EDITORIAL. CNN's recent brief
August 15, 2001
Before Lindbergh even
took off for Le Bourget in 1927, he complained bitterly about the
sensationalistic media coverage surrounding his and other attempts to be the
first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Between that feat and the
tragedy of his son's kidnapping and murder, the mass media forced his retreat
from the public eye. Of course, the mass media's treatment of aviation has
greatly improved since the pre-war years. Or has it?
Last Wednesday, August 8, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired a brief
segment entitled "Companies Opt More for Private Jets" as part of its CNN
Tonight newscast. The segment was billed earlier in the day by asking the
questions, "How safe are small planes? And how qualified are their pilots?" Of
course, "small" is a relative term. To most AVweb readers, "small"
could be a Piper Cub when compared with a Cessna 310. Or a Lear 35 versus a
Gulfstream V. In this case, however, CNN was referring to corporate jets and
comparing them to the only other form of aviation it apparently knows:
airliners. One implication from the network's advance billing was that CNN
recently "discovered" general aviation since more and more business people are
opting for non-scheduled air transportation in lieu of the delays, poor
service and crowds associated with scheduled carriers these days. Another
implication was that the network would actually broadcast some facts providing
insight into the relative safety of scheduled carriers versus general
But, neither was to be. The entire focus of the brief piece was to look at
the crew of the Gulfstream III that crashed March 29 while on approach to Aspen,
Colorado, killing all 18 aboard, and then to indict the training and
qualifications of all pilots who don't fly for scheduled carriers. It ain't
that simple, folks.
Instead, the relative safety of general aviation, corporate aviation and
the scheduled carriers is an extremely complicated topic, one well beyond the
scope of this editorial (not to mention 10 minutes of a weeknight broadcast on
CNN). For one thing, the term "general aviation" can encompass everything that
flies except the military and the airlines, including aerial application,
flight testing and training, Alaska bush flying and illegal drug-running
operations. Even if you strip out these higher-risk operations, you still are
looking at experimentals, antiques, aerobatics and other activities that carry
with them greater risk than traveling in a straight and level line from Point
A to Point B while sipping a cocktail and trying to avoid being subjected to
the latest Adam Sandler film.
But enough of that rant. Instead, let's look at the actual CNN broadcast.
Below is the transcript found on CNN's Web site. I haven't changed a word
of it, but I have inserted some comments and questions, in red.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Commercial airlines are losing business
customers as many companies now opt for private jets. But aviation safety
experts are raising some concerns about the training and safety of flight
crews piloting these planes.
They are? To which "aviation safety
experts" are you referring?
A CNN investigation into one private jet crash is the focus in our cover
story tonight. With that in California here's CNN's Charles Feldman.
CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was to have been a joy
ride to a vacation resort, 15 people flying from California to a ski outing in
Aspen, The approach into the Aspen Pitkin County Airport, because of terrain
is considered tricky even under the best of circumstances.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board the flight crew was
aware of an FAA warning issued two days before, prohibiting nighttime
instrument approaches into the field. But as night approached and bad weather
set in, the AV Jet plane arrived on its final approach mere minutes before the
There remains a great deal of
speculation and misinformation regarding exactly what this plane's crew knew
about a NOTAM addressing the approach. AVweb's
coverage discusses only a few of these questions while the most
recent official statement from the NTSB only states some basic facts. As
usual, we will all have to wait for the NTSB's final report and finding of
It crashed just short of the runway killing all 15 passengers, a flight
attendant, and two pilots.
When investigators quickly concluded the aircraft suffered no apparent
mechanical difficulty before the crash, all eyes turned to the tricky approach
and the qualifications of the pilots.
MARC FOULKROD, AV JET: The aircraft was operated by a highly experienced
crew and as the primary crew assigned to the aircraft had flown multiple trips
to and from Aspen during the month of March.
FELDMAN: But documents obtained by CNN paint a portrait of the duo that
some aviation safety experts say should have raised red flags and may show a
pattern of bad judgment leading up to the March crash.
A lawsuit just filed against AV Jet by the family of 26-year-old Paul
Standerman (ph) , who died in the crash alleges that AV Jet should have known
of what it calls the "unfitness" of the flight crew, citing their alleged
reputation for operating aircraft in a reckless and dangerous manner.
Well, that's certainly a solid
foundation on which to base a news story; indicting the dead crew. Does the
lawsuit constitute the "documents" CNN obtained? How rarely do those filing
a lawsuit interpret facts to fit their view of
The man at the controls of the AV Jet plane that night was Captain Robert
Frisbie. Some two years before the fatal crash, Frisbie, CNN has learned was
also pilot in command of this business jet that ran off the runway at Chino
Airport in California.
AVweb could find no entry for
such an event in the NTSB's online database. The FAA's incident database was
offline and unavailable when we prepared this
An FAA inspector charged Frisbie with operating an aircraft in a careless
manner, by landing on a runway that was not of sufficient length due to the
The FAA declined to take action against the pilot.
That should tell you something right
there. When was the last time you ever heard of the FAA declining to
initiate an enforcement action against a pilot if there was single shred of
evidence in the FAA's favor? Can you say "Bob
JIM BURNET, FORMER NTSB CHAIRMAN: It was of course an accident, and a very
serious one to run off the end of the runway. And it suggests problems with
judgment in determining under what conditions to land and whether or not to do
Thanks, Jim, but if it was an
"accident" per the NTSB definition, where's the accident
FELDMAN: Earlier in his career, FAA records show Frisbie was disciplined by
another company for making an unsafe take-off from Burbank Airport in
Disciplined by his employer but not the
FAA? Why? Did be break a company rule but not a FAR? What, specifically, was
"unsafe" about the takeoff?
Paul Standerford's mother is particularly galled by Captain Frisbie's
MICHEL EDWARDS, CRASH VICTIM'S MOTHER: I feel that he was reckless and
foolish. And as a result of that I've lost my son and so, if you want to know
if I hate him? The answer is yes.
While Ms. Edwards' loss is certainly a
painful one, what do her feelings have to do with aviation
FELDMAN: On the night of the Aspen crash, Frisbie's co-pilot was Peter
Kowalczech (ph) . FAA records reveal that Kowalczech failed three critical
flight tests for his pilot's licenses tests FAA records show the vast
majority of applicants pass the first time.
BERT BOTTA, PILOT EVALUATOR: Every pilot has a problem at some point in
their career, either failing a check ride or coming close to failing a check
ride, or failing a portion of a check ride. So one failure is not a big issue,
but three stacked up like that you know over a relatively short period of time
would raise a flag for me.
Which tests? Did he fail the same ride
three times in a row? Did he fail a Part 135 recurrent ride? Did he fail an
initial ride in the G-III while upgrading from a Seneca? What elements of
the ride did he fail? Who trained him? Who failed him?
For years, FAA examiners have been
extra-tough on applicants for certain certificates, the initial Flight
Instructor-Airplane certificate among them. Unfortunately, CNN couldn't be
troubled to check into these details.
FELDMAN: And just how much did AV Jet know about the background of its two
pilots? AV Jet, one of the nation's largest business jet operators repeatedly
refused requests by CNN for an interview. It did however provide documents
showing Captain Frisbie had been recertified to fly passengers in the Gulf
Stream 3 jet shortly before the accident, because he hadn't been flying that
kind of aircraft recently.
FAA records show AV Jet apparently failed to request background info on
co-pilot Kowalczech, as required by federal law for new hires.
If so, this is inexcusable on AvJet's
BURNET: You have the pairing of a captain who was recently recertified to
operate the equipment he was operating at the time of this accident, paired
with a very inexperienced first officer. Now, that poor crew paring of
inexperienced or not recently experienced in their position has been an issue
in a lot of accidents.
Secondly, you have a very troubled training record on the part of the first
Frisbie had accumulated more than
10,000 hours; Kowalczyk more than 5,500. While not the most experienced
G-III crew ever, this is more experience than might be found in the pairing
aboard a scheduled regional carrier these days.
FELDMAN: Several aviation experts question whether pilots with the
backgrounds Frisbie and Kowalczech would have ever been hired by a major
Again, who are these
Most major carriers would snap up
pilots with this experience level in a heartbeat. Delta Air Lines'
web site says its minimum qualifications are 1,200 hours
total time; 1,000 turbojet or turbofan. American doesn't even bother anymore
to list minimum experience qualifications, saying only that flight time
should be "commensurate with other qualifications." Let's face it: The
airlines are hiring 500-hour flight instructors to ride shotgun on regional
jets these days.
The business jet industry vigorously defends its overall safety record.
JACK OLCOTT, NATIONAL BUSINESS AVIATION ASSOCIATION: Turbine aircraft flown
by a two person professional crew in other words the classic business
aircraft, has a safety record on a par with the largest scheduled
True statement. For 1999, the most
recent year for which complete statistics are available, the total accident
rate for corporate/executive operations is 0.230 per 100,000 flight hours
versus 0.298 for Part 121 carriers. The fatal accident rate is 0.130 and
0.011, respectively, according to Robert E. Breiling Associates Inc., a
well-respected source of aviation safety
FELDMAN: But increasingly, business charter planes are being used much like
small airliners. The planes' crews subject to the same strings but not to the
rules that cover commercial carriers.
Huh? What's a "string"?
(on camera): With an estimated 12 million passengers flying private jets in
the United States, the question being raised is, why the double standard?
But this is the wrong question. The
G-III that crashed at Aspen was a Part 135 non-scheduled operation. Since no
scheduled 121 operations are currently conducted at Aspen only scheduled
135 CNN's question is not relevant. Instead, the more appropriate
comparison is between scheduled and non-scheduled 135 flights. According to
Breiling, those 1999 numbers 2.88 total and 1.11 fatal accidents per
100,000 hours for scheduled Part 135 flights versus 3.45 and 0.53 (i.e.,
less than half the scheduled fatal accident rate), respectively, for
non-scheduled operations demonstrate that the premise on which CNN based
its broadcast is false.
(voice-over): It is up the Federal Aviation Administration to decide
whether business charter flying ought to be held to the same standards as the
airlines. The FAA declined an interview with CNN but has over the years
resisted numerous attempts to tighten the regulations.
Sounds like the FAA has decided, but
CNN doesn't like the answer. The simple fact is that the three basic tiers
of Federal Aviation Regulations (Parts 91, 135 and 121) have been in place
for decades, are constantly updated to reflect changes in technology and
industry practices, and exist to recognize the operational and economic
realities of air transportation in the U.S. No one (except maybe CNN)
expects that the FAA should should apply to a sightseeing flight in a Cessna
172 the same rules governing a scheduled United Airlines
Charles Feldman, CNN Los Angeles.
HEMMER: Let's take the topic a step further. Joining us now to talk about
private jet safety is Jim McKenna, executive director of the Aviation Safety
Alliance. And Jack Olcott president of the National Business Aviation
Gentlemen, good evening to both of you tonight.
Jack, how big is the difference between a pilot's experience who is flying
for say Delta, and a pilot who is working for a private company?
JACK OLCOTT, NATL. BUSINESS AVIATION ASSN.: The pilot flying for a company
such as an NBAA member company has really quite a lot of experience. In fact
frequently the requirements to be hired by a corporate operator are higher
than the requirements to be hired as a co-pilot for a large scheduled
Another true statement. Most corporate
operators wouldn't even consider hiring someone with the same level of
experience the airlines are accepting these days. In fact, a lot of pilots
being forced to retire from an airline because of the age-60 rule are finding jobs
in corporate flight departments.
HEMMER: How does that translate then, Jack, into safety?
OLCOTT: The safety record of turbine powered aircraft flown by two person
professional crews is excellent. It's on a par with the very, very high safety
record of the largest scheduled airlines.
HEMMER: But it's not top of the line, correct, the way I understand it. You
have four steps for a license. The top line would be airline transport and
line underneath that would be commercial flight, right, and that's what you're
Bill, an Airline Transport certificate
does not mean the holder can fly only for an airline. Please do some more
OLCOTT: No. The typical pilot for a corporate operation has an airline
transport pilot's license, has minimum requirements for our member companies,
average about 4,000 hours for a captain and 2,000 for a co-pilot. You'll find
that those standards are very high and on a par with the major airlines.
Again, the standards at many corporate
flight departments are well above those at major
HEMMER: On a par but again, as you stated not quite as much experience as
your top of line pilots.
OLCOTT: No, I did not state that.
HEMMER: In your first answer you said they don't have as much experience as
many of your other pilots who fly the commercial airliners, and the example I
gave was Delta.
Bill, go back and read your own
transcript. Jack said exactly the opposite. You "heard" what you wanted to
hear, didn't you? You wouldn't be putting words in his mouth would you?
Perhaps to match your own agenda?
OLCOTT: Correction. If I said that, please let me allow a correction
HEMMER: Fair enough. Well stated.
Ahh, that electronic voice in your ear
telling you to back off, eh, Bill? Jack handled your inability to listen to
his previous answer quite well. This just shows what happens when the facts
get in the way of a well-planned agenda. Again.
Jim, what about the flying public. Should they be concerned in any way
about the quality of the pilot flying a charter jet?
JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION SAFETY ALLIANCE: No, not at all. In this case, Bill,
for example, the pilots involved in this accident both had the highest rating
that you could get from the FAA, the same rating that every airline pilot in
this country would have, the air transport pilot rating.
The captain in this flight had I believe about 5,500 hours or I'm sorry he
had over 10,000 hours of flying experience including 175 hours in the airplane
that he was flying at the time. The co-pilot had about 5,500 hours and 500
hours in the Gulf Stream. So this was an experienced crew.
These guys work hard to get to the position where a corporation will
entrust them at the controls of an airplane that's flying high profile
HEMMER: I apologize for the interruption, we are just tight on time
tonight, are you suggesting that with 12 million people flying on private jets
a year that we are picking on a problem that does not exist?
Wow! You're finally getting it, Bill!
Who researches these programs, anyway?
MCKENNA: The intro mentioned that these pilots have been facing the same
strain as airline pilots but not under the same rules. These pilots often face
far tougher strains than airline pilots. They have to be ready to go, they
have to be competent to go to any airport that a customer wants to go to. They
have to do so competently to make sure the customer in the back is satisfied
So no, I don't think the people who fly on these aircraft even if the
number of people flying on these type of aircraft is increasing, nobody has
anything to worry about.
It's about time someone said
HEMMER: Quickly, back to Jack, before we run out of time here, when one
watches this story tonight, what should one take away from it?
You mean aside from the fact that the
mass media still has a long way to go before it approaches impartial,
accurate coverage of aviation?
OLCOTT: That it's very difficult if not impossible to make a judgment of
what caused the accident until all the facts are in. That's why we have the
National Transportation Safety Board. That's why I believe the FAA is
reluctant to make any comment at this time until the NTSB report is in.
And that's why CNN's attempt to discern
the cause for the Aspen G-III crash and indict non-scheduled aviation safety
in the bargain before the NTSB's probable cause is known failed miserably,
harming its reputation in the process.
HEMMER: Jack Olcott, Jim McKenna, thanks for sharing, gentlemen.
Much appreciated. An issue that will get more and more popular as again we
take to the skies across the country.
"More popular?" What does this mean?
Does it mean CNN still isn't convinced of the facts associated with
corporate aviation safety versus the airlines? Does it mean that CNN only
covers subjects that are "popular" with its viewers or its producers? Does
it mean we can look forward to more instances of CNN's failure to
objectively research and report general aviation
Whew! That's a pretty painful transcript to read.
Painful not because of the spin CNN put on the story, not because of the
network's breathtaking lack of research and not because of the many misleading
statements and questions that were broadcast. No, it's painful because CNN
(like so many other major news outlets) simply doesn't know any better.
While travel aboard the commercial carriers has been going down the tubes
the past few years, general aviation has (in spite of itself) experienced a rejuvenation of
equipment, activity and technology. Even the simplest aircraft flying
around the U.S. today often is equipped with better technology than the 727
that just landed at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport. The GA
airplanes designed and certificated during the airlines' current decline bear
little resemblance to what CNN, major media outlets and the general public
commonly refer to as "small airplanes."
While general aviation is this nation's best-kept secret when it comes to
personal transportation, that same lack of familiarity among the general
public and the mass media with GA results in the local news story about
the twin-engine Cessna Cub that crashed because it didn't file a flight plan
and in pieces like CNN's. Because of the mass media's lack of understanding,
of familiarity and of knowledge (I'm not referring to it as ignorance, but
some may) with aviation generally and with non-commercial aviation
specifically, the average member of the public will view a broadcast like
CNN's and take it as gospel. In this instance, CNN failed miserably in
fulfilling its responsibility to accurately and objectively report the facts
and to refrain from speculation. (Note that if CNN had labeled its broadcast
as an editorial, that would be a completely different animal. But it didn't.)
CNN also did its viewers the disservice of raising a number of issues and then
failing to give the outside experts it assembled the opportunity to address
them. When CNN did allow its outside experts to respond to questions, its
on-camera talent failed to listen objectively or otherwise to the
Clearly, CNN owes its viewers an objective look at aviation safety. That
look should distinguish between the many variables present in comparing the
apples of the scheduled carriers with the oranges of, say, aerial application
or bush flying. It should also distinguish between a pilot's first couple of
hundred hours and the owner who flies his or her piston single or twin IFR
that much in a year. We'll see.
Like Lindbergh just after his departure from Long Island, we all still have
a long way to go.