It was a weekday evening and I'd just finished flying with a relatively new instrument student who was proving to be competent, determined to learn, and overall a genuine pleasure from an instructor's point of view. I'd stopped into the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport out of habit and ran into Old Hack, Sandy and a few other regulars. It was immediately obvious the topic of the day was frustration with the very public, stupid-pilot tricks experienced every year at the EAA's blowout at Oshkosh.
In a matter of minutes, I listened to recitations from my friends about everything from trying to follow someone on the Ripon arrival who couldn't hold airspeed or altitude and made things miserable for everyone trying to follow him, through a half-wit on Unicom frequency who had not read the NOTAM for the arrival procedures and wanted someone to read it to him over the air, to watching pilots land the wrong way on the active runway, opposite to the flow of arriving traffic.
The annual parade of knuckleheaded behavior by pilots at Oshkosh is a matter of great concern to me, personally, because I fly in and want to do so safely and because some years ago a friend of mine was killed on the Ripon arrival, not too far short of the approach end of Runway 9. I wrote a column about that and expressed my deep, abiding anger at those who were hurting all of us in GA by their simple lack of basic, common sense in and around airplanes.
One of the things I've learned in flying into EAA Oshkosh for something on the order of 35 years is that there are good years and bad years for accidents and close calls. One way to predict a bad year for the arrivals (and departures) is if there has been a fuel-price spike. The events are so connected that it's scary: Until prices stabilize and pilots get used to a new high, they tend to cut down on their flying in the months before AirVenture so they can be sure to have enough money in the budget for the trip to Oshkosh. The outcome is as one would expect: Pilot skill levels are down, but because pilots are not good at self-evaluation, the accident rate jumps for the overall process of getting to and from Oshkosh. The Ripon arrival becomes a bad dream of airplanes snaking all over the sky, passing each other and generally demonstrating that their pilots have no business flying in circumstances where there is a heck of a lot of traffic. There almost always seems to be an upsurge in scud-running accidents as pilots fly low in the annual few days of foul weather and hit towers or power lines, or simply fly into the ground when they bury their head in the cockpit to stare at the map or GPS. Sadly, this is a big fuel-price-spike year, the number of cell-phone towers continues to grow, and the new, 400-foot-tall wind generators are multiplying across the landscape so there are more and more things to hit. I'm very, very concerned about the accident rate this year.
Even in the good years, we can count on at least one experienced pilot stalling an airplane within a few miles of the airport while trying to follow someone on the Ripon arrival. We can rely on a few of the utterly clueless who have no business flying at all, but insist on doing so, killing themselves and, criminally, taking others with them. I watched one of those folks set up to land on Runway 27, with no other airplane anywhere near him, then stall the airplane while turning from base to final and crash. Well, he did hit the runway -- an angling, glancing blow, sort of in passing -- before he cartwheeled to a stop off to the side.
Bluntly, it is time that we take a cold, hard look at ourselves before we decide to fly into Oshkosh at the end of July. First, let's admit precisely what it is that we propose to do: Fly into the very busiest airport in the world.
We are going to fly into the busiest airport in the world.
The airport with more traffic than any other airport in the world.
In the world.
Let that statement lie there in the sun for a moment or two and start to ripen while the significant sinks in. For about a week, Wittman Field at Oshkosh, Wis., is busier than Atlanta Hartsfield or Chicago O'Hare or London Heathrow or LAX. There are a lot of pilots for whom the idea of flying into a controlled airport gives them the willies and they avoid doing so like the plague; they also avoid contact with air traffic controllers. And, guess what? Those same pilots are going to fly into Oshkosh.
Operating in and out of the busiest airport in the world is truly big-time aviation and needs to be taken as seriously as the most serious flying we do in our lives. Yet we in GA apparently don't take it seriously enough because each year a bunch of us die flying into or out of that airport. Think for a minute: How many accidents are there involving airplanes going in to or out of O'Hare or Hartsfield in a given week? By and large, none, right? How come we in GA can't match that result in any given year? What's wrong with us?
I certainly don't have all the answers, but I've seen a lot of symptoms of the problem. I've heard the student pilot bragging about how he flew in to EAA Oshkosh as a solo cross-country even though the NOTAM clearly forbids student operations. I've heard some instructors say that such a thing is fine. It's not. It's basic, unmitigated arrogance and stupidity. I've heard the pilots calling Oshkosh Tower 10 miles west for landing instructions. I've watched the guy on downwind insist on flying at 800 feet agl and a mile away from the runway while he complained to the Tower that all those other airplanes were flying too low and too close to the runway. I've watched the Cherokee whose pilot could not seem to slow the airplane down to approach speed and then, when told to land on one of the colored dots on the runway, simply shoved the nose down when he was somewhere in the vicinity of the dot and landed on the nosewheel, lost directional control and wheelbarrowed off the runway. I've listened to the white-faced, recently landed pilot tell about the airplane in front of him who flew the arrival varying his airspeed through about 30 knots and his altitude by a couple of hundred feet each side of desired and then, while still a couple of miles from the runway, suddenly dropped all the flaps and slowed down to 55 knots and powered the airplane all the way to the runway while there was a melee of airplanes behind him trying to avoid over-running him and each other.
So, here's the deal: As someone who has had a friend die on the approach to AirVenture, and who wants to fly in safely this year, I propose we make an agreement. Let's agree to print out, study and mark up the NOTAM well before we go so that we will be ready for the arrival procedure no matter which runway is in use. Let's agree to be certain we can hold indicated airspeed within 5 knots of the desired number and altitude within 50 feet either side of the desired height. (For most of us, it's going to be 90 KIAS and 1800 feet msl). If I don't have the NOTAM annotated and sitting where I can grab it as I near Oshkosh or if I can't hold speed and altitude within those limits, I promise I won't fly in. I'm asking the same promise from you.
I'm asking ... no, I'm demanding ... that if you have a flight review coming up in the next month or three, take it before you fly into Oshkosh so that your skills are at their best. I've got some recurrent training scheduled, I want to make sure I'm not a hazard to someone else and that I'm as ready as I can be should something go wrong.
The only trouble with the agreement you and I just made is that, from what I've seen over the years, the problem children in aviation don't read. They are not subscribers to aviation publications, they do not read NOTAMs or FAA safety publications or make much effort to keep up with what is going on in aviation. They just get in their airplanes and go, either oblivious to the world or not deigning to recognize other pilots and airplanes. Therefore, this year, let's extend our agreement: Let's agree to be intolerant of the bozos who won't or don't read or keep their skills up and are accidents waiting to happen. Let's see if we can find a way to reach the out-of-touch, the problem children, on our airports.
Let's try a two-phase approach to the situation: While it would be nice to give each of the yahoos a Stooge-slap to get their attention, we probably have to be a little more subtle.
Let's start by creating a rumor that will get their undivided attention: A $100 landing fee has been imposed at AirVenture, and that the fee is waived if the pilot can produce a copy of the NOTAM in either paper or electronic form after landing. It's not true, although I fervently wish it were, as hitting pilots in their wallets is the fastest way to get their attention. However, the problem children don't do their aviation homework, so they will have no way of knowing the rumor is untrue. Therefore, if we let it start, it is going to cause some pilots who otherwise wouldn't get the NOTAM to do so. What the heck ... this rumor might just save a life or six.
The next step is to print out this column, or the earlier one I wrote, write appropriate, helpful, friendly recommendations on it, and tape it (use the kind that won't mess up the paint) to the airplanes of the folks at your airport who are the problem children. You know who they are. Maybe, just maybe, they'll take going to Oshkosh seriously and do a little preparation. Also, post this on the bulletin board at your FBO where some folks might read it.
So, to recount the deal we're making with anyone who wants to attend AirVenture this year, fly in and not get dead in the process or create more newspaper headlines and TV news stories about the nuts in the little airplanes that kill themselves at the biggest aviation event in the world:
This year, let's agree to stay alive so we can truly enjoy AirVenture and all that it has to offer, so that we can return to our homes with stories of very cool things we saw and did, but without having seen things that will become stupid-pilot tales. Let's agree that, if there is going to be something about us and aviation and AirVenture in the newspaper or on the TV news, it is going to be because we are a positive influence on aviation and helped make it a little bit better for everyone concerned.
See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.