Tips for flying the media and other influencers

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

GA’s ‘Voice in the Newspaper’ turns 90

Jack Elliott and his family

Today, a mailbox in Warren, New Jersey, should be overflowing with birthday cards and good wishes. The occasion? It’s the 90th birthday of Jack Elliott, longtime aviation columnist for The Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger. Longevity did not win this praise; it was Jack Elliott’s storytelling and his “human interest” focus on people who fly.

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Time to recall GA’s World War II heroes


This year marked the final roll call for brave World War II fliers fading from the scene. No, it wasn’t the Doolittle Raiders, whose four survivors (three present) celebrated their final reunion last month. There’s another band of brothers: Some of GA’s World War II heroes who reunited annually for more than 60 years. Their last squadron-mate “flew West” this year.

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I could lose sleep over this!

Ever go to a car show and marvel at the British sports cars of our youth? MGs and Triumphs, how small they look now! How could I ever fit? Answer: We were slimmer then. After decades of fast food, career stress, no time to exercise and skimping on healthy foods, we are a nation heavier than before.

And now, your FAA medical will apparently include the assumption of sleep apnea based on body mass index (BMI.) Not to diminish apnea’s serious medical consequences, this is a heavy wet blanket for GA. It’s like a bad dream, isn’t it?

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Tragedy and TV news


Nov. 22 marks 50 years since JFK’s assassination changed the nation. Nov. 25 ended four days of shock with his sad funeral, modeled after that of Lincoln. The nation was bound together as one around its TV sets all weekend. The Kennedy era had fostered modern TV news and my interest in aviation’s reputation.

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More than an aeronautical landmark

Alpine Tower David Brenner photo

Flying VFR in New York City’s Hudson River Corridor, you’re now required to report abeam “Alpine Tower,” a longtime FAA visual reporting point. I was recently reminded of the radio pioneer behind that tower. Don’t know Edwin H. Armstrong? Know why there is no Channel 1 on your TV set? Know why you can listen to radio without headphones?

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History’s mysteries, from above

This year marks the 150th anniversary of a momentous year in American history. Events in and around 1863 changed us forever and left their traces on the land. We pilots have a “box seat” over such visible history in places we fly.

The Civil War’s 1863 Gettysburg battlefield, for instance, is in extreme southern Pennsylvania, and a mere taildragger hop [Read more…]

Dumb mistakes and dumb luck


The other week, we Florida east coast residents enjoyed a strong, refreshing breeze — welcome tonic after a long summer. The weatherman said it was out of the north, but flags on the beach weren’t parallel to the surf. Reminds me of a grim story from my flying career. Stay tuned. I’m fessing up!

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Canceling the Big Show

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s decision to cancel its annual convention and trade show made news this month. It certainly shows movement instead of “business as usual” under new president Mark Baker. I have some perspective to offer and a modest suggestion. Care to listen?

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