GUEST EDITORIAL By THOMAS P. TURNER
Rich, suicidal idiots — that’s what most people think about general aviation pilots. In many ways we bring these perceptions on ourselves. If we are to improve the public’s opinion of personal aviation, these are the stereotypes we need to address and, if possible, refute.
As a “personal trainer” instructor in high-performance single- and twin-engine airplanes, I’ve rubbed shoulders (literally in some narrow-cabin airplanes) with some extremely wealthy individuals. Most are completely unassuming about their wealth; if you saw them in a sandwich shop eating lunch you’d never know they could probably buy the franchise.
Although almost all are genuinely appreciative of the good fortune that permitted them to earn, well, a good fortune, almost none of them consider themselves to be “rich.”
One of my students summed it up nicely by observing “the definition of ‘rich’ is anybody who has more money that you.”
By that definition we are all rich compared to someone who cannot afford to fly. Face it, if you rent the cheapest airplane available and fly only 50 hours a year (a minimal standard of currency), you must have at least $5,000 of disposable income available that you don’t dedicate to some other purpose. Own a plane and you’re committing at least $20,000 a year to your pursuit (and probably much more). You may scrimp on things non-pilots buy (drive an old pickup instead of a new hybrid, for instance), but the public considers flashy vehicles a “necessity” when an airplane costing the same thing is certainly not.
Certainly if we can afford any flying at all we are “rich” compared to much of the population. How can we address this perception? By comparing the cost of our flying to other luxury items, like flashy cars and big houses. We can show the relative costs of “normal” things like ski vacations, horses, and boats (“You think airplanes are expensive?” said a retired airline captain. “Buy a sailboat.”) Of course, if you indulge in those purchases and activities too, it’s harder to make the case (because compared to me you are rich — and good for you!). But we should be able to show the relative costs of various levels of personal aviation activity, and I’d bet I’d find it’s not too out of line with jet skis and Disney vacations. Flying is just what you’ve chosen to do with your discretionary income.
The public is scared to death of “little airplanes.” Can you blame them? When was the last time you saw general aviation featured in television or movies when there wasn’t an emergency, and probably a crash (the Gulfstream on “Criminal Minds” is the only exception — its characters actually defend the use of a private jet in the series, and so far there’s never been an in-flight emergency).
When we invite the public to the airport, what do we show them? Low-altitude, “death-defying stunts” purposely designed to make the audience gasp at certain death. Now, no one is going to come out to the airport to see a series of touch-and-goes by a Skyhawk or a Cirrus straight-and-level fly-by at a safe and legal 1,000 feet AGL. But no wonder the public thinks we’re suicidal — we go out of our way to impress them with the extreme danger of our pursuit.
My friend and editor LeRoy Cook writes a little column in his local weekly newspaper narrating the goings-on at his town’s airport — first solos, passed checkrides — and who flew where to do what…just the type of local gossip that’s in small-town papers everywhere, only with an aviation theme. This is the sort of press we need to show we’re not bent on killing ourselves in airplanes, but instead they’re a way to spend time with friends, enjoy a sunny day, and travel to visit family and friends. This won’t pack ‘em in like low-altitude aerobatics or a fiery crash on video. But more of this type of press would soften the message, and let people know that, done right, flying is a safe and worthwhile family activity.
Flying in thunderstorms. Loss of control in low clouds or fog. Crashed trying to take off or land. Running out of gas. Crashing into people’s houses. This is what the public hears about general aviation — and many think we’re idiots for going up in these expensive, dangerous toys with no idea how to fly them.
This should be the easiest stereotype to overcome. All we have to do is learn from our group experience. Use good planning and cockpit technology to avoid adverse weather. If you think your airplane’s range is five hours, plan all your trips to arrive in less than four hours from takeoff — including flight to an alternate if needed. Practice takeoffs, landings and go-arounds so you know your abilities and limitations (which are probably less than the airplane’s).
Be especially careful flying over houses and populated areas, and keep emergency landing sites in sight at all times — a power loss over Los Angeles or Chicago is as risky as losing an engine over mountains in terms of emergency landing zones. Study, and learn from, the unfortunate experiences of others…because when an emergency happens to you, it’s too late to think about how you should respond.
Rich, suicidal idiots: That’s what much of the public thinks of general aviation. Luckily for us, with a little work, it’s a stereotype we can break.
Holder of an ATP certificate with instructor, CFII and MEI ratings and a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety, 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year and 2008 FAA Central Region CFI of the Year, Master CFI Thomas P. Turner has been lead instructor for Bonanza pilot training program at the Beechcraft factory; production test pilot for engine modifications; aviation insurance underwriter; corporate pilot and safety expert; captain in the United States Air Force; and contract course developer for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He now directs the education and safety arm of a 9,500-member pilots’ organization. With over 3,700 hours logged, including more than 2,400 as an instructor, Tom writes, lectures and instructs extensively from his home in the nation’s Air Capital, Wichita. Subscribe to Tom’s free Flying Lessons Weekly e-newsletter at www.mastery-flight-training.com.
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