Let’s be totally honest for a moment. Airplanes crash now and then. They ditch, make emergency landings, have system failures and, once in a while, one of them catches on fire. That’s all true. It’s also exceedingly rare. We need to be truthful and willing to speak on that topic. Because we can tell the story with more insight, and more passion that anyone else can. We can also be accurate as we do it.
Not only is flying one of the safer endeavors we take part in, it is the one that is most often perceived as being risky. To many non-aviators that risk is considered to be unnecessary and, at least in some corners of society, a flying aircraft is thought to present a real risk to the community as a whole.
We know better, of course. As pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and enthusiasts of every stripe, we are well aware that general aviation is not a place where caution is thrown to the wind. Reckless behavior isn’t encouraged in any way — in fact it’s openly resisted, both by the FARs and the considerable peer pressure that can be brought to bear on anyone who shows a propensity for going rogue and doing whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.
In that regard we’re fortunate. We have a collection of alphabet organizations out there who do a great job of providing educational tools, motivational speakers, and support documents that preach safety, safety, safety…as they should. In addition to the alphabets we have other groups that suggest much more social overtones, but they bring great value to the table, too. The OX5s, the QBs, the Ninety-Nines, and even the Civil Air Patrol all have a social aspect to them that encourage membership. But the overriding theme to all these organizations screams out to the public at large: “We fly. We believe in the importance of flight. We have, and do, operate safely – and so can you.”
We’re role models. Because of that reality we have no choice but to act responsibly as role models do. Carry the torch, but be careful not to set the drapes on fire in the process.
This brings me to the point of this posting. We must be our best, most active, and most ardent supporters – lest we fuel the fires of those who would happily shut us down, bulldoze our runways, and knock down our hangars in favor of almost anything – provided it doesn’t cause aircraft to fly overhead, ever!
One of the greatest challenges I had when I undertook the job of revitalizing general aviation at my home airport was convincing the city administration that oversaw the airport to perceive the risks of aviation intelligently. I was honest. When the city manager and I first began talking about the airport I went right to the biggest fear he had – liability. Yes, I admitted, if you own and operate an airport you will one day have a crash. In fact, you have to operate with the understanding that there will be a fatality on your field.
That’s not a joyous thought, but it’s a reasonable assumption. But if we make safety our highest priority, we can prevent accidents through education, the promotion of standardized airport operations, and a positive message that will, over time, permeate the thought processes of the airport’s users and tenants.
Safety isn’t achieved by refusing to participate in an activity. Safety is achieved by establishing standards, enforcing those standards, and encouraging participation from those who meet or exceed them.
We face similar dangers in every other phase of our life, and we adapt to the risk without even thinking about it. Children drown every year, yet we still put bathtubs in our homes, and pools in our yards – even knowing there is a risk with each one we install. Tens of thousands will be killed in car accidents every year in this country, but we continue to build roads, sell cars, and drive ourselves anywhere and everywhere we want to go.
The point is, aviation brings with it inherent risks, but so does everything in life. We, as aviation enthusiasts, have a responsibility to stand up and explain through our words and our actions that aviation is safe — safer, in fact, than many common activities that most of our friends and neighbors engage in without thinking.
We can teach the lesson that being a good pilot is not about being fearless, it’s about being prepared. We are not radical risk takers. It’s more accurate to portray aviation enthusiasts as people who have learned to identify risk, make significant efforts to mitigate that risk, and perform admirably on a daily basis to overcome obstacles that would be impossible to conquer without taking a reasoned, and rationale approach. Risk taking is foolish. Responsible risk abatement is our goal.
Keep in mind that if we can’t stand up for ourselves and sing the praises of aviation and all its benefits, why would we expect any municipality to restrain themselves from shutting us down? Heck, if we can’t stand up for ourselves, we have to know that nobody else ever will. And if aviation becomes a tender target where mouthy politicians and fear mongers of every type can gain traction by pointing to our own reticence to speak up on our own behalf – well, general aviation will cease to be in a generation or two. And it will be our fault.
Although we enjoy the benefits of flight because we stand on the shoulders of visionary giants like the Wrights, Glenn Curtiss, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and so many others, future generations may well be destined to sit passively at the foot of statues that celebrate the pioneers we revere, but not follow in their footsteps because of our unwillingness to stand our ground.
So in the vernacular of a friend of mine who was born and raised in Brooklyn, “Whadaya gonna do about it?”
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.