Eye of Experience #51:
You're Lucky to Be Alive — Aviation and the Media
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.
Some 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.
A Personal Example
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 sink!
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.
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?
The Air Carrier Picture
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 something.
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 revenue.
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.
Remember 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.
What To Do
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 suggestions.
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 desired objective.
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 rough."
When 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 replied.
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 at.
"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 1981."
"Could you tell me about that one?"
"No, ma'am I'm afraid I couldn't since I wasn't on staff at that time."
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.