its more literate component.

McCartney and Fallows both discuss the unusual circumstances of Lidle’s flight and speculate – from personal knowledge – on the likely problems encountered. The important point is that both write calmly, from the perspective of pilots, and using what used to be known as common sense which, today, is all too uncommon.

AOPA’s Phil Boyer was all over the place trying to defend general aviation from the ignorant and opportunistic. Alas, his voice, like Bloomberg’s, was pretty much ignored or footnoted by the mass media.

Hysteria sells and general aviation is an easy target. Private pilots are perceived by the public as a bunch of irresponsible playboys with too much time and money on their hands, and you know exactly how populist politicians and the socialist media think of business aviation: fat cats, riding around in thirsty and air-polluting bizjets, whose money should be redistributed to the poor.

The “knee jerks” not only capitalize on that perception, they do all in their power to enhance it.

Flying in the face of that headwind is no easy task, but at last we are seeing a beginning to organized advocacy for GA. Simeon Hitzel and Andy Kondrach have launched a “Grassroots Aviation Network” (we like the acronym) called AeroBlue (AeroBlue.org), intending to focus aviation’s many voices onto the problems of supporting GA in general and airports in particular.

We encourage this initiative strongly, having long called for unified GA support.

General aviation is under attack – not too strong a term – by the airlines (user fees) and, in this election year more than ever, by populist politicians scratching for votes.

It is time – indeed, well past time – for us to speak as one voice against the “knee jerks.”

Any takers?

Thomas F. Norton is GAN’s senior editor.

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