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Dangerous Flights: Good PR, Bad PR?

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Surfing the untracked wilderness of modern cable television, my scroll-around sometimes lands on something interesting. Lately, it’s been a show called Dangerous Flights, another of the Discovery Channel’s reality series. These sorts of programs are called reality TV and if reality were scripted, they’d be accurately named. Otherwise, like a patient drifting in and out of a coma, the reality appears more often than I’d expect and often sharply focused.

Here’s the set-up. The series tells the story…oh, shoot, I’ll take this directly from the show’s Web site: “Dangerous Flights is the real deal: a high-testosterone action adventure series on the edge of aviation’s final frontier, starring the daring mavericks who risk their lives in the high-danger, no-holds-barred, high-stress business of aircraft delivery.” I gotta hand it to the copy writer on that one, that’s straight from the 1940s radio drama of insurance investigator Johnny Dollar, “the man with the action-packed expense account.” And the final frontier is flying a 210 from Maine to France? Funny, I’d of thought those guys in Mojave blasting people into space were a little more final frontiery. But I digress.

The basic narrative involves a start-up organization of ferry pilots delivering GA aircraft around the world for various clients. As is the fashion in TV, each episode—and we’re now just starting season two—usually details two deliveries on a parallel plot track. What would otherwise be a dull plot line is sexed up with some lead-in problem—a Cessna 210 with major fuel leaks, a Cirrus SR22 co-crewed by a graybeard pilot who’s never seen a G1000, a geriatric Cheyenne with dysfunctional avionics, a jet with avionics problems.

Despite the overhyped promo, pilots paying attention to this series might actually gain useful glimpses into how ferry work is done and how some of the decision-making happens. And also a sense of the risk. In a recent episode, the one involving the SR22, two pilots are ferrying the airplane from Singapore to Ohio. One of them, Kerry McCauley, is an experienced ferry pilot with numerous Atlantic crossings, but little Cirrus experience.

They’ll be doing the translant on the Blue Spruce route, westbound, in the winter. McCauley is caught on film having reservations about the wisdom of such a flight, explaining he’s done it enough times to wonder if he’s not pushing his luck. The outbound flight handler in Scotland is dubious, noting that he has a list of pilots who didn’t return from such trips. Whether staged for the camera or not, I thought that an accurate glimpse into the often unvoiced fears many of us have before launching on high-risk flights. Props to reality TV for coaxing it out of him.

In watching this program, I constantly wonder what the non-aviation literate think of it, for they’re the core audience. Naturally, all of us in GA want the industry to be accurately represented and, might as well admit it, promoted to a certain extent. While that’s obviously not the point here, I wonder if Dangerous Flights ends up doing that despite itself. Would a person watching this show find it exciting enough to want to pursue flight training or be put off by the over-dramatized danger, not the least of which is the title itself? I really can’t decide if the series paints GA in a favorable light for the non-pilot or not. You tell me.

But the reality sneaks through nonetheless. Including being boring, which the show occasionally is, just like most of the long flights I’ve been on. You can only sex up situation normal so much in 30 minutes. And just like real pilots, the ferry crews sometimes make marginal decisions, one of which was flying a Cheyenne of questionable maintenance history from the Philippines to Florida, a trip peppered with the kind of breakdowns, malfunctions and general mayhem that anyone flying older airplanes will recognize. But I wonder if the aviation-interested viewer will realize that stuff happens all the time.

I suppose these days, as long as they spell aviation and airplane correctly, we ought to be happy with any kind of publicity we get for the industry. At least Dangerous Flights does that.

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Comments (27)

I saw a couple episodes - seems like they hyped them up a bit to make for more interesting TV. That said, everyone wants to dream. I betcha Aston Martin sold more than a few cars from the 007 movies - maybe a little over romanticized aircraft ferrying is alright on TV as well.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | January 26, 2014 8:40 PM    Report this comment

We can add "Flying Wild Alaska" and my personal favorite, "Airplane Repo" to this bunch. I love how events are purportedly a surprise and yet the camera always seems to catch it perfectly - from multiple angles! My issue with "Repo" is the flagrant and reckless violation of FARs. It formulates a bad image of the aviation industry in that regard. Lastly, the lack of veracity about the lucrative nature of the airplane repo business (I actually know guys that do this and it's $500, not $15000 as portrayed) forces me to inexorably provide explanations to my wife when she queries, "Hey, why can't you do that. Look at that payoff."

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | January 27, 2014 7:01 AM    Report this comment

"...No-holds-barred, high-stress business of aircraft delivery" Ha ha ! Got a good chuckle out of that before I realized you were talking about ocean crossings.

I guess delivering A/C today is handled a little different than those 1970s Cessna salesmen did with the polyester suit & tie. It's been that long since I've witnessed any new deliveries...

Posted by: A Richie | January 27, 2014 8:59 AM    Report this comment

Or how about; "Student Error" - the Life of a CFI?

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 27, 2014 1:44 PM    Report this comment

Paul, its all good. With all the issues GA faces, lack of marketing has to be on the top of the list. Plus, i'm a firm believer that as we collectively try to climb ever higher up the Maslowian hierarchy, GA may get a revival from the simple fact that all the things we love about flying add up to making us feel more alive. It may not be the perfect definition of self-actualization, but once you've filled your Facebook tank and come to terms with the limits of video games and computers, learning to fly may prove to be a popular way to revitalize one's sense of awe and excitement about life.

Posted by: Joe Goebel | January 27, 2014 2:06 PM    Report this comment

Sky King Returns????

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 27, 2014 4:48 PM    Report this comment

The adventures of Martha and John King???

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 27, 2014 4:50 PM    Report this comment

As the propeller turns???

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 27, 2014 4:51 PM    Report this comment

Hats off to you, Joe; lack of "marketing" - Hello - RATIONAL. SERIOUS, and MATURE - without the small and intoxication of Jet-A or bragging a below 200 busted minimum approach) ego non-sense! All most ALL of GA's woes can be traced to inept marketing management; LSA, Icon -5, Piper Jet, Flying Car, 5-6+ FBO's on one airport when one will do fine - PLEASE, etc !

Critical Market Research = DEMAND + production = SALES = PROFIT$!

Why does the Bonanza and King Air have a 68 and 50 year run respectively - and STILL going?

Frankly, continuing to sell the romance, daring and adventure of "flying" is as out-dated as the 1933 King Kong original - time to GROW UP and OUT of this adolescence belief and behavior!

ISN'T time; "Want to make a million in aviation - start with $500K" - long over do? Oh, and save the "passion" for the bedroom - possibly? OR, in the alterative; determination to be PROFITAB:E and enjoy ones work - in that order?

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 27, 2014 5:13 PM    Report this comment

"Sky King meets the Simpsons" "Days of our FBO" "Everybody Loves Yeager" "Flight School Rescue" "Dancing with the Students" Two and 1/2 Pilots" and other possibilities?

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 27, 2014 5:21 PM    Report this comment

"Frankly, continuing to sell the romance, daring and adventure of "flying" is as out-dated as the 1933 King Kong original - time to GROW UP and OUT of this adolescence belief and behavior!"

I got into flying so I could do loops, rolls, spins, off airport landings, go places and do things differently and generally avoid growing up and succumbing to reality. Although my decision to fly was serious as a heart attack, there was nothing or mature about it or my choice of flying old, odd and impractical airplanes with "irrational exuberance". It has been and continues to be a ball. Despite the regulations and costs that are trying squeeze to joy out of aviation, a half hour of attitude adjustment in a clip wing Monocoupe does wonders for the inner child.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 28, 2014 8:29 AM    Report this comment

I'd never've thought I'd see you write "I'd of thought..." Sister Mary Rose is rolling in her grave!

Posted by: Jim Thomas | January 28, 2014 8:41 AM    Report this comment

Fine Richard, Yes, I agree that the "recreational" (non-profit?) segment, since most catering to this market seem to be about "fun", rather than profit. My point, however, is this; anyone who's in the BUSINESS side and their objective is to be financial successful, best keep their "inner child" in it's crib and away from making prudent management decisions. In no way was I attempting to diminish your and many others from the emotional satisfying reward from "loops, rolls, spins, etc - just that I coming (my comment) was from a position of a purely busine$$ perspective - no offense intended and sorry for the confusion!

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 28, 2014 10:00 AM    Report this comment

Well said, Richard. My view, admittedly a slightly cynical one, is whether magician or salesman of a product or illusion, one needs an audience to trick/convince people into accepting their schtick. GA manufacturers know theirs, don't they?

If the reason flying cars are not ubiquitious today, having been around for decades, is because they haven't been marketed skillfully, maybe it's time to hire a magician. Ads for sloppy, fat-filled burgers assault me every day from every conceivable angle - sexed up, rock and roll, success oriented, hipster, healthy! - yet I'm not getting even close enough to smell the restaurant.

As far as the show titled above, I lean toward it not really having much affect on pilot starts or inciting the passion needed, yes, passion, to pursue a fulfilling yet challenging vocation/avocation in aviation.

Maybe we should find out if there are more duck hunters now...

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 28, 2014 1:06 PM    Report this comment

My son wants to learn to fly (he's 14 now). I don't fly, so we're the non-aviation literates, I guess. I can't help but think that shows like this (or almost any other I've seen) help engender and propel interest in those capable of being interested in flying. Flying is a boyhood dream. Shows like this add color to it.

Posted by: Dick Garrett | January 28, 2014 1:50 PM    Report this comment

My friends who see these shows ask me about them. I get a lot of "aren't you scared?" and "What if?" questions. The shows do raise the profile of aviation, but probably have little impact, (unless you count a physician friend of mine who was having a ball taking lessons until his wife saw the show - he is now grounded). "Terror in the Skies" on the Smithsonian Channel will make sure some people never get on an airliner. But if you really listen to the show, you can see that the outcomes of these tragedies shows how they can and have been avoided. Most of the accidents profiled are over a decade or two old. The show is about lessons learned.

There are those in marketing who constantly remind us that there is no such thing as "bad press." If you subscribe to that, all of these shows and Miami 24/7, Ice Pilots, Flying Wild Alaska, Airplane Repo, et. al. are good for the flying community.

With regard to Dangerous Flights, the owner of the ferry service annoys me when he pushes pilots to fly planes that A&Ps have determined are NOT airworthy. I assume this is for dramatic effect, but the comments he makes along with the musings of guys doing stupid things, paint pilots as daredevils without concern for safety. My instructors and pilot friends always err on the conservative side. The attitudes shown in Dangerous Flights belong with the idea of "a few cigarettes a day can't hurt you."

Ultimately, I am more concerned when I read articles in the non-aviation press about the idiot student pilots taking passengers on flights around the Statue of Liberty and landing on a Bronx Expressway. The press, in every article I saw, failed to mention that student pilots are not permitted to take passengers, especially two women about whom his wife is unaware. All of the online comments were about his wife and not about the more dangerous/stupid choices he made.

Posted by: Mitch Kahn | January 28, 2014 1:54 PM    Report this comment

When Phil Boyer headed AOPA, he retained my PR agency to create and implement a proactive aggressive media relations campaign that educated and motivated people to take that all important intro flight. Our efforts resulted in positive learn-to-fly stories on The TODAY Show, CBS This morning and other major shows as well as in The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, Maxim and many more national print outlets. On the local side we targeted TV, newspaper and radio in markets with solid flight schools who said that these stories increased their business. At one point, each and every day a positive "be a pilot" story appeared somewhere in the US. Sadly, when Phil left the budget for the program was cut. At some point, GA industry leaders will grow tired of reading and watching negative stories about mishaps and death because nothing scrambles the local news like a small plane crash. Hopefully someone like Phil with a consumer marketing background will assume a leadership position in GA and once again lead the charge to increase the GA pilot universe.

Frank Gilanelli President Barton Gilanelli & Associates, Inc. 215-760-2959

Posted by: Frank Gilanelli | January 28, 2014 1:56 PM    Report this comment

Mitch, I assume you are referring to ERA14LA085, which happened on 1/4? According to the preliminary report, the PIC was a certificated private pilot, not a student pilot, so it was entirely legal and nothing out of the ordinary.

I find the news reports of small plane crashes often get the facts wrong about "student" pilots, especially if the PIC is not sitting in the left seat. When such articles get the facts completely wrong, I think these are negative PR for general aviation, especially if it leads to incorrect assumptions.

To that extent, shows like "Dangerous Flights" or "Airplane Repos" that paint pilots as reckless daredevils with no concern for any risks is not good PR. It may inspire some to start flight training (but then drop out when they realize it's far less of an "extreme" sport than they thought it might be), but if you get significant others telling their spouses they can't pursue aviation because of a perceived danger based on "reality" TV shows, we would be better off without such PR.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 28, 2014 2:33 PM    Report this comment

'Sadly, when Phil left the budget for the program was cut. At some point, GA industry leaders will grow tired of reading and watching negative stories about mishaps and death because nothing scrambles the local news like a small plane crash.'

There have always been aircraft crashes and they've always been covered. I witnessed one first hand. But there are also stories like Sullenburger's successful ditching and, thanks to social media, copious amounts of good success stories in aviation, along with exciting first flights, Avweb learning videos, etc.

Condolences that your business no longer has the reach of yesteryear for GA. But if anything, the non-aviation literates have far more access and information on flying and careers than ever before. I give these non-aviation folks a bit more credit than thinking they need to be marketed better. If anything, internet access has allowed 100 times over the world of flight to be examined and enjoyed.

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 28, 2014 2:46 PM    Report this comment

Face it guys, pilots or aviators are just a certain breed. Leave the rest on the ground I say.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | January 28, 2014 8:09 PM    Report this comment

Condolences that your business no longer has the reach of yesteryear for GA. But if anything, the non-aviation literates have far more access and information on flying and careers than ever before. I give these non-aviation folks a bit more credit than thinking they need to be marketed better. If anything, internet access has allowed 100 times over the world of flight to be examined and enjoyed.

So if this logic is correct then companies that sell products that are purchased with discretionary dollars like those used for pilot training, should just stop marketing because anyone who wants their products will find them on the Internet. Forget about advertising, publicity, direct mail, etc that educates and motivates people to spend their discretionary bucks on your stuff. And in this economy, convincing someone to spend their hard earned bucks and limited time on flight training is a tough sell. The media relations program that I mentioned reached millions of people with positive messages about the joys and benefits of becoming a pilot instead of buying a boat, RV, taking a cruise, etc; the type of stuff that competes for discretionary dollars. If the GA pilot universe doesn't grow, then who will buy planes and all the equipment that goes along with it? And if AOPA continues to lose members, how will it afford to fight the politicians and government agencies that want to impose their will on pilots like you? GA needs more pilots and wishing and hoping is not getting the job done.

Posted by: Frank Gilanelli | January 29, 2014 2:07 PM    Report this comment

Condolences that your business no longer has the reach of yesteryear for GA. But if anything, the non-aviation literates have far more access and information on flying and careers than ever before. I give these non-aviation folks a bit more credit than thinking they need to be marketed better. If anything, internet access has allowed 100 times over the world of flight to be examined and enjoyed.

So if this logic is correct then companies that sell products that are purchased with discretionary dollars like those used for pilot training, should just stop marketing because anyone who wants their products will find them on the Internet. Forget about advertising, publicity, direct mail, etc that educates and motivates people to spend their discretionary bucks on your stuff. And in this economy, convincing someone to spend their hard earned bucks and limited time on flight training is a tough sell. The media relations program that I mentioned reached millions of people with positive messages about the joys and benefits of becoming a pilot instead of buying a boat, RV, taking a cruise, etc; the type of stuff that competes for discretionary dollars. If the GA pilot universe doesn't grow, then who will buy planes and all the equipment that goes along with it? And if AOPA continues to lose members, how will it afford to fight the politicians and government agencies that want to impose their will on pilots like you? GA needs more pilots and wishing and hoping is not getting the job done.

Posted by: Frank Gilanelli | January 29, 2014 2:07 PM    Report this comment

Did ER make you feel better or worse about visiting a hospital? How does The Bachelor make men and women feel better about committed dating? Are we that desperate to boost up aviation that we think a distorted view is better than none?

It reminds me of the recent story of the kid who stole a 152 and logged 25 hours on it flying all over the place - since he was such an aviation buff, afterwards about half the pilots who knew him were willing to help him in some way pursue flight training. I think they forgot he was a criminal with a criminal mind who needed rehab more than flight lessons. Are we that desperate to boost aviation? I'm not. I want good people with good attitudes who will themselves someday be in a position to support it in a positive way. Anything else is just desperation.

Summary? The only reporting worth anything is the balanced view, how things really are 99.9% of the time. Distorted views just create distorted visions.

Posted by: Mike Perkins | January 29, 2014 2:57 PM    Report this comment

I think the cost issue has way more effect on people flying or not than anything on TV. Personally, I liked Flying Wild Alaska and Ice Pilots, despite the over-dramatization. Some of the others are just ridiculous. I watched a few episodes of Mountain Men. The one who flew a Cub in Alaska put me off the show when they went on about how dangerous it was for him to be out in the woods with an old, unreliable snowmobile if it broke down on him, ignoring tha fact that he could hitch a ride back with the camera crew. As far as the aviation shows, I watched a few episodes of Airplane Repo with a pilot friend of mine when we shared a motel room at Oshkosh. Two episodes made me wonder why he liked the show. For instance, why would a supposedly highly experienced pilot take off at night with a plane whose avionics were in the shop without charts are even a hand-held GPS so he would have some clue where he was going? Another time, this repo guy lets the owner take the log books out of his unlocked truck and then take off with the plane. Then, when he finds out where the guy might be going, he parks alongside the runway with two security trucks, lights flashing, in hopes that the pilot will land and taxi over to give up the plane. Naturally, the pilot does a low pass and keeps on going. I think I could find someone smarter than that to repo my million dollar plane. This show just makes us look stupid.

Posted by: John Worsley | January 29, 2014 4:45 PM    Report this comment

Matthew Lee said it in a sentence, but I'm known to be a tad wordy, so here goes.

I haven't met or heard of a single person who went through pilot training, rented or bought an aircraft and flew for years instead of camping or water skiing. But many are doing the opposite now, unfortunately for GA's numbers. Actually, I own a small camper/motorhome and a 15' WW Potter sailboat, bought and paid for many years ago. They cost pennies to use and enjoy today, with no license, regs, or currency to worry about, unlike the 300-500 dollars I need every month to fly my homebuilt a mere 60 hours a year.

In my view, no one decides to learn to fly instead of camping or driving an rv. Other discretionary uses of money cannot be compared to the discipline, training and money needed for the priviledge and joy of piloting one's own aircraft. Any comparison is disengenuous and not accurate. They're not different soda cans to choose from on a shelf.

I became a pilot because one day as a toddler I looked at an airplane overhead and the stars aligned within me that made it right and true to want something with a true passion in my life. And I'm well aware of the difficulties GA is facing today, thank you. I work to spread the joy and committment of personal flight whenever and wherever I can. No one I know is merely wishing and hoping the problem will go away on it's own. That was unnecessary and undiplomatic to say.

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 29, 2014 6:06 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Dave Miller;: Your second paragraph summed it (flying) up nicely. As you eluded to - discipline, training and $$$ to become a "pilot" as a hobby, in the recreational sense, cannot compare to other alternative leisure activities; however, the "others" are more INSTANTLY gratifying and at a fraction of the cost, in a " I have to have it RIGHT now" society.

To the person, as you stated, including finances, will do whatever it takes; convincing the "Mrs" a second mortgage, or winning the Lottery to experience and achieve the unique world of flight!

You HAD the motivation and desire - an admirable quality many younger folks don't possess today!

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 29, 2014 9:36 PM    Report this comment

Although many of us fly for flying sake, we also immerse ourselves in the flying community for the social interactions and adventures that occur as a result of rationalizing the flying passion. In other words, while airplanes and flying are the elephant in the room, their existence in our lives is almost white noise. Wives don't understand husbands obsession with cars, but they enjoy the "dates" they go on while hubby is showing off his "other" first love. Perhaps if shows depicted airplanes more subtlely like namebrand placement (coke bottles in the background) and made the main focus on adventures, public service, romance, business, etc that are unique to or enabled by GA airplanes (props-only, please!) it would speak to the ego and ambition of the non-pilot? There used to be a steady stream of aviation-related shows: Sky King, Wings, Baa Baa Black Sheep, even Flying Nun, that kept flying on people's minds. Perhaps the taudry exaggeration in so-called "reality TV" is too much of a lure for the public interest?

Posted by: William Grant | January 30, 2014 10:53 AM    Report this comment

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