Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

Perhaps the Most Pointless Use of an Airplane

In this summer of overheated energy costs, overheated weather, overheated politics, overheated traffic, and overheated expectations, this made me smile.

Phoenix, Arizona, where I currently hang, is like Los Angeles in many ways (excepting politics). With weather usually sunny and clear, it shares much of the same crime, crowding, traffic, smog, expense, and car-centered transportation monoculture as L.A. does 400 miles to the west. So when I read about the impending doom concerning the closure of the 405 for construction, I could relate to it. Local officials overblew the risks, sure, but problems were indeed possible.

I expected people to try interesting stuff to work around it. What I didn’t expect was that one low-cost airline would engage in a pointless publicity stunt to move 150 people 38 miles at a time using an Airbus (helicopter charters didn’t surprise me, however). This just appeared ludicrous. The infrastructure, resources, and time it would take to get all these folks to the airport, through security, boarded, cleared, in the air, separated from other airplanes,  and back out the other end is simply astounding for moving such a short distance.

Of course, I understand this was never about transportation, it was all about marketing. Regardless, never one to normally disparage the use of an airplane, this just seemed obscene to my sensibilities.

So, imagine my pleasure when these guys on bikes beat them door-to-door. And not by just a little, either, the airline got it’s butt kicked by over an hour.

See, much as I love to fly, I’m also a born-again-cyclist that cycle-commutes often. To see these guys authoritatively nail up their point that there is a place for bikes as useful transportation in an urban setting seemed dead-on. Conversely, using a 170,000 pound airplane that’s about as inefficient as it can possibly be operating at 5000 feet to do the job is Just Plain Wrong.

To be fair, to maintain their needed 26mph average, the riders were pacelining. Normal commuters would rarely find a wheel to follow, and it takes more than 2 or 3 riders to maintain that tempo for very long. In addition, the cabdriver got lost leaving the airport, adding to the door-to-door time for the air travelers (although it still wouldn’t have changed the outcome).

I’m impressed. Allez…


Stated Perfectly

I’ve become quite the fan of Lane Wallace. She has an immense talent for articulating and connecting ideas, and comprehends personal motivations in unique ways. I don’t. (Not that I don’t try…)

Today, she has this piece in the Atlantic regarding General Aviation and our ever-escalating national obsession with Security Theater. It summarizes something I’ve long wanted to say, but just didn’t know how.

Aircraft (who) and (what) Association?

One axiom of civilized life might be “keep your annoyances private, don’t burden others with them”. If that’s true, I’m about to break it. My apologies, stop reading now if you wish.

Today, I received an emailed request for a web survey by AOPA’s membership services department. Because I think their mission is important, I participated. A few minutes later, I now feel compelled to go on a rant.


First, let’s understand that this organisation represents general aviation pilots and aircraft owners in a wholly unique way; no other institution anywhere is quite like it. We’re absolutely dependent on it to be a collective voice for our interests in D.C. and in State and local governments across the land. As a cross section of the U.S. population, there are not all that many of us that are active certified pilots (a bit under 600,000 in 2009 according to FAA estimates), yet around 65% of us are AOPA members. That should say something definitive about how important our association is to us.

For years, I’ve eagerly read most every publication, email missive, or flyer that came to my attention from them. Whenever safety seminars, came to town, I’d go. When the association’s former president came to town, I’d clear my calendar to see him speak. When 9/11 happened, I stayed glued to their website to understand what was happening, and how it was going to affect us. Meanwhile, I never had much in the way of extra cash to support them, but if there was a congressional letter to be written, or a presence needed for a debate, or anything else I could do to help out, I’d certainly be there.

Put it another way, it was our Association, sticking up for our interests in a way that was completely atypical for such a small cross section of the population. I was always proud of their David standing up to the regulatory Goliath, and I don’t think I was wholly alone in this.

That was a couple of years ago, though. Things seem to be changing…

New leadership came to them in 2009. I expected subtle shifts in their everyday business. But things started changing, a little at first, then more rapidly.

First came the tide of junk mail, most of it electronic. Then came the plea to join the “Wine Club”, which seemed not only silly, but sends an entirely inappropriate message. Then a dues increase. Now it’s a branded “clothing collection”. All amidst the constant “we need your support” chanting.

Meanwhile, VIP TFRs remain chronic, especially in December in Hawaii (how would you like a 2-week government-enforced shutdown during your busy season?). The Mickey Mouse Temporary Flight Restriction remains anything but “temporary”. The California Assembly attempts to cost flight schools out of business. General aviation gets a mandate to equip with expensive satellite-based position reporting gear returning no operator value while air carriers get a seemingly credible argument for a taxpayer-based subsidy for the same damned thing. And the list keeps growing, and seems unanswered…

To a clueless member like myself, the sudden revenue push at the same time that critical state-level legislation gets “missed” should be a warning flag. Perhaps the new leadership is just too busy?

Meanwhile, reports start circulating in the online aviation press regarding executive compensation at AOPA. These turn into nasty accusations in both directions. OK, so maybe I’m really not seeing things, and something isn’t quite right?

Then comes today’s survey. It effectively asks me how I feel about 8 or so different “gold level” membership options with yearly costs ranging from $200-$500 or so, coming with varying levels of sometimes useful added services (medical, legal, flight planning, etc.). Yet, so many of these proposals included a line item for a special “insider’s relationship” with the current CEO/President.

Excuse me? If I don’t pay up real big, I’m an “outsider”?

Let’s get something real clear now. I’m just a simple software engineer. I exist on the bottom of the general aviation food chain, and there’s not much extra revenue to throw around for AOPA’s benefit. I instruct only a little, mostly because it’s fun, and I want our brotherhood to grow if possible. The aircraft I own is not a wealthy-CEO jet, it’s only the simplest and humblest of small primary aircraft; keeping it airworthy and safe is a difficult expenditure that worries me constantly.

I understand that the Association has challenges. I know that keeping regulators at bay remains expensive at a time when everyone’s revenues are down. There’s a bunch of really terrific folks at AOPA headquarters, and we need them working with us. I want to help when I can.

But if I need to pay extra to stay an “insider”, perhaps I should put the extra money back into my 36-year old Cessna, and just try to enjoy it until the day comes and they chain the airport ramp off to us “outsiders”. Then I’ll quietly put my dreams away and go find something else to do.

Or maybe we “outsiders” need our own Association?


Wishing the Words Never Spoken

It all started on a nice fall day back in 1986, yet who could have known at the time? Jeffrey Barnburner, a farm implement dealer in Ottumwa, Iowa, was flying his lovingly-maintained 1946 Funk B-85 from a private strip to a local fly-in on a fine Saturday morning. Little could he know that on this flight, one small innocent utterance, born of legitimate concern, would haunt him to the present day.

Since Jeff’s cherished antique airplane never had an electrical system from the beginning, it also never had a simple radio. But in the 1980s, as engineers learned to print complex circuits, the price of modern electronics was plunging as capabilities skyrocketed. Jeff saw that a functional, battery-operated handheld radio could be easily added, improving safety all around. Just like in the modern Beechcraft Bonanza that Jeff used for his business.

With an external antenna installed and the radio clipped in, Jeff could talk to other pilots or to controllers all he needed. He could now go to tower-controlled airports without worry that the controllers would have to dig out the light-gun and ruminate on how to use it again. Correspondingly, he felt much more comfortable taking the airplane to a temporarily busy non-tower-controlled airfield for a favorite fly-in with friends.

On this particular morning, as Jeff arrived early, the sun was still low in the east. Since he was inbound from the west, very little was visible in the glare in his windshield, and this concerned him. So, he innocently  thought he’d coax other arriving pilots into a quick position report on the local CTAF: “Funk two-six-charlie, three west for left downwind runway three-zero, any traffic in the area please advise“.

One county north, a pair of college-aged student pilots were following each other around the traffic pattern flying touch and goes for practice at a little-used field, one in a Cessna 150, the other flying a Grumman AA-1. Since thousands of the small airstrips across the country use 122.8 as their CTAF, they heard this (seemingly professional sounding) traffic position request, and imbued it in their young, innocent, and impressionable minds that this was How It Was Done. After arriving back at their home airports to end their respective practice sessions, they punctuated their arrival calls with their newly-learned “any traffic in the area please advise”. It was surely the right thing to do now that they knew all about it.

Meanwhile a small collection of studying student pilots heard these calls on FBO dispatch radios, and so the lights thusly went on in their heads regarding the criticality of these special twelve syllables anytime arriving or overflying an airport. Consequently, on their next flights, they started using the phrase. Westward and eastward, young, impressionable pilots heard it and adopted it, and continued to spread it in all directions. Kids teaching kids. Within days, the practice had spread coast to coast, like so many social phenomena do (Not to mention diseases…).

Crusty old pilots cringed in their headsets. They remembered a time when mark-one eyeballs out the window ruled the day for traffic avoidance, and the radio came along to fill in the gaps where the eyeballs fell short, or for when positive control was necessary in busy terminal areas. Now, across the continent, on the thousands of airports that share common frequencies, the airwaves slowly filled with a useless cacophony of stepped-on radio calls overloaded by those extra twelve superfluous syllables. Across the land, 122.8, 122.9, and 123.0 slowly filled up into the continuous screech and howl of colliding amplitude-modulated carriers that, in the end, imparted no useful information, only irritating noises: “<buzzzz> valley traffic <screeeeeeeeee> one-seven <howwwwwwwwwl> five south <wowowowowowowowowow> final for <mmmmwooooooooo>any traffic <bwerrrrrrrrt> please advise”.

Amongst the experienced, frustration with the unwelcome phenomenon grew. Knowing the difficulty of trying to squeeze in a radio call in busy airspace, they’d long known the importance of using only the words necessary to convey meaningful information. As the air-band airwaves filled with squealing racket, their spouses quickly learned to isolate their headsets from the aircraft radios, while the pilots increasingly came to understand that the multi-thousand dollar radios installed in their aircraft were becoming bricks. Over time, they began simply turning the volume down on account of the futility of trying to listen through the noise.

For the better part of two decades, this unfortunate practice grew. Then sometime in the mid 2000s, the folks at the FAA who maintain the Aeronautical Information Manual (some of whom actually still fly with the rest of us) realized that an admonition over what not to say had become necessary. Thus, AIM section 4-1-9 (g)1 became updated with the text:

Pilots stating, “Traffic in the area, please advise” is not a recognized Self-Announce Position and/or Intention phrase and should not be used under any condition.

For a period of time, this change was discussed on the internet enough that it appeared to have a meaningful impact on it’s misuse. Alas, this suppression was only temporary; over time, it crept back into the newbie pilot lexicon, like an infestation of insects.

All this time, Jeff was troubled. After all, he wasn’t absolutely sure the phenomenon could be ascribed to him. He never talked about it. Anyone could have started it. Yet he knew that he’d never really heard it used before speaking it on that fateful fall day, and not long afterwards, it was heard everywhere. Guilt followed him around like a shroud.

One day, while flying with a friend in the southwest and monitoring 122.9, newly-retired Jeff heard what sounded like a Chinese student pilot, working so very hard on his english language proficiency skills (to ensure the required “English Proficient” endorsement would appear on his new commercial certificate) state, with a diligently-suppressed Mandarin dialect: “Gila Bend traffic, Warrior two-three-seven-whiskey-tango, ten north inbound, any traffic in the area please advise“. And Jeff felt the 25-year cloak of guilt ensconce him yet once again.

He knew now what he must do. Upon returning to Iowa, he proceeded to the machine shed converted to hangar on the turf strip where his lovely little airplane rested. Up to the door of the Funk he walked, opening it, and disconnecting then removing the handheld radio forevermore. When he originally installed it, he was convinced it would be for the best. Now he understood the depth of the abomination which it really was.