When aviation was in its infancy, there were banner headlines if an airplane made its intended destination. Nowadays, the opposite is true. Just how serious a problem does media paranoia present and what can we do about it? AVweb's Howard Fried has some thoughts he'd like to share.
March 13, 2002
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
time ago I wrote a column in which I stated that I'd rather be lucky than
skillful any day, but in reality the skillful pilot makes his or her own luck.
In all the years I've been flying I'll be the first to admit that I've been
lucky I'm no great shakes as a pilot I simply take off, point the
airplane in the general direction of my destination, blunder around the sky
for a while, and if I'm lucky I wind up where I want to be. After flying for over half a century and amassing
over a total of more than 40,000 hours, if and when my luck runs out, heaven
help me. At my age I get up every morning, look in the mirror, and, if I'm
there, I say to myself, "Well, here's to one more day." But that's
not what this column is about. It has to do with the way the popular media
treats aviation in general and General Aviation in particular.
Twenty or so years ago I was executing a localizer back course approach to
the airport where my school was based. I was demonstrating for an instrument
student and, since it was his first experience, I was doing the flying. As I
recall, it was a very hazy July day in Michigan and the visibility below the
haze line was an even mile, the minimum for the approach. We were in a Piper
Arrow (PA28-200R), which still had the automatic gear extender intact. After
we passed the final fix, the local control tower cleared us to land. I pulled
the plug to start down, applied approach flaps and extended the gear in
preparation for landing. We descended to the MDA (Minimum Descent Altitude)
400 feet AGL (above ground level), at which time we were about a mile and a
half from the airport couldn't quite see it, but knew exactly where it was.
I advanced the throttle to apply power and drive it on in. There was no
response from the engine, which merely continued to idle, and we continued to
I honked the gear back up, called the tower and advised them that we were
going into the drink (there was a lake about an acre in size directly in front
of us). However, glancing out the side window, I observed a field, also about
an acre in size. It was surrounded by an 85-foot tree line (I have
never seen the FAA's hypothetical 50-foot one) and it had a motorcycle
track running diagonally through it. Determining that I didn't want to get
wet, I banked around to the left onto a base leg for the motorcycle track,
re-extended the gear and effected a routine, normal landing. We sank a couple
inches into the soft sand which brought us up to a very short stop. Please
understand, this was a perfectly normal, routine off-airport landing. The only
luck involved was the fact that the field happened to be there to prevent us
from getting wet as a result of splashing down in the lake.
I made arrangements for the retrieval of the airplane and, when I got back
to my office, I sat down in the open reception area and the door burst open. A
man who identified himself as a reporter for the local newspaper rushed in and
demanded, "Where's the pilot? Where's the pilot?" I timidly raised
my hand and the guy pointed his finger at me and literally screamed,
"You're lucky to be alive!" My response to this outburst was to point
to the door and invite the guy to get the hell out. I cite this as an example
of how the popular press (and the general public) views general aviation in
fact all aviation. I have come to regret throwing the guy out. What I should
have done was offer him a cup of coffee, sit him down and attempt to educate
him. His attitude was not surprisingly that of the general public and even
that of the popular press. The only way to affect a change in this attitude is
through education, and that's a job for all of us.
Ever since man has been flying, defying gravity has been deemed dangerous
in the collective mind of the public and the media. That's why, for example,
when the word "airplane" is mentioned to a jury, they immediately
want to start handing out money. Flying machines are considered
"inherently dangerous instrumentalities." If we are to make a dent
in this attitude, which is so widely held, each of us must seize every
opportunity to educate every single person with whom we come in contact.
That's the only way I see of ultimately correcting this deplorable situation,
and deplorable it is. A good start for each of us in general aviation would be
to offer a local reporter (print or broadcast media) a ride in a small general
aviation airplane, carefully explaining exactly what we're doing at each step
of the way. This could go a long way toward alleviating the misconceptions and
fear associated with flying. And if we do it well we can even gain a convert.
What is the media interested in? News, that's what. And what is news?
Crashes, that's what. In furtherance of my research on the subject of the
popular media as it relates to general aviation, I talked with Dick Kapinski,
the public relations guy for the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) in
Oshkosh, Wisconsin. During Airventure week, Oshkosh is the busiest airport in
the entire world and traffic problems might well be expected. Kapinski says:
On a year-round basis we hear from a wide variety of reporters
regarding aviation. Many of these inquires, unfortunately, come after an
accident usually fatal and the reporters are bumping up against a
deadline. That perhaps is one of the key instigators of general media
goof-ups. Daily reporters, unlike their magazine counterparts, have very
little time to put together their stories. They need (quick) facts, not long
technical explanations. Nearly all of them have little idea of what an
airplane does other than deliver them to Cancun once a year. Small
airplanes are cramped, they bump around in the air, they crash for no
apparent reason that's the perception. Many reporters have flown in a
small plane only because they had to for a story and they don't have a great
personal reference. With this attitude on the part of the media, is it any
wonder that, in the collective mind of the general public, general aviation
is made up of a few foolhardy souls who are too dumb to know that the
activity in which they are engaged is inherently dangerous, and that every
time they take off they are a accident looking for a place to happen?
As this is being written (February, 2002) the public reluctance to fly on
air carriers since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, is still very much
in evidence. In fact, just today I saw a survey showing passenger traffic is
still down to the extent it was last November. Of course the media reaction to
an air carrier disaster, any disaster involving the loss of several lives, is
immediate and vigorous. After all, this is news with a capital "N."
What that does, of course, is reinforce the fear of flying in the collective
mind of the public. And the FAA doesn't help. Whenever a news story breaks
regarding a major disaster, the FAA's immediate knee-jerk reaction is to issue
some more unnecessary regulations so they can loudly proclaim they are doing
Every aviation accident results in more media ink and broadcast chatter
proclaiming that flying is unsafe. And we all know that a lie told often and
loud enough gets believed. There are two basic causes for the irresponsible
reporting of aviation mishaps. The first is, of course, ignorance an
uninformed reporter attempting to explain a complex situation in a few simple
words in a very short time frame. And the second is the fact that
sensationalism sells. The more sensational a broadcaster or print reporter can
make the news sound, the more readers or listeners or viewers he or she will
attract, and a larger readership or listenership results in more advertising
Flying is no exception to the fact that everything we do involves some
degree of risk. Although the safety record of the air carriers is absolutely
phenomenal, when there is an air carrier accident there are usually a lot of
fatalities. This coupled with the fact that such occurrences are quite rare
makes airline crashes high-profile news. Unfortunately the reporting is rarely
accurate. The media coverage of an air carrier disaster is a prime example of
the self-confirming hypothesis. The sensationalism of the reporting of a crash
just goes to prove the already held notion that flying is unsafe this in
spite of the phenomenal safety record of our major carriers.
Jessica Dubroff? This one started out as a publicity stunt. Here was this
little girl (pilot?) who was going to fly across the country with her
instructor and her father, giving interviews to the press and TV stations
(even the networks) at every stop along the way. The CFI permitted himself to
be pressured by the father into taking off in the Rocky Mountain country when
the weather was so bad even the birds were walking. As might be expected there
were no survivors in the ensuing crash [full NTSB report here],
and the media went ape, damming general aviation as a dangerous, unsafe
activity. The eyes of the entire world were already on the
"seven-year-old pilot" when the crash occurred.
When I interviewed Dick Knaplinski of the EAA, right after the Dubroff
crash, he had this to say about that one:
The best thing that came out of that tragedy is general aviation got a
rare opportunity to present its case in public. Hundreds of private
airplanes take off and land every day, so there's no news in that. We (the
EAA) got lots of calls right away from the local newspaper to CNN and ABC.
We got to discuss kids and flying, flight instructors, flight safety,
weather decisions and much more. Of course, in our case, Young Eagles (an
EAA program to introduce young people to aviation) was brought up quite a
few times. It's not the way I want to get publicity, but it had many
reporters calling and asking about the program. We got to explain the tight
parameters for Young Eagle flights and how that differs from the Dubroff
attempt. Both J. Mac McClellan, Editor-in-Chief of Flying magazine, and Phil
Boyer, President of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), went
on national television and were given an opportunity to explain just how
that particular publicity stunt was by no means typical of what general
aviation is like.
If you are reading this, you are no doubt a pilot or otherwise interested
in aviation. Like me, you love aviation and deplore the way the media covers
aviation. Also, if you're like me, you want to do whatever you can to improve
this situation. By no means do I have all the answers, but I can offer a few
Now that we've analyzed the reasoning behind the deplorable situation
publicity-wise in which aviation in general and general aviation in particular
finds itself, what can be done to rectify this? For the most part it is my
belief that all this adverse publicity is not the result of malice, but rather
ignorance. (I know of no one in the mass media who deliberately wishes to harm
aviation.) And the only way to combat ignorance is with knowledge. However,
before education resulting in knowledge can take place, minds must be pried
open so that knowledge can enter. This is not always an easy task. To improve
the sad state of affairs that exists between general aviation and the media we
must embark on a campaign of education. We must all work to convert the
members of the popular media from being adversaries to becoming friends of
aviation. We can't always be successful because sensationalism sells papers
and attracts viewers and listeners. However, even a moderate amount of success
on our part will result in a greatly improved perception of our place in the
grand scheme of things on the part of the general public. And that is our
Step one in this education process is to get the name of the people, be it
in print or electronic media (newspaper or radio or TV) who covered recent
stories on general aviation. Next, contact each one of them personally and
offer to buy him or her lunch (these people are great freeloaders and are
unlikely to turn down a free meal). We must remain calm and avoid becoming
emotional (not always easy when dealing with a subject we love). While
breaking bread with them, flatter them they'll eat it up. Calmly explain
how helpful general aviation is (medivac planes and choppers save lives, news
and traffic choppers are used in their own industry, etc...). Then invite them
to the next aviation function in the area FAA safety meeting, EAA meeting,
etc..., assuring them that there is a story to be had. Finally, offer them
each a ride in your airplane. If you don't have one, see if you can get a
local flying club or flight school to offer a free ride to a member of the
press. If it is an instructor who gives the ride, have him/her give the
reporter a sample lesson.
If these suggestions are followed in a warm, friendly way, I guarantee
you'll make new friends for aviation and the next story they write will be
favorable. We did exactly as I suggested above a few years ago at one of the
three flight schools my company was running at the time. A local TV station
sent a reporter and camera crew out while the reporter got a lesson, and we
got five minutes on the six o'clock news. We did the same thing with a TV
weatherman, and got a five-minute segment on another station. By the by, that
guy became a flight student at my school and today is a proud airplane owner!
For this kind of publicity any flight school would be glad to donate an
airplane and instructor for a half-hour lesson. Believe me, it is easy to set
this up. All you have to do is ask.
To implement the suggestions I outlined above, every pilot and his/her
friends, every FBO, and every flight school must be enlisted. They must be
sold on how helpful this will be to all of us. You might ask why you must be
the one to take the initiative and get this underway. The answer is simple. It
is because it has to be done by somebody and you're the one that's willing to
do it. If we don't do these things we will all continue to suffer the results
of bad publicity stemming from ignorance. In matters aeronautical the general
public and members of the media are extremely ignorant. As one correspondent
put it, "Get real! The uninformed are uninforming the uninformed.
Shouldn't we be weighing in? One would think the FAA would be the champion of
our cause but they seem more inclined to turn tail when the going gets
I asked Dick Knapinski for his comments on how the media treats general
aviation, he had this to say:
The annual convention here in Oshkosh is ... an interesting situation.
With more than one thousand media people here aviation knowledge runs the
gamut of knowing much more than I ever will to not knowing which end of the
airplane is the "spiny end." Some of the media show up at Oshkosh
as they would at an auto race hoping for some crash footage. That is part
of the game and I can live with that. The best way to frustrate them is to
run a super safe event and make them work for a story.
A Milwaukee TV reporter called on opening day saying that she would be
doing a live report at Oshkosh at 5:00 pm. "No problem," I said.
She then asked if she could get some background info. "Sure," I
The first question out of her mouth was, "You guys have been
known to have some safety problems in past years. What are you doing to make
this a safer event?"
"I'm not sure what you're alluding to," I said, trying to
run through my mental Rolodex of what specifics she might be getting
"Well, you know, you've had some fatal crashes in the past
"Ma'am, we haven't had a fatal accident on the grounds since
"Could you tell me about that one?"
"No, ma'am I'm afraid I couldn't since I wasn't on staff at that
We have a should-be-sainted volunteer in Press Headquarters who
answers the phone and regularly gets just one question from the media
caller. "Any crashes or incidents today?" She always replies,
"We have none scheduled."
With this attitude on the part of the popular press (including broadcast
media), which goes a long way to influencing the thinking of the general
public, is it any wonder that the kind of educational activity outlined above
is necessary? It is a job for all of us who love aviation.
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than
sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.