Austin: It's a Test, Really

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As Thursday's bizarre events in Austin were unfolding, we had a slightly urgent discussion around the office about how to spin our second-day coverage to minimize the impact on general aviation.

About 10 minutes into that rumination, I asked myself: why? Our audience of pilots and aviation savvy readers knows exactly what and how to think about Andrew Joseph Stack's apparent decision to fly his Dakota into an office building. This was simply the act of a single, unhinged individual who happened to be a pilot and who happened to have access to an airplane. If he had owned a bulldozer, presumably, he would have used that instead.

What we don't know is what it means outside the context of the general aviation community. In that sense, the Austin attack will serve as an interesting test of whether the public has become more resilient and dismissive of the incessant and paranoid obsession with terrorism. I'm not a reflexive basher of mainstream news outlets, because I understand the job they have to do. Nonetheless, how reporters and editors play such stories can shape public opinions and in an era where feedback on stories is practically instantaneous, what readers think reflects back and shapes how evolving stories are covered.

It's the second-day stories that can be the most damaging and, in some cases, revealing. In the case of the Amy Bishop shooting story in Alabama, the follow-ups are delving into her violent criminal past, not gun control as a fix-it-all panacea. For the Austin second days, the worst we would expect to see are dead-end stories about small airport security or, gasp, proposals for psychiatric evaluations of pilots. What I think we're actually going to see is coverage that tilts toward violent anti-government and anti-tax crimes, of which this is just the latest of many.

This morning, for example, the cable sites are still playing the story as a top-of-the-page lead, with video and photos. But both the New York Times and Washington Post are leading with Olympic coverage, playing the Austin story at the bottom of the page. I could hardly find it, actually. Tiger Woods, bless his dark little heart, is getting the leads on the network morning shows.

Maybe I'm delusional, but I take this as a realization by editors that this story just isn't significant. Maybe readers have grown weary of being infantilized by the lunatic fringe—left and right, but mostly right—treating every crime major or minor as a terrorist plot that threatens the Republic. Maybe readers have been exposed to enough of such tripe to finally, as a means of self-preservation, tune it out. If that comes twittering back to editors, they'll get the message. In engineering, that's called a closed loop system and it's possible that it's working to our advantage.

Reduced to the basics then, what we have here is anti-government hysteria run amok. But only inside the head of one disturbed individual. If you listen much to the blaring megaphone of cable news and talk radio—it's hard to avoid--you might worry that we'll see more of this sort of thing and that this incident represents the leading edge of some sort of violent revolution. Some of the cable talking heads actually spew this stuff. But wild-eyed anti-government paranoia has always been a permanent fixture of American life. This time, it happened to manifest itself in an airplane used as a weapon. In 1995, it was a truck full of fertilizer and diesel fuel. Next time, it will something else.

Comments (26)

Imagine if this guy had an RV instead of an airplane...

That said, your choice of phrase about Tiger Woods' "dark heart" probably could use some re-consideration.

Posted by: Brad Koehn | February 19, 2010 9:30 AM    Report this comment

So far I haven't seen much anti-GA rhetoric on various message boards...there's a few "ban all small planes, they could be used by terrorists" comments, but they've been so few and far between that you can't tell if they were genuine opinions or just trolls.

Most of the attention in message boards seems to be inane debates on whether he's a right-winger or left-winger, and whether it's Obama's or Bush's fault. Pretty useless stuff. Sounds more to me like this guy wasn't striking a blow for any cause, he was just a pathetic guy who got caught up in some tax-avoidance scams and proceeds to blame everyone byt himself

Posted by: Chris McLellan | February 19, 2010 10:54 AM    Report this comment

Re the Tiger Woods comment: please, let us let words mean what they mean, and not constantly sweat over what career offend-ees could conceivably make of them (like the recent Atlanta subway stupidity).

But to the main point, I was utterly disgusted to watch the talking blonde head, superimposed on my TV over a tiny wisp of smoke rising from the wreck site, gush about how this was 'chillingly reminiscent of 9-11.' This is a terribly enough event for those caught up in its consequences, but PLEASE! I hope Paul is right and there is a general revulsion against this sort of ridiculous hyperbole. Alas, though, I doubt it.

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | February 19, 2010 11:02 AM    Report this comment

Possibly another test, of more immediate interest to GA, is how long until will the FAA keep the airport closed? And what was the point of that, anyway?

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | February 19, 2010 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Seems like this brief is nothing but equivocation. No common sense was exercised in putting up glass buildings such as this, the Pirelli or similar beautiful structures. Remember the three little pigs!

Posted by: Art Sebesta | February 19, 2010 11:22 AM    Report this comment

I think that one way to prevent this from happening again, and Paul did mention this- is a psychological exam. This could be rolled into the medical exam that everyone takes. Also perhaps, some sort of FBI background check that would look for any anti-government leanings,political affiliations orperhaps even trouble with the IRS. The time is now for the FAA to implement some measures such as these before another guy does the same thing, and then the public gets totally fed up with general aviation and cries out for draconian measures such as shutting down GA on a massive scale.

Posted by: Dave Castle | February 19, 2010 11:22 AM    Report this comment

>>I think that one way to prevent this from happening again, and Paul did mention this- is a psychological exam. This could be rolled into the medical exam that everyone takes.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 19, 2010 11:29 AM    Report this comment

The point of the airport closure is like persons flock togethor like us pilot lemmings here. Our certifying AMEs do pshyc observations. I feel if you capable of landing a plane, you can about master any type of "test" long enough to pass.

Posted by: Art Sebesta | February 19, 2010 11:54 AM    Report this comment

Just saw Craig Fuller on Fox -- he handled the inane "how can someone just go fly??!!!???' questions rather well.

This might be a good opportunity for GA talking heads to help people better understand how GA exemplifies and contributes to freedom and liberty in the good ole' US of A.

The sad fact is nutcases can and do find all manner of ways in which to kill themselves and other people. Sometimes the way they choose is exactly the reason we call them nutcases.

RE psych evals, in reading his 'manifesto' it seems the writing of it was supposed to be an act of catharsis, ostensibly assigned by a mental health professional. I'm certainly not a practitioner, nor do I know the dude personally (many of his best friends said they had no idea he was so close to the edge), but given his ultimate action and knowing he was already receiving therapy, it probably isn't too much of a stretch to assume he was not medically qualified to fly.

Further, given the unpredictable nature of health in general, any medical evaluation today tells us nothing about a person's health tomorrow. I would say that is especially true about mental health.

Posted by: Mark Sletten | February 19, 2010 12:27 PM    Report this comment

Well if I've learned one thing from this exchange it's that I need to t y p e m o r e s l o w l y ...
Sorry for the typos. But seriously, I would like to understand the rationale behind keeping the field shut down. If there were any crime-scene-type info that could be gleaned, maybe keeping the vast crowd of GA pilots operating at that airport from trampling it could be worthwhile, but that doesn't explain keeping it closed for this long. If there were suspicion that a fleet of nutcases were about to launch more attacks from the same airport, then maybe -- but that was discounted in the first few hours. So what's up? Why keep a perfectly good airport unavailable just because a guy passed through it on the way to commit a crime? How about closing the road he drove on from his house to the ramp?

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | February 19, 2010 3:04 PM    Report this comment

The idea of requiring psych evaluations for pilots will evaporate very quickly, as soon as it's pointed out that this would then make even more sense for owners of guns of any kind -- since a gun is designed for nothing but destruction, while an airplane (or car or baseball bat) has other primary (and secondary and tertiary) purposes.

Posted by: R Schnapp | February 19, 2010 4:35 PM    Report this comment

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the NRA's efforts in fighting gun control. I'm willing to bet that 5 years ago we'd be hearing about banning handguns to prevent an Amy Bishop type tragedy.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | February 19, 2010 6:18 PM    Report this comment

After "Officials" gain true control rather than this mere exhibition, I suspect aircraft will have to avoid setting off the active glass building defense laser system (AGBDLS) that can inadvertently shred us to confetti in seconds.

Posted by: Art Sebesta | February 19, 2010 7:07 PM    Report this comment

From what I read, GTU airport was initially closed because of fears that the pilot may have left behind a bomb in his car parked at the airport.

He already set fire to his house before leaving for the airport, so authorities weren't sure what other surprises he had in store.

Posted by: KIRK WENNERSTROM | February 19, 2010 10:12 PM    Report this comment

After seeing the post about the SR22 stolen by a former student pilot, we need to get the message! Lock the ****ing planes! I know of one flight school that leaves the keys in the airplane, either in the ignition or hanging on the knob to the heading indicator. This wouldn't have prevented the suicide crash in Austin, but it is good practice. I think there will be more PR damage done due to the theft of the SR22 than the Austin attack! While I'm ranting - we need a decent, approved door locking device for our airplanes. Too many aircraft have antiquated desk-drawer type locking systems. I would think we can do a little better.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | February 20, 2010 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Am I the only one who would rather read about this:

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 20, 2010 5:09 PM    Report this comment

Indeed, let's learn from the gun lobby and politicians : if you repeat any story enough times, the public will buy it. So what if we have the truth on our side, that doesn't matter, we can still use the same tactic. Here it goes : we all use the same line : that any (Uhaul or Ryder) truck is a lot more dangerous than GA aircraft (cfr Oklahoma City vs. 2002_Tampa_plane_crash, White house lawn crash, East River Cirrus crash, Austin etc). Then ask if that means we should ban trucks altogether. Let's keep on repeating that until they adopt it. All of us, same story, again and again.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | February 21, 2010 5:15 AM    Report this comment

I think Mr. domestic-terrorism-guy forgot to do his "IM SAFE" checklist... and being a resident of another country for the last 8 years, when television terrorism barometers were at their high in the U.S. - I stopped watching TV news. They use the same barometer visual on French TV... for the air quality. I just hope more news coverage like the kind referring to 9/11 dies a quick death. And I hope Mr. Bertorelli is right - that the news coverage will lean more towards disgruntled tax payers.

Posted by: Marcellette Cloche | February 22, 2010 7:31 AM    Report this comment

Several people have asked why GTU was closed. The guy had the hangar next door to ours and one of our group was out at the airport when the FBI and cops arrived.... The FBI were all over the hangar as he had left his car there and there; also there was a note on the dash implying the car was rigged. The FBI was trying to understand if he had used any other materials in his 'attack'....

Working 1 mile from the crash site and owning the hanger next to his, my only thought is he was a lone nutjob. Not a terrorist (he wasn't trying to bring society down), just a guy with a grievance. No amount of security would stop someone like him. I am just glad that light GA planes have so little kinetic energy and useful load!

- Tim

Posted by: Tim Fountain | February 22, 2010 8:27 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the info on the GTU closure. I see there was some sense in it, and also that it apparently was not extended for an unreasonable amount of time. In that case the test was passed.
In the larger matter, I do see that coverage has virtually evaporated in the mainstream media in the face of other more "interesting" things. Good marks to AvWeb in my opinion.
And Mr DeCeulaer has a good point, it wouldn't hurt to tell a consistent story. Personally, my BS detector goes off when I hear the same words parrotted in different places. But most of the people we have to convince have their BS detectors INOP anyhow.

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | February 22, 2010 9:11 AM    Report this comment

I am a licensed psychologist and a private pilot. Doing a psychological exam as part of the medical would not stop people from doing irrational things when they are angry. People lie, even on psycholgical exams. And sometimes people don't even know what they are going to do themselves. The privilge to fly rests upon self-monitoring and self-control, which presume some mature sense of personal responsbility. Given the right conditions, we all fail in this area to some degree,usually with no life-threatening consequences. No amount of regulation would prevent situations like this. But increasing regulation to require a psychological exam would give very private information about us to the government, information that it has no need for and would undoubtedly use for some other purpose at some point. Let's not go down that road.

Posted by: JAMES REED | February 22, 2010 11:52 AM    Report this comment

There are over 600,000 pilots, about the same as Police Officers in the US. Now if we find that pilots as a whole, are about 99.999% are perfectly mentally sound that still leaves about 6 of us that are bonkers. There are more reported bad cops than that in any given year and I dare anyone to compare that number to any other profession...including TSA.

Posted by: Chuck West | February 22, 2010 6:50 PM    Report this comment

I must admit it is nice to read an aviation blog on this incident. Many of the blog writers have called for a outright ban on general aviation or at least new regulations to prevent this from happening again, but no one has proposed what sort of regulation would even come close to stopping a future incident.

It is refreshing that our local congressional representatives have taken the high ground and stated that they felt there was no need for further regulations.

Ray / Austin

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | February 24, 2010 10:16 AM    Report this comment

Interesting comments above, I would like to add one more.Does anyone else feel like the term "Terrorism or Terrorist" is over-used and under defined by teh media? They like to label any spectacular criminal event an act of terrorism modified as either domestic or other. The Austin incident was NOT an act of Terrorism. A terrorist attack is by definition an act intended to strike fear into a victim often to bring attention to a cause. The pilot in Austin was just angry and frustrated. I wish we could stop the media from calling any reckless act involving airplanes - Terrorism.
Jim - Toronto

Posted by: James Kabrajee | February 25, 2010 3:21 PM    Report this comment

Mental tests??? why not a magic little ball that reads out the names of nuts then we just go and kill them? (from the movie minority report)

Why is it that when anyone off's themselves it's terrorists attach?

This is sad. and yes, if he had used a bulldozer then it would have been just as tragic.

Time to get rid of the talking heads and get on with life.

Posted by: Timothy A | February 26, 2010 12:33 PM    Report this comment

And speaking of healthcare, what is the real cost of all of the sprained ankles from jumping to conclusions over the news story? I watched CNN's coverage for hours (on and off) and I am still learning new "facts". I must say it's fun watching "profesionals" screw up a story just to be first.

Posted by: Larry Fries | February 27, 2010 3:17 PM    Report this comment

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