We often encourage activist pilots and airport advocates to engage the media and community leaders, including by flying them. For two-plus decades, that was part of my job. I had a few ironclad principles for this. A potential disaster with Ralph Nader’s consumer organization dramatized why!
This month’s passing of Nader’s long-time publisher and collaborator brought all this to mind. Starting with Nader’s landmark 1965 first book, Unsafe At Any Speed (best known for its indictment of the Chevrolet Corvair), their work kick-started the modern consumer movement.
My demo flight with Nader’s collaborator began as normal — a phone call to the Communications office of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. This particular inquiry would be touchier than most. It would decide if the Nader organization would do their next book on General Aviation safety.
The phone interview was convincing, so the author agreed to fly from AOPA HQ. I booked a nice, big Piper Saratoga to impress. (A capacious, professional-looking single always surprises those expecting “a little puddle-jumper.”) By this time, I had found out that my demo passenger was, indeed, Nader’s frequent co-author.
The morning of the flight was rushed, but I always leave time to complete an unbreakable routine: a VERY careful pre-flight and a MANDATORY preliminary flight. If you’re not doing this on a media/VIP flight, you’re not doing it right.
Pre-flying the airplane is proof that everything’s working. The aircraft will be warmed up and limber for the demo flight, as will the pilot. And pre-flying the local area familiarizes you with what’s happening on and around the airport NOW — not the last time you flew. (The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds do it. Are you any better?)
This time, the warm-up routine really paid off – and fortunately well before Nader’s guy arrived. It could have been bad priming technique, but the Piper wouldn’t start. Before another try, I cleared the engine but —WOOSH! A bright orange glow appeared from the right side. Nuts! I continued cranking and FBO personnel approached with extinguishers but (thank God) the stack fire went out on its own. There was no damage save the black soot on cowling and fuselage.
After a clean-up and quick mechanical inspection, the warm-up flight went perfectly and so did the demo. Imagine a stack fire on a first-time engine start with media aboard. Those orange flames would have been Chapter One of a new Nader book!
If you fly a media/VIP ride — or even just hop kids for Young Eagles Day — please do a warm-up flight well ahead of time. Get aircraft, pilot and airport area all checked, cleared and primed to host our visitors.
A word on handling media: You should know who you’re flying. Research the reporter and his/her media outlet to know “where he/she is coming from.” PR pros do this all the time, spending hours following media trade news about reporters, new hires and beats/assignments. I realized, just in time, “Hey, this is Nader’s co-author!” My risk/reward calculation immediately hit the stratosphere.
That kind of intel also allowed me to step in when a reporter aggressively approached a prominent DC-area flight school. Knowing she had just been hired as a hot new daytime cable news anchor, I smelled “expose.” (Reporters often try to start new jobs with an immediate “big story.”) I met the anchor-to-be at the flight school and confronted her assumed story premise. The weather for a newbie demo flight was awfully hazy but we had only one chance. We broke the “good weather rule” and flew. She wasn’t in love with the low-vis flight but she went away quietly after finding GA professional and competent.
Some of this is for the pros. That’s why AOPA and other communications departments should have accomplished PR pros who are also well-qualified pilots. On the local level, you can do better, safer demo flights if you follow a disciplined approach. This is not the time to “kick-the-tires-and-go.” It’s certainly not the time to show off or brag. It’s time to prepare, be professional … and be more cautious (in word and deed) than you’ve ever been.
GA’s reputation rides with you.
© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved