The fallout from sonic booms

Recently the Seattle-Tacoma region in Washington state where I live was hit by a pair of sonic booms. They were caused by the flight of two Oregon Air National Guard F-15s sent to intercept a floatplane that had violated a TFR established when President Obama visited Seattle.

The floatplane’s pilot claimed he was returning from a weekend away from home, hadn’t heard the president was going to be in town, and hadn’t checked for NOTAMS before taking off for the short flight to home base at Lake Washington’s Kenmore Air Harbor.

The pilot briefly entered the TFR and — before the fighters could intercept his plane — had flown out of the TFR and landed. After visiting with the Secret Service, he readily acknowledged he was in the wrong by not checking for NOTAMS. The Secret Service said they were satisfied with the explanation and notified the pilot that any further action would come from the FAA.

A few days after the incident — which resulted in the jets creating sonic booms that resulted in the 911 emergency system crashing because of an avalanche of calls — my wife received an e-mail from a fellow Toastmasters Club member. Knowing we are involved in general aviation, this fellow sent the following message: “We’ve all heard about the Sonic Boom. OK. BUT, doesn’t the pilot have to file a flight plan? Or is this a rule that is often overlooked? Or does general aviation just fly off wherever and whenever? IN which case, if bad guys want to create mischief, I guess the Piper Cub would be the plane.”

How would you respond to such a message?

I explained that flight plans aren’t mandatory except in controlled airspace and those areas are noted on appropriate charts. I then compared the flight of a private plane from point A to point B as being about the same as a car, motorcycle or truck going between the same communities. No permission is needed for such a road trip and no one needs to be notified. The same goes for boats, I pointed out.

As for the “guys wanting to create mischief,” I explained that an 18-wheeler or a motor home and many SUVs could cause more damage than a light plane.

Finally, I pointed out that most GA pilots are responsible individuals who had to undergo considerable training to earn their pilot certificates. That pilot ticket cost a lot more in money and time than getting a driver’s license. In fact, the amount of training and the intense study of rules and regulations made getting a driver’s license more like a joke in comparison.

The perception of the individual contacting my wife is, unfortunately, the same as that of many individuals: Pilots are loose cannons who go off without a “flight plan” and can go wherever they want whenever they want in a manner that is irresponsible and dangerous to the rest of the population.

How do we change such a perception? What must be done to make the general public more accepting of those of us who have decided to take advantage of the conveniences of flight? I don’t see these same perceptions about boaters or those with huge motor homes. Is it envy? Can it be that people fear that which they don’t understand or are unable to personally accomplish? Can we ever change the public’s feelings relative to general aviation?

It seems to me that, in one sense or another, I’ve been trying to find the solution to the same problem for the 40 years that I have been involved in the general aviation industry and it doesn’t seem that the solution is any closer now than it was when I first started writing about it. That doesn’t make me feel any better!

What are your thoughts? Can we do more in public schools? Are EAA and AOPA doing enough to educate the public? Are pilots a reckless group of individuals who don’t pay enough attention to the rules and ultimately endanger the public?

Let me hear your thoughts!

Dave Sclair was co-publisher of General Aviation News from 1970-2000. He can be reached at Dave@GeneralAviationNews.com.

Comments

  1. Of course, envy is a part of it. Most of the media in this country has somewhat of a socialist leaning to it, and the stories about GA generally portray GA pilots and owners as the “elite” and promote class envy to the masses. Add in the general fear of airplanes falling from the sky or pulling a kamikaze mission into a crowded stadium (never mind that a UPS delivery truck filled with gas barrels can do more damage than even a large GA aircraft), and it’s easy and fun to stir up the villagers to go find their pitchforks and torches.

    As many here have mentioned, the larger issue is why the president, any president, can travel at public expense (of many varieties) for unofficial business. I have a new plan – I am going to write letters to the editor about every TFR I hear of which is for a presidential fundraiser, vacation, or anything not involving the duties of the office, and dare them to ask the question why are the American people paying for this? The best defense is a good offense.

  2. Warren Webb Jr says:

    I think we’d be better off if we accept the reality that news travels faster today, and that 9/11 raised the sensitivity level forever. The suggestions about building a positive image are well stated above. However, we need to do our part, and this pilot clearly didn’t. Not bothering to check for Notams and TFR’s is not acceptable.

  3. I think one suggestion may help. Have you ever seen a bumper sticker that stated “My other car is a Cessna”? Or how about instead of a fake boat propeller on your trailer hitch you have a fake prop that spins?

    Will this inform the public, at least in a direct sense? No. However, it will have the effect of showing pilots as regular people and open up aviation as more of a ‘normal’ hobby like boating or motorcycling or RV’ing.

    Let the public know you are a pilot!

  4. The majority of our society are more emotional than rational. When your wife was targeted with the question, she was the person that could relieve the frustrations of that person directing the question better than just anyone. I would bet the person didn’t even really care if it was answered and hoped it would support their views. Because of the 911 tragedy, the next several generations are going to associate publicized aircraft incidents as a danger to them no matter what the explanation. Rational people after knowing the facts would realize that the TFR’s are a joke and only pacify the general public.

  5. Filing a flight plan is EXTREMELY dangerous if you are to be met at gunpoint.(ref.John &Martha King)…..just
    Imagine landing legally in a TFR….what a movie scenario if it wasn’t such a real possibility with the Gov. communication skills

  6. Dave:
    35 years here. you nailed it right here:

    “It seems to me that, in one sense or another, I’ve been trying to find the solution to the same problem for the 40 years that I have been involved in the general aviation industry and it doesn’t seem that the solution is any closer now than it was when I first started writing about it. That doesn’t make me feel any better!”

    Likewise here. I have taken the “long view” over the years and contributed funds to various programs. Programs come and go. This I think is a problem. I see EAA and AOPA appearing to promote in the aviation national news, but I never hear of them locally outside of aviation. Why is that? Why doesnt the local newspapers have ads on this? The local TV stations? or even Cable? or any other sources?

    I DID see a commercial on Cable some time ago promoting flying. It was ONE time only. I thought “Wow, good commercial”. Never saw it again. Helluva of a way to run a promotion.

    P.S. Hope everything is going well with you and your family. It’s been rough here.

  7. The real problem here is the TFR, not the pilot. The indicated overreaction of a TFR penetration is typical, and the jet jocks sent out have a carte blanche ball – they would not have had that much fun in ages.

    The answer to these incidents is to attack the very creation of the TFR and, in this case, the president’s arrival for a trivial Democrat fundraiser, not even official business. He had departed from Los Angeles where he attended a Beverly Hills party that raised $one million for the Democrat Party which resulted in the San Diego Freeway being closed for some two hours close to peak hour – this is just nuts!

    The floatplane pilot erred, but in a trivial way, let’s be candid. The jet jocks did their jobs and had a ball – and angered a lot of residents with the sonic boom. Hundreds of thousands of people were unsettled over this – for a Democrat fundraising! Thus, the point made about frivolous Presidential visits and the Patriot Act empowered TFR. The answer is to change the Patriot Act, or tell the President to stay at home unless it is important official business, and to make the TFRs precautionary and to avoid these hysterics when a slow floatplane clips a temporarily restricted area.

  8. Dave, I like your answer and I think “envy” is part of it. Did you ever notice that the people that make the most noise are the least prepared with knowledge. The same people that believe anything they hear or read. Not a question of education; I have heard the same paranoid urban legends about current events from the guy at the dump and from a teacher with a master’s degree. Although the vast majority of people would believe these stories; most could care less and stay on the sidelines. Just like there are a very small percentage of people who serve in the military at any one time there is a very small percentage that fly at any one time. Almost everybody knows or knows about someone that serves in the military; the same holds true for people involved in aviation. Therefore I think the answer to your question is that each and every one of us must do our part to foster a positive image. I don’t think the general public sees or reads enough about the positive things that happen in aviation. I read countless inspiring stories every day but I’ll bet the only ones my wife knows about are the ones I tell her about. All the public hears and sees are the bad news stories. That is a bigger issue not just affecting aviation. In this country we criticize countries with state run news agencies yet here we have news reported by people who answer to nobody except perhaps their owners and it’s obvious they do not have the average Americans best interests at heart. They do now tell a token good news story but in a country where positive outweighs negative 90 % to probably less then 10% why is it we hear news that is weighted the opposite??

  9. Hugh OHandley says:

    Dave, I like your answer and I think “envy” is part of it. Did you ever notice that the people that make the most noise are the least prepared with knowledge. The same people that believe anything they hear or read. Not a question of education; I have heard the same paranoid urban legends about current events from the guy at the dump and from a teacher with a master’s degree. Although the vast majority of people would believe these stories; most could care less and stay on the sidelines. Just like there are a very small percentage of people who serve in the military at any one time there is a very small percentage that fly at any one time. Almost everybody knows or knows about someone that serves in the military; the same holds true for people involved in aviation. Therefore I think the answer to your question is that each and every one of us must do our part to foster a positive image. I don’t think the general public sees or reads enough about the positive things that happen in aviation. I read countless inspiring stories every day but I’ll bet the only ones my wife knows about are the ones I tell her about. All the public hears and sees are the bad news stories. That is a bigger issue not just affecting aviation. In this country we criticize countries with state run news agencies yet here we have news reported by people who answer to nobody except perhaps their owners and it’s obvious they do not have the average Americans best interests at heart. They do now tell a token good news story but in a country where positive outweighs negative 90 % to probably less then 10% why is it we hear news that is weighted the opposite??

  10. Cheryl Berry says:

    When the government stops treating pilots like “loose cannons” maybe the general public will have a better perception.

  11. With an area of 2826 miles, a presidential TFR is massive. Policing such an area is monumental, expensive, and the effect on normal aviation is disruptive. Luckily one of these F15 didn’t collide with a aircraft operating legally in the outer ring of the TFR. Would the affending aircraft have been considered responsible? There is a reason speed limits apply to aircraft operating below 10,000 ft.

    My recommendation has always been to reduce the size of the TFR, better yet, eliminate them all together. Interestingly, there is no better way to pinpoint the location of the president than create a TFR.

  12. Bob Lockmiller says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head Dave, when you said, “Can it be that people fear that which they don’t understand or are unable to personally accomplish.” The only solution is to develop a General Aviation community that is more inclusive, even of those who are not able to commit the time and resources as is currently necessary to participate. We don’t live in a vacuum and the only way to bring all on board the GA wagon, is to do just that.

  13. Dave, these are excellent points and I will be referencing these in my monthly message to the 170+ members of my EAA Chapter 1114, Apex, NC. I do believe that EAA chapters are doing a great job of changing public perception of sport aviation, but only for those in the public who have met us through Young Eagle rallies and the occasional other public event. I am not aware that the AOPA has done much in the way of proactive events for the non-flying public. The success of Young Eagles to change these perceptions for the parents who bring their children to rallies points us in the right direction. We are going to have to take this message to the public and not wait for them to come to us. Local EAA chapters are in the best position to do this, for instance, through YE rallies, participation in town parades and festivals, sponsorship of Chamber, etc. events and the like. We have done this in Apex, a suburb of Raleigh, and subsequently our grass strip is seen as an asset to the town that has now engulfed us and not a danger. A large mural on the side of a downtown building depicts historical figures of Apex, and over it all is a large Bonanza!

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