In the early 1980s, while playing in a band called The Broken Hearts (our one and only album remains available to this day, amazingly enough), I wrote a song that contained the following stanza.
There’s a fence around you, I can’t get over it’s so high
There’s a fence around you, I can’t get round it it’s so wide
The fence was of course metaphorical, erected by a young woman who was not as agreeable to exploring a deeper relationship. No complaints. She was a private individual who owed me and the wider world nothing in particular. She had every right to take a position that was steadfast, even if it was somewhat hostile.
Little did I know back in those bohemian days of my carefree extended adolescence that fences would one day become the bane of my existence.
Aviation is my second career. Or maybe my third, depending on how you count my professional aspirations and efforts. Yet, aviation has always been a part of my life. Aircraft have always fascinated me in a way that is difficult to articulate, but it is an undeniable visceral reaction that seems to be common among pilots and aviation enthusiasts the world over.
Part of the appeal is the wide-open spaces to be found at the airport.
Throughout my youth and even into the first decade and a half of my career as a pilot, the only physical barrier to aviation was the Earth itself. My view from the ramp was unrestricted to the left and right, as well as upward. The pavement below my feet was the only impediment to my freedom of movement. Up was possible. Down was not.
That was before the fence debacle. Being federal in nature, the policy of erecting steel structures around the entire perimeter of even small general aviation airports was quickly adopted by local governing bodies. Signs warning of grave consequences for entry onto the airport grounds were evident from every vantage point. Gates were closed off, homes and businesses with nearby hangars were locked away or locked out to limit public access. The average Joe or Jane not only felt as if they were barred from entry, they literally were.
Like so many broad stroke plans, the intent was understandable, yet the application of the edict has had minimal effect on the problem it was intended to correct. Unwelcome visitors still wander onto airport property to do damage, steal tools and avionics, and generally misbehave. This activity is rare, but that has more to do with the average person being generally decent than it does with the impenetrability of the blockade.
Truthfully, anyone with access to a hardware or home improvement store will find a wide array of inexpensive, easy to operate tools that have the capacity to best the fence. I often get a kick out of the coyotes that roam the infield at airports here in the south. I’m fairly certain they don’t know the gate codes, but they seem to get in and out of the facility easily enough. Perhaps they trained at the Wile E. Coyote Institute of Creative Entry.
When I was a CFI at Meriden Markham Airport (KMMK) in central Connecticut, there was a picnic table and random seating on the grass just outside the FBO door. It was common for CFIs, aircraft owners, students, and even random lookie-loos to enjoy the sunshine of a summer morning, watching aircraft take off and land. It was a pleasant environment.
In Winter Haven, Florida, where I have made my home for many years, there is a row of benches on a shade porch that once served that same function. Today, those benches and the flight school are inside the fence. To reach the porch a visitor needs to know the gate code. A sign mounted to the fence lets folks know the gate code is the same as the CTAF.
I wonder how many pilots knew what the CTAF was when they first visited an airport to check out the cost and viability of learning to fly? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. We all know the answer.
The intent of the fences was to ensure public safety. An issue that was arguably rarely, if ever, a problem to begin with. Yet, those fences are having a detrimental impact on the cities and towns that own those facilities. Not to mention the implied message that the public is not welcome on the field or at the businesses housed there.
Keep in mind as you ponder this conundrum, thousands of these fenced facilities are owned and operated by those same local governments. They are supported by tax dollars supplied by the very people whose access has been restricted. Today, the message is clear that general aviation airports are high security areas to be avoided at all cost.
As ironic as it may be, at the exact moment in time when it has become apparent the American workforce is light on pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and the wide variety of skilled individuals necessary to serve the public, we have committed ourselves to limiting access to airports and making aviation as difficult to access as possible.
Is it just me or do you see the problem too?
Would it not make more sense to use airports as the greenspaces they truly are? To allow the public to picnic and play there. To welcome families who choose to spend an afternoon in the sunshine. To cater to young boys and girls on bicycles who wish to lay in the grass and dream of a future where they have a place in aviation, too.
If security is the issue, there are better methods of achieving that goal. If encouraging a future workforce to get into a high tech, high income field of endeavor that will move all of humankind into a better, safer, more prosperous future is of interest to us, then those fences should go.
Jamie will be on SocialFlight Live March 16, 2021, at 8 p.m. Eastern. You can register to watch here.