During this year's repositioning of the Pilot's Lounge from the virtual airport to the EAA convention at Oshkosh, many of our regulars and visitors again partook of a rather cynical variation of the traditional form of recreation-at-the-airport-when-we're-not-flying: watching arriving aircraft to see stupid pilot tricks.
Sadly, we saw a bunch.
While the majority of arriving pilots demonstrated more than satisfactory judgment, ability to control their aircraft and follow simple written and verbal directions, there was a depressingly large chunk of the population who just plain couldn't put that troika together. The year's display of inadequacy, indecision, ignorance and immaturity was, by several accounts, the worst yet. If independent observers within the EAA and FAA communities who work or volunteer at Oshkosh are to be believed, the problem is continuing to grow.
My anger over the painful, annual Morons-To-Oshkosh pilgrimage conducted by airplane drivers reached the boiling point a few years ago. (Although it is now rarely used as the intensely nasty insult it once was in aviation, I am -- for this situation -- resurrecting what was historically the most derisive and disparaging term that could be applied to a pilot: an airplane driver. It is an appropriate description for those who are lousy pilots; for drivers are only capable of thinking in only two dimensions.) These airplane drivers are the slugs who make the conscious decision to fumble their way into Oshkosh when it is the busiest airport in the world without bothering to read the NOTAM; or if they have read it, without having the ability to or intention of complying with its fairly simple terms. As frosting on their aeronautical dessert, they cannot cause their airplanes to maintain a constant speed, altitude and ground track for more than microseconds, creating constant problems among those trying to follow them on the prescribed arrival routes.
Some of the drivers die on the way to or from Oshkosh or on the arrival, usually taking with them any number of innocent passengers. Their ineptitude has also caused the deaths of other pilots who did all they could to deal with the antics of the drivers and, in doing so, exceeded the envelope of their airplanes. I wrote about the problem some years ago after my friend, Ben Moyle, died on the approach to Runway 9, probably because he tried to stay behind a driver who had slowed his airplane to final approach speed well before getting to the vicinity of the runway. That column was widely reprinted and posted on FBO bulletin boards. It caused a bit of a stir over the next year or two. I'd like to think it made a difference in the way pilots prepared for flying into Oshkosh the next year, but there is no data available. (I am told that the procedures followed by the controllers on the Ripon/Fisk arrival were changed the next year -- I do not know if it was a cause-and-effect event.)
Yes, I'm angry. I started writing this column while I was at Oshkosh this year and watched that certain percentage of the clueless or arrogant drivers ignore the NOTAM and controllers, wander aimlessly over the airport into high traffic areas, land on Runway 27 when everyone else was landing on 9, ignore the CAP Cadets and EAA volunteers marshalling aircraft, and generally demonstrate that they had no business flying into Oshkosh during AirVenture, or perhaps even holding a pilot certificate. Want an example of just how bad it got? Listen to a driver, who did not have the NOTAM with him (claimed he read it), refused ATC's entreaty to land and pick up a copy, and then did just about everything wrong. (This recording is a 5.63 MB MP3 file, running time six minutes.)
I just hope that, wherever he is, he feels guilty about what he did and is aware that his behavior could have killed people.
After you listen to it, ask yourself why someone who would probably never consider flying into Hartsfield or O'Hare airports would blithely come barging into an even busier airport without making any preparations? What kind of arrogance or personality disorder does that take? I can't help but wonder if the FAA started an investigation into this guy's actions and degree of mental health.
I have a warm spot in my heart for every single one of those Flight Line Ops volunteers who stand out there in orange vests, marshalling arriving aircraft. They do it for long hours, in sometimes dangerous conditions because the noise can be so all-pervasive that a person cannot tell when an airplane is coming up from behind and is a threat. The volunteers marshalling airplanes work hard and they appreciate pilots who know what they are doing, can actually operate their airplanes and will follow guidance from and to the runways. They show amazing patience with the occasionally confused or overwhelmed pilot and have prevented uncountable collisions and injuries through cool-headed action. The see the good, the bad and the ugly and they are willing (if I don't name names) to talk about what they see. In years past they have told stories of stupid pilot tricks with a laugh and a lot of patient understanding for what pilots will sometimes do when under the stress of flying into the big city of the EAA convention.
This year they were not laughing.
This year they sought me out. This year they were angry and one or two had been badly scared by something a pilot did. This year they said that the downward trend of pilot behavior they had been observing over the last several years had pilots crossing the line from simply foolish into dangerous at a rate far above any previous year. This year the daily morning meetings of Air Traffic Control, Flight Line Operations, Flight Line Safety, EAA Security and others involved with getting airplanes in and out of Oshkosh were characterized to me as having an unprecedented atmosphere of tension, anger and frustration. As I researched this column, I heard stories of daily close calls, idiocy in the air and on the ground and a new high in "gaming' the system by pilots who had no sense of consideration for their fellow aviators. This year Flight Line Ops leadership followed airplanes that they observed being stupid and interviewed pilots trying to find out just what the heck was going on. This year the controllers were making calls to Flight Line Ops and EAA Security regarding specific arriving airplanes, even before those airplanes had touched down, and asking that the airplanes be followed and the pilots identified. The controllers were frustrated, upset and angry about individual pilot behavior and determined to press for a violation action against the pilot. This year there were enough problems that the FAA stepped away from its historic hands-off approach to pilot transgressions. It used to be "no harm, no foul." This year the frequency of egregious behavior by airplane drivers arriving at AirVenture caused the FAA to step in and start initiating violation actions.
You want examples?
When landing on the parallel Runways 18L and 18R, the NOTAM makes it clear that there is a displaced threshold and that airplanes approaching those runways are to stay above a floor altitude until they have passed over Runway 9/27 (because there are airplanes landing on 27). At least a fourth of the airplanes landing on 18 did not bother to stay high over 27, causing repeated close calls between aircraft. Because of the displaced threshold (it's far enough down the runway that it's easy to descend from the floor altitude over Runway 27), there was room to deploy personnel near the old threshold of 18 to marshal taxiing airplanes. Those persons often had to dodge out of the way of landing airplanes because the landing pilots couldn't figure out standard runway markings for a displaced threshold and gave every indication that they were willing to land on people.
Very early on there was a fatal accident on the approach to Runway 9/27 that closed the airport for about two hours. The controllers had to direct arrivals into the published holding patterns and eventually had to stack airplanes. The NOTAM has a procedure to cycle the airplanes out of the holds onto the arrival once the airport opens. The controllers tried to implement that procedure only to discover that a great many pilots decided that they had priority over others in the same situation and simply headed for the railroad tracks leading to the airport. Pilots who would otherwise have followed the rules saw line cheaters getting away with it and didn't want to get penalized for following the rules, so they headed for Ripon or even bypassed it, and headed for the railroad tracks, leading to a nearly unmanageable mass of airplanes going up the railroad tracks side by side, passing each other and ignoring the published altitudes. Those who were there were amazed there were no mid-air collisions.
A Lancair pilot flew the published warbird arrival rather than the general aviation arrival. He was followed to parking and interviewed. His arrogance astonished the volunteer who spoke with him; it seems that the pilot was of the opinion that because he flew a fast airplane he could use the warbird arrival and the EAA volunteer who had the temerity to express a dissenting opinion could go to where it is reputed to be extremely warm for eternity.
A number of pilots ignored the Flight Line Ops marshalers and taxied where they pleased and parked where they wanted to park. Many of them responded to marshalers (who were asking them politely to move) by becoming loud and obscene, seeming to feel that because they were wealthy enough to own an expensive airplane, they could do and go as they pleased.
A flight of two warbird L-39s were on left base for Runway 27 (and number 1 to land), well ahead of me (about to turn final) and the EAA's Ford Trimotor, which was on an extended right base. The controller called my airplane and the Trimotor as traffic, which would "be no factor." The warbird leader proceeded to turn the flight away from the runway, toward the Trimotor and me. The controller told the warbird leader to turn toward the runway and land as he was well ahead of the traffic. The warbird leader responded by saying he could see several airplanes to the north and east of the runway and continued to turn northeast, away from the airport, into the area of the arriving traffic despite the controller continuing to tell him to just turn toward the runway and land. The last I heard of the warbird flight, the leader had taken it out over Lake Winnebago to the east of the airport and he was still talking about "all these airplanes" that he could see while the controller was vainly trying to get him into a sequence between arriving airplanes.
Despite the airplane camping area filling up and the ATIS saying so for two days, a twin arrived at Oshkosh near the end of the second day of the closure determined to camp. When told that he would have to depart and go to Fond Du Lac to camp with his airplane the pilot engaged in the tactic of simply standing and yelling as loud as he could at the volunteers in hopes of delaying things until the airport closed so that he'd get his way. Fortunately, an EAA volunteer who works at a prison as a day job got involved and used techniques that have been proven effective with inmates to deal with the miscreant. (He didn't get to camp with his airplane.)
Another guy in a twin refused to tie his airplane down despite the published requirement that he do so. He told Flight Line Ops that because his airplane was so heavy it did not need to be tied down. Things escalated to the point that he then decided to park his airplane in the middle of a taxiway alley, get out and go into the show. His antics required the expenditure of a lot of time and energy by Flight Line Ops, EAA Security and ultimately the Sheriff's Department before his aggressive lack of cooperation led to his airplane being moved to an FBO ramp where it wouldn't be in the way.
Because arrivals camp together and socialize, a lot of new friends are made each year in the airplane camping area. That's part of the magic of Oshkosh. That socialization has a down side because some pilots brag how they "gamed" or shortcut the system and got away with it. Most pilots won't do that, but as they see the jerks get away with it year after year, more and more are willing to try a shortcut. This year one of the "gaming" techniques that had been discussed around the campsites in years previously was tried: A number of airplanes flew a previously published NORDO (no radio) arrival procedure, even though they had a radio. The problem is, there has not been a NORDO procedure in the NOTAM for years. It was dropped some time ago because the cost of hand-held radios had gotten so low that it was felt by organizers that anyone who would fly into the busiest airport in the world would be willing to either buy a hand-held or would land at a nearby airport and call the tower on the phone to get an arrival procedure tailored to the weather conditions and traffic in effect at the time. Airplanes flying some version of a previously published NORDO approach were actually arriving through the middle of other published arrivals, leading to predictable consternation on the part of controllers and excitement on the part of pilots flying those published arrivals.
Pilots insisted on flying side-by-side up the Ripon arrival, being unwilling to yield the right of way, or cutting into the Ripon arrival stream at some point well beyond Ripon or just ignoring the published approach speed and passing airplanes in the arrival stream.
People who were tasked to follow airplanes and speak with the pilots reported that most who had fouled up either did not have the NOTAM or, in the stress of the arrival, got it open to the wrong page or couldn't figure out what frequency to use and simply followed the airplane ahead all the way in. Those folks were treated gently, as most of them were embarrassed that they had erred. The ones who became belligerent, angry or felt that they were entitled to do as they did regardless of the dozens of other airplanes in the sky nearby have probably gotten letters from the FAA by now. I was told that the EAA is also keeping track of such folks and some of them may well be getting letters inviting them to attend AirVenture in the future by arriving in any manner other than as pilot in command of an aircraft. While the willingness for the arrogant set to sue for perceived slights to their macho-hood has to be recognized and would probably be a deterrent, I can't help but think that the list of names of the "disinvited" should be published somewhere on the Internet. Sometimes fear of being publicly shamed does prevent potential scofflaws from ignoring the rules.
I also learned that the County Sheriff always had at least one deputy on site equipped with an appropriate radio so that if Flight Line Ops, EAA Security or ATC needed law enforcement in a hurry, they would get assistance. I was also told that such calls were made and that the assigned deputy did respond and provide help. I did not find out whether any of the arriving pilots were hauled off to the local slam. While I'm pretty angry at the stupid pilot tricks, I'd hope none were so idiotic as to lead to incarceration. Then again, a police officer friend of mine once told me that there are only two crimes: stupidity and aggravated stupidity.
So, what should be done about the growing problem of Morons to Oshkosh?
1. Publicly applaud the owner organizations and type clubs who inform their members about the realities of flying into Oshkosh. I cannot say enough positive about the organizations that heavily push education. These groups do a fabulous job of getting the word out to their members and should be recognized for their efforts.
2. Impose a very high landing fee during the convention, say at least $200, but waive it for any arriving aircraft in which the pilot can show that he or she has a copy of the NOTAM in the aircraft. EAA parking volunteers greet each arriving airplane as it is, they can collect the fee and enforce it just as they currently do the camping fee. If the pilot does not have a copy of the NOTAM the EAA volunteers slap a sticker on the airplane noting that the pilot not only owes the landing fee but lets others nearby know that this clown put each of them at risk. There is absolutely no reason not to be in possession of a copy of the NOTAM, so the effect on pilots should be zero. If a pilot launches having forgotten the NOTAM, it's foolish to continue for Oshkosh. Pilots are notorious tightwads; the idea of having to pay $200 because he or she forgot the NOTAM will mean that the pilot will make an intermediate stop and pick up a copy. If people are going to pick nits because the NOTAM contains a lot of pages, some of which do not apply to the average arriving pilot, then the minimum portion aboard better be the VFR arrival and departure procedure pages.
3. Let it be known that the FAA is no longer going to look the other way. That "no harm-no foul" is history. Controllers who have someone go stupid beyond the normal bell-curve of behavior will tag them and have them pursued. Even if it results in nothing more than an opportunity for that pilot to have a long talk with an FAA inspector, the idea that Oshkosh is no longer a free-fire zone will cause some (not all, I know) of the yahoos to either stay away or clean up their acts.
That's all. Nothing more draconian is needed. In previous years when things got ugly there was talk of requiring arrival reservation for VFR as well as IFR airplanes. That's completely unworkable. However, unless something is done by next year, we're going to see the annual death toll mount and that will cause a lot of public hand-wringing and input by folks who do not fly or have never flown into Oshkosh. It would result in stupid over-regulation of another general aviation activity, just as we've wound up with the silly, band-aid, make-it-look-good-to-the-nonflying-public restrictions on airspace around places such as Washington, D.C.
We in general aviation must act because a certain proportion of us have decided to be self-centered idiots. We see it. We know it is going to cause more problems and we can't put our collective heads in the sand and hope it goes away at Oshkosh. Some very smart people have come up with an efficient way to get a lot of airplanes into and out of AirVenture each year. They agonize over every word in the NOTAM trying to make sure it is absolutely correct and clear. The problem is that we, the users of the system, are seemingly incapable of either bothering to read it, following instructions or playing well with others, and we're dangerously close to crossing the line that will result in the cry of "Everybody out of the pool!"
I'm proud to be a general aviation pilot. I worked very hard to obtain the privileges that go with a pilot certificate. I greatly enjoy the challenge of flying into Oshkosh each year and doing it as well as I can. I'm tired of being tarred with the public perception that GA pilots are irresponsible, rich dilettantes because a certain percentage of us don't give a damn about anyone else and insist on doing things that result in ever growing restrictions on where and when I can fly a little airplane. What those knotheads are doing on the arrival at Oshkosh is predictably going to result in one of the next restrictions being on flying into AirVenture. The EAA, working with the FAA, has a chance to improve the quality of arrivals with some fairly minor changes. Let's put in a stiff landing fee with a waiver for NOTAM possession and publicly announce that there is no more hands-off policy on the part of the FAA when it comes to pilot misconduct. I think those small steps will pay big dividends. If it means 30 or 40 fewer pilots try to fly in, big deal. The airport will still fill up. However, it may mean that there are one or two fewer accidents and there are more people alive to enjoy AirVenture.
See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.