JFK, Fear and Risk

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I've found the reaction to last week's kid controller fiasco nearly as interesting as the event itself. It's kind of a popular case study in how people perceive and manage risk—not just physical risk, but the sociological kind, too.

As pilots, we have a Pavlovian negative reaction when media outlets—mostly cable news—overplay a story, as they certainly did with the JFK kid controller. We practically froth at the mouth because these stories get things so wrong in pitch and detail. Why is this? The root of it is the public's fear of flying, which reporters and editors are more than happy to pander to in order to retain dwindling audiences.

And anxiety about flying is still quite real. On an airline flight I was on last month, just as the cabin door closed, the Captain announced that a bleed air valve in the left engine was broken. We would be delayed while it was fixed. The guy to my right, whose Dad happened to be an airline pilot, shrugged it off, the woman to my left was buried in her iPhone, but the woman directly behind me audibly gasped, "Oh my God!" She wasn't joking.

That distribution roughly conforms to the somewhat loose research that shows that about a third of the population has some anxiety about flying and some percentage of them are truly fearful. Most passengers conceal their fears, but the slightest abnormal strips away the veneer of calm. Those of us steeped in aviation have trouble understanding this because we know how a modern airliner's redundant systems work and we know enough about accident rates to realize how low-risk airline flying is.

But my theory is that many pilots think they know more than they do and as a group, we tend to substitute familiarity for actual rational knowledge. I've been reading a book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why. It discusses the difference between intuitive and analytical risk assessment. The intuitive mind—the part of the brain responsible for fight or flight—doesn't rank risk but ponders only worst cases. The analytical runs the numbers, ranking risk based on probabilities. The woman stressing over the broken bleed valve is a classic intuitive response.

In my experience, many pilots actually tilt toward the intuitive, not the analytical. They think they don't, but they do. Example: We get a lot of questions from pilots about traffic systems for light aircraft, suggesting that many owners are fearful of mid-air collisions. But mid-airs, despite being spectacular and often fatal, are a tiny fraction of the overall flight risk. If you eliminated light aircraft mid-airs entirely, it wouldn't move the accident rate much, if at all.

As a group, we run airplanes out of gas twice a week, on average, and run them off runways into ditches for no apparent reason three or four times a day. Approaching the risk analytically, you'd buy a fuel totalizer first, then spend time training and practicing landings. (Of course, none of this applies to me, because I am an exceptional pilot and I'd never run an airplane off a runway. But you need more training.)

I was speaking to one of our writers last week about the new WAAS approaches, the LPVs with vertical guidance. He just automatically assumed that with vertical guidance, these approaches are safer. Really? I asked for actual data on that. Show me how these approaches have actually reduced the probability of an accident, not just that they should. The history of safety "improvements" is littered with examples that made things worse or propped up the status quo. It's just as possible that LPVs could lure pilots into weather they might not otherwise tackle, thus bumping up the accident rate. This is another example of substituting familiarity with rational analysis.

All of this is to say that judging risk is full of blind sides. I'd venture to say the JFK controller and his supe got utterly blindsided by this story because the nature of the risk was entirely outside their universe. There was no real safety risk at all, so they may have assumed there was no risk of any kind. Familiarity substituting for knowledge does that sometimes. And we're all susceptible to it. It's worth thinking about.

WEDNESDAY P.M. UPDATE: For those of you out of the U.S.--or even in it--look into how CNN is now covering the "Jihad Jane" story for an example of how cable stokes fear and loathing. An interview this morning had two calm, reasonable sources saying this wasn't something to worry much about. But the anchor kept incessantly questioning these sources as if to insist something had to be done, as though we're about to be overrun by blonde, blue-eyed terrorists.

This is a direct corollary to the JFK controller story.

Comments (57)


I don't think you realize just how dangerous the situation was for those JFK pilots and passengers. As Ray LaHood said, "The idea that a young child would be directing planes in and out of an airport is totally unacceptable.”

Even worse, just the other day I went to an airport and they had a ROBOT directing traffic! A robot doesn't have feelings and can't make good decisions, so how safe is that? If you don't believe me, just tune in ATIS and you'll hear the robot. He even tells people what runway to land on! How safe is that?


Posted by: MICHAEL MURDOCK | March 7, 2010 7:17 AM    Report this comment

Well, I can't agree. The robot at our airport has been broken for more than a year. How am I supposed to know what direction the wind is blowing? What if there are pebbles on the runway that I can't see? And who will tell me if it's raining or cloudy.

How am I supposed to find the runway without federal assistance? Next thing you know, kids will be running the control tower.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 7, 2010 1:02 PM    Report this comment

I wish to share an experience in my aviation career yesterday which I think you will all agree should qualify me for a medal of honor! My flight started with a lost flight plan and I saved the day by expertly negotiating with ATC to have a new one filed, all the while saving us from certain destruction since we were operating without one. Then the unthinkable happened, ATC issued a heading for me that was intended for another aircraft. Although the ATC system failed me, I displayed "the right stuff" and asked for clarification, all the while saving 3 gallons of gas and reducing the excessive carbon gas emissions and climate change! (By the way I'm kidding about the medal of honor stuff - the only thing I did was use some common sense - a commodity that is apparently in low supply today!)

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 7, 2010 7:28 PM    Report this comment

A thoughtful piece I reckon, thanks Paul. As The Sunscreen Song said in the 90's, "The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday".

Maybe in future a NOTAM could be issued regarding some unexpectedly young voices on the radio? Aside from that, I reckon that the negative comments say more about the shiny-bums who aspire to positions of authority these days. I reckon the LaHood's of this world should sue their parents for depriving them of a healthy childhood.

Posted by: John Hogan | March 7, 2010 10:34 PM    Report this comment

What hasn't been mentioned in anything I've read is the distraction the kids may have been in the tower, not to the pilots. The controller said, "That's what you get when the kids are out of school," suggesting that they were in the tower for the controller's entire 8-hour shift. JFK can be pretty busy on the evening shift. Would the controller be distracted by supervising his kids while working local or ground control?
If the other parent brought the kids in for a visit and the controller let the kid talk to a couple of airplanes during a light moment of the day - no big deal. But being responsible for two kids while also working airplanes is, I think, too much to do everything well.

Posted by: Robert Conyers | March 8, 2010 6:47 AM    Report this comment

The kids' dad unfortunately failed to do a proper risk assessment. He should have considered the character of the Secretary of Transportation, who has demonstrated himself to be a headline-seeking idiot, not fit for the job he holds. "The idea that a young child would be directing planes in and out of an airport is totally unacceptable" he says. Give us a break, please. Of course these kids weren't directing planes. A professional, competent controller was directing planes. The kids just said into the microphone what he told them to say. If they'd said anything else, he was right there to make a correction. The risk of anything out of order happening, let alone the risk of an accident, was zero. The only risk was that a damn-fool politician, who as Secretary of Transportation really should know better, would hype the incident out of recognition.

Posted by: John Stanning | March 8, 2010 6:49 AM    Report this comment

While it shouldn't have been done, the official response was totally bureaucratic and over the top. I commend those pilots who took it in stride. So, big shots at the top, scold the guilty controller and supervisor, put them back to work and distribute a suitable edict on the subject.

Posted by: Doug Scott | March 8, 2010 7:08 AM    Report this comment

On July 20th, 1969 the United States turned a corner. We went from a free thinking, goal driven society to a lawsuit driven, profit seeking society. Business seeks profit at the cost of maintaining American jobs and the talking heads on the TV news will pander to any airhead group that will listen. Maybe if some of the school shooters's father would have taken them to work and gotten involved in their lives, we would have fewer incidents of that kind. Rome rose and fell, and the US will do the same if we don't act quickly. How many newscasters took their kids to work last year? Can't have some little kid reading the news, he might get something right for a change.

Posted by: Kraig Krumm | March 8, 2010 7:18 AM    Report this comment

Many commentators seem to think "we (the aviation community) know what we're doing - you ignorant people and media have no right to comment." But the UK reaction over Heathrow or Gatwick would have been identical.

I'm sorry Paul Bertorelli says: "...reporters and editors are more than happy to pander to (fear of flying) ...to retain dwindling audiences."
Sorry Paul, as a journalist for some 50 years (to match some of the aviation experience cited here) that is wrong. With many of the comments, it reveals an inability to understand "perceptions," what outsiders perceive has happened. No matter if it's "right" or "wrong," perception is the most powerful driver of comment, for journalists as much as the general public, so the reaction to the tower incident is, to me, totally understandable and rational. Especially after 9/11.

If this incident was not dangerous or possibly distracting - and some of your commentators think it may have been - then the aviation community's job is to explain that calmly and try to educate the public and the media, not rant against them, a most unproductive response.

Finally, to those arguing the value in creating a possible vocation in the children, surely just being in the tower and watching Dad and his colleagues in action for hours would have done that. It would have been magic enough for me at that age, without talking on the radio.

Posted by: Unknown | March 8, 2010 8:31 AM    Report this comment

Posted by another Paul. I don't know how to sign on the "posted by" line.

Posted by: treuthardt | March 8, 2010 8:33 AM    Report this comment

The average person knows very little about Aviation. We need to educate that public that Pilots fly and navigate the planes, and "Controllers" give information. Controllers do not "land" planes; they give information about weather and other traffic, and Pilots decide whether or not to land and then actually land the plane.
Whether the information is given by a licenced controller, a trainee controller, or someone visiting the tower, makes no difference. The information given by the children to pilots at JFK was correct, and the controller was there to make corrections if necessary. There was no hazard.
We need to educate the public and politicians about aviation; we will reduce the general anxiety about flying, which will help the entire industry, from ultralights to heavy jets.

Posted by: BRIAN HOPE | March 8, 2010 8:41 AM    Report this comment

My day job is in medicine. Every weekend the hospitals were once filled with the children of the docs, showing their kids why they routinely missed their birthday parties and such, and yet instilling in the kids an appreciation for the hard work and commitment - and ultimately joy- that being a physician was all about And a goodly number of those kids would aspire to and ultimeately enter medcal fields themselves, with an excellent knowledge of what day to day medicine is all about, rather than based on totally absurd TV shows.

Then a series of laws were passed - I nicknamed them the Hillary Laws - about privacy, discretion, need to know, dont share or teach or talk or think, and we can no longer take our kids to work on weekends. Seems the same thing has just happened to ATC.

We live in a paranoid society, where normal human interactions and common sense have been replaced by a myriad of rules and regulations; when the most trivial is broken, the lawyers will most certainly profit!

When at an overseas control tower we visit each year, my kids have both issued takoff clearances to local aircraft. When flying with my (disabled) daughter, when traffic allows, I coach her to provide postion reports in the pattern and even (gasp!) say Hi on the CTAF to the friendly pilots based at our field. This most certainly makes her day, if not week! If someone takes that away from her (and me) I will do the only thing left in our society - sue somone!

Posted by: DANIEL SPITZER | March 8, 2010 8:58 AM    Report this comment

What purpose did letting the kids talk on the radio serve besides drawing the ire of congress, the FAA and the media. Are pilots and controllers really surprised at the hoopla this incident brought upon aviation. Each time an accident or incident happens the FAA, the TSA, congress and the general public are quick to call for more rules and regulations because most involved are either protecting their political hides or don't understand what constitutes a real risk in controlling air traffic or piloting an aircraft. As a controller I gave a few tours and not once did I feel the need to let these "visitors" talk on the radio or parrot my control instructions. If the kids want to see what daddy does, let them sit and watch. Nothing happened and safety probably wasn't compromised but the kids presented an unnecessary distraction and if something had happened, how would those involved explain their actions, especially in the light of our present political climate. I personally don't see what's wrong with pilots conversing below 10,000 feet but distractions during critical phases of flight have been the source of some very tragic accidents and while it is not normally a big deal these types of irresponsible incidents are just fueling the flames for more regulations and restrictions. The problem was the lack of good judgement on the part of the sup and the controller which brought more unwanted attention upon aviation and none of us needs that.

Posted by: James Dippel | March 8, 2010 9:02 AM    Report this comment

Keep the politics out of this and let the professional pilots involved give their feelings. I feel there was no problem caused and no lack of safety just a lack of understanding by people uninformed on what goes on in the aviation world. I would like to see where the FAA would encourage tower operators to take their families up in the tower and show them what they do and maybe recruit some new operators for the future

Posted by: Jim Pavlovsky | March 8, 2010 9:23 AM    Report this comment

I've worked at five different facilities during my career, and I've seen "visitors" talk on the radio at every one. No---this is not an exaggeration. Common sense was used in each instance, and at no time was the "visitor" ever really in charge. This is no different than the multitudes of young developmentals that the FAA has hired off the streets that are training now to replace the aging controller workforce. Many times they are parroting what the trainer is telling them. But unfortunatly, in this situation,Jim Dippel is correct....the best that can happen politically is nothing---the worst is happening now. How sad that our society is reduced to living in fear everyday.

However "wrong" it may have been, I will never forget the impression that was made on a mother and her 16 year old son when she was the "controller" that cleared him to land on his first supervised solo. And I know that they will never forget.

Posted by: jere gardner | March 8, 2010 10:04 AM    Report this comment

I think one has to look at this incident in context. I see a lot of "We need to educate so-and-so..." in the responses above. How do we do that? I agree with Paul that we do a very poor job explaining to the non-flying public how it is aviation works. Don't forget, we all spent a lot of money and a lot of time just to be able to begin to understand ourselves. There are still quite a few things about aviation many of us don't know (hence, why our certificates are "licenses to learn"). And we're supposed to condense all we've learned into a 30 second answer to a question asked during a work-intensive moment of flight?

Don't forget, for a lot of us, it wasn't all that long ago, that we thought about aviation along the same lines as the rest of the world. Think back to the first time you did stalls. Of course you *knew* the aerodynamics of a stall, because your CFI made sure you were aware it, before you went out and practiced them. But it was pretty scary that first time, wasn't it? You just knew that you'd fall as soon as the wings stalled. It was almost surprising how easily the wings regained their lost lift.

Now think of your first-time passengers and how often you get the time-honored "Will we fall out of the sky if the engine quits?" question. Of course you look at them as patiently as possible and explain how the wings work. Now think about how many long lessons it took to get that answer ingrained into our heads.

Here's another thing to consider...

Posted by: BRANDON FREEMAN | March 8, 2010 11:33 AM    Report this comment

...I heard a lot of people above talk about being able to tour a tower and talk on frequency. I think that's great. Anytime kids can get in and see what their parents are doing is a fantastic experience. But...was your experience a little VFR tower, or one of the busiest airports in the world? What might be acceptable at a small airport tower (like letting kids on a field trip issue commands) probably shouldn't be tried at LGA, ORD, JFK or any other Class B airport.

I personally think it's pretty neat that a controller can trust a kid to follow directions to the letter (I haven't heard the audio, but from what I've gathered from the comments on this issue, he did a pretty good job), but in this day and age of real-time web streaming, JFK is probably the absolute wrong location to do this.

Like it or not, we're not a very big segment of the population...in fact, we're downright tiny....

Posted by: BRANDON FREEMAN | March 8, 2010 11:34 AM    Report this comment

...we're not exactly in a position to sit back and say "Well, people should be more educated on this...stupid networks" And, like it or not, a lot of people get their information (however incorrect) from the cable networks. And, unfortunately, the networks and general populace still frame aviation in the context of 9/11. Consider the reports of the past month: A "little airplane" crashes into a building in Austin; An incoherent young man steals a "little airplane" and lands at LAX in the early morning; Colton Harris-Moore steals "little airplanes" in my home state; a controller at one of the busiest airports on the world lets a kid issue commands. All unrelated, but very unflattering when taken by the public as a whole.

My apologies if this is a little rambling, but we need to consider the consequences of these actions. 99.5% of this country does not fly or issue commands to planes. We can educate the public on how this works, but we do need to be mindful of how our actions are perceived by the majority.

Posted by: BRANDON FREEMAN | March 8, 2010 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Brandon: Hear, hear! - as we say in Parliament.

Posted by: treuthardt | March 8, 2010 12:05 PM    Report this comment

I really sympathize with the controllers in this fiasco. This whole thing is bureaucratic paranoia (CYA to the extreme) and media grandstanding. Exactly what purpose does it serve? Is the Bureauracy's media rant of more value than the value of a child seeing and participating in a supervised way in their father's work? I think most of us know the answer to that question.

When a student pilot is first acquainted with radio communication, he either reads the transmission from a card or parrots what the instructor tells him to say. I don't think anyone considers that an "unsafe" practice?

When I began instructing tower and approach control visits on short notice were common. When I started instructing in Long Beach, I tried to get every student in the tower and approach control when traffic was low. I imagine that is a lot tougher these days.

Regardless of the instructions, or lack of instructions by ATC, the pilot is still responsible for the safe operation of his aircraft. If those pilots at JFK thought there was anything dangerous about those instructions, they certainly had the responsibility to refuse the clearance.

Since they didn't, I would suggest that safety was not compromised and Secretary LaHood is wasting his time and the time of the FAA Bureauracy by pandering to the media on this issue.

I feel sorry for the controller and his supervisor because of the lack of rational thinking on the part of the FAA Bureaucracy.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | March 8, 2010 1:48 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Olsen, may I respectfully suggest you re-read Brandon Freeman's comments immediately above, and mine (Paul) a little higher ? It is not about whether it was actually safe or not, it is the public's perception that is the issue and caused the reaction from the media to Mr. LaHood.

I know that may sound wrong to highly experienced people like yourself, but it is a fact in the modern world which the aviation profession, and many others, must understand and factor into their decisions, I believe.

Posted by: treuthardt | March 8, 2010 2:58 PM    Report this comment

I have been flying private airplanes for 49 years, I have flown everything from Piper cubs, Grumman Tigers, Cessna 180s, and Lancair 4p. I was taught to fly by my Grandfather, father, and my Uncle. I have never had a pilots license. I have over 5000 hours flying with and with out anyone in the plane. It amazes me the number of Private pilots with professional training and a license fly there planes into the side of mountains, into other planes, into the ground. Where did there training go wrong? It didnt just as with driving a car there are people who should never be allowed behind the wheel. The trainers should be able to realize wether or not the person has the motor skills and common sense to be flying an airplane.

Posted by: gene swank | March 8, 2010 3:31 PM    Report this comment

All I know about the children controlling aircraft at JFK is what has been on the TV News and in News papers so it's really hard to make a case. From what the news media report the pilots had no problem and I feel that under the same circumstances If I were receiving clearances It would be a non Issue. I recently learned that at some training facilities the FAA is taking people off the street and doing OJT to train new personel Yes they are older but perhaps not any safer then the children were.

Frank Sherman CFII

Posted by: Frank Sherman | March 8, 2010 3:33 PM    Report this comment

I guess that in a completely connected society where the most innocent alleged offense is almost instantly avialable to the world in a 24/7, perhaps the problem is not with the controller and his supervisor but Secretary LaHood.

If perceptions are the problem, Secretary LaHood, by his response has clearly shown that he is either ill-advised or ignorant of the actual reality of the situation.

A person in his position should focus on the facts. The incident did not put the aircraft or passengers at risk and whatever problems are associated with this incident should be handled without a lot of political grandstanding and pandering to the media.

It saddens me to that Mr. LaHood, by focusing all his attention on the offense instead of the actual zero risk involved in the incident actually does damage to his own reputation and the public's perception of the circumstances. If perceptions are important, the Secretary blew it! Mountains out of molehills comes to mind.

Mr. LaHood's rant does not inspire confidence in his ability or judgment. We should be able to expect better from the Secretary of Transportation. Secretary LaHood had an opportunity to lead and explain the situation in a rational way. It is unfortunate that he elected to respond as a cross between Chicken Little "the sky is falling" and the Queen from Alice In Wonderland who believes the answer to every problem is "Off with their heads".

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | March 8, 2010 3:46 PM    Report this comment

Perhaps things are different in the UK, but here in the U.S., I think there's no question at all that some cable reporters played this story hysterically. And that panders to reader/viewer fears. Print outlets tended toward cooler coverage. It was off page 1.

The pandering happens when the broadcast reporters find talking heads to say how crazy dangerous and unprofessional the whole affair was. CNN, Fox and ABC all did this. NBC's Matt Lauer said the controller ought to be fired.

As the story aged, they got the talking heads who put the safety issue in more measured, realistic tones. But by then, the damage was done. I think the story had to be reported, but as a lifelong journalist myself, I know the reporter can spin it any way he likes and TV tends toward the pander because it makes better TV.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 8, 2010 3:53 PM    Report this comment

What happened at JFK should not have happened. The controller and his supervisor should have been called into the managers office for a "sit-down." A reminder memo should be sent to all ATC Facilities; end of incident. Instead, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood displays what is wrong with FAA Management in Washington, when his knee-jerk reaction bans visits. As a 5500 hour pilot, and 33 years as an Air Traffic Controller, I am ashamed again.

Posted by: Dean Ritter | March 8, 2010 4:10 PM    Report this comment

Adding, hopefully, to your well reasoned points, Paul, I would say the responsibility still lies with the controller, and that the battle is really between viewpoints like driving vs. flying - pilots, of all people, you would think, understand that the overview one gets from flying is greater than an earthbound viewpoint on many issues. Why this isn't shown on this subject here of a narrow viewpoint controller is at the heart of the discussion in my opinion.

Our level of awareness is really our level of acceptance, so its entirely possible he didn't have a clue to the other risks outside of his tower if he doesn't accept any of them, (flying fears, gov't obtuseness(?), media sensationalism, etc.) That doesn't make him a great Dad or a hero, just a person with limited awareness of the world around him.

Posted by: David Miller | March 8, 2010 4:17 PM    Report this comment

My two cents, as a low-time VFR pilot who doesn't enter into the system often: the event by itself was innocuous. Political posturing has morphed the event into an uncontrollable monster which will probably consume the controller, his supervisor, and their careers. My prayers are with these folks and their families - my vision for them is that they make it through this blackmail with their livelihoods intact.

Posted by: William Palmer | March 8, 2010 4:33 PM    Report this comment

I'm sorry but not surprised this whole thing has been blown out of proportion by the fear-mongering media, and I hope the controller comes out of it with his job. Perhaps, for awhile, we should all sign off with ATC with a pleasant "adios" to show our opinion of the "incident."

Posted by: Mark Dupont | March 8, 2010 5:39 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Mark Dupont.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 8, 2010 5:58 PM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli: The mainstream TV news here would have covered the incident thoroughly, and taken a dim view of it, but we do not have the sensationalist channels here. Incidentally, harmless or not, it was unprofessional, in a major tower.

Re Secretary LaHood: let's be realistic for a moment. Take off your aviation hats and imagine the reaction, press and in Congress, if he had said that the incident was not a problem. He would not have lasted in office a week, because the vast majority of people simply do not, and will not, believe that a child giving operating instructions from the JFK tower can possibly be okay.

That is the reality. If you don't like it, get together now to start a serious public education effort. Blaming the media and Secty. LaHood will not change anything.


Posted by: treuthardt | March 8, 2010 6:03 PM    Report this comment

With the news media and regulatory powers getting all lathered up over an obviously-coached child issuing clear and precise traffic instructions, what would they do if they ever got hold of the very entertaining (but 'unprofessional' and non-essential) banter between adult controllers and pilots seen in "Short Final" on this very site? The shock that such things occur could bring down the entire ATC system. The cancer that is zero tolerance has escaped the school system and is infecting everything, so I guess the clock is ticking on "Short Final". All fear, all the time; our new national posture.

Posted by: Stephen Fleming | March 8, 2010 6:08 PM    Report this comment

The media has blown this out of proportion as they usually do in order to attract an audiance. The worst part is that the majority of the population will react accordingly to this hype and see aviation in an increasingly negative light. Ultimately, I think it is a sign of the times that we let our bureacratic procedures get in the way of common sense. I would have given anything as a child to observe ATC at work and to have the chance to actually participate would be the greatest. In a time when children often grow up to join gangs, get involved in drugs and alcohol, and gun down classmates, this dad should be commended for allowing his children to participate in something that may lead to a rewarding career. Furthermore the media leads us to believe that the father left his child in charge while he went to lunch or something. In listening to the tapes, it seems to me that he was doing an excellent job of supervising.

Posted by: Benjamin Horning | March 8, 2010 7:19 PM    Report this comment

What I find truly sad is pilots who agree with the totally clueless general public.

The general public is as a whole completely clueless about anything in which they are not directly involved and much of which they are. Computers, airplanes, business? Absolutely no clue. I taught Intro to CS at the university level. Out of 195, maybe 10 understood what they were doing.

The only thing the controller is guilty of is not realizing he needed to include PR in his risk assessment.

JFK busy? Even been in the cab at OSH during arrivals?

Posted by: Roger Halstead | March 8, 2010 7:26 PM    Report this comment

Guy, please sign your posts or we're liable to delete them. Sign them at the end or let the forum software insert your full name. Thanks.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 8, 2010 7:51 PM    Report this comment

On thing I should have added to the reporter. There are good reporters, but reporting on the networks and some of the talking heads are about nothing but sensationalism.

Explain to the public? The public does not want to hear and does not want to learn. They want to be protected from all dangers, still...they drive on roads and kill off over 43,000 while maiming many times that number a year and that's down almost 10,000 a year from the peak. Better drivers? Hardly! It' better designed cars that cost more and are more damage prone. Our Congress Critters fall into the same category but they have the power to do great damage to the innocent.

Posted by: Roger Halstead | March 8, 2010 7:51 PM    Report this comment

Hmmm First one I put in had my name listed as by...I don't know why it's not including the name now. There is no field for my name.

Roger Halstead

Posted by: Roger Halstead | March 8, 2010 8:50 PM    Report this comment

I'd rather not answer this here, but it seems to be the only route.

OK...after a bit of digging, If I click on your name Paul, it gives me a place to insert my name. No place for the software to automatically insert it that I can see. I'm using the "post a comment" at the end of the list. It knows my user name so it knows who I am and it knows my name, but doesn't use it and no place for me to insert it. I have to sign within the post. I see several others have the same problem. There should be a "Name" field with the "Enter your comments" at the end of the comments where it says "post a Comment".

Roger Halstead

Posted by: Roger Halstead | March 8, 2010 10:52 PM    Report this comment

I absolutely hate to quote scripture - er - regulations, but who is PIC; the controller, the controller's offspring or the people in the pointy end of airplanes? Whoever it is, that is where the decision to accept or reject the clearance lies. Is there an ATC reg that says only the 'certificated controller' can key the mike or issue a clearance? Is there such a thing for the aircraft? Good grief, who decides who can talk on the radio? I've allowed dozens of students, Young Eagles and CAP cadets make and answer radio calls in aircraft and at mission bases supposedly under under adult supervision and everyone thought that was just fine. Now this one controller gets pilloried for doing exactly the same thing. The reaction is so out of line I'm stunned in disbelief.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | March 9, 2010 2:20 AM    Report this comment

Roger, sorry this isn't working correctly for you. I'll have our web master e-mail you a fix. For some reason, this happens sometimes and I'm not sure why.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 9, 2010 4:29 AM    Report this comment

Paul B.: I have the same sign-off problem as Roger.
Tom Connor: I'm sue when you allowed others on the radio it wasn't from JFK tower. That is what makes the difference, certainly to the press, public and politicians. Same for "Short Final." But some commentators here don't seem to agree on that.

Posted by: treuthardt | March 9, 2010 5:17 AM    Report this comment

OK, I'll look into it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 9, 2010 6:08 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Paul: "...as a journalist for some 50 years (to match some of the aviation experience cited here) that is wrong. With many of the comments, it reveals an inability to understand "perceptions," what outsiders perceive has happened. No matter if it's "right" or "wrong," perception is the most powerful driver of comment, for journalists as much as the general public..."

"If this incident was not dangerous or possibly distracting - and some of your commentators think it may have been - then the aviation community's job is to explain that calmly and try to educate the public and the media..."

Really? And the media bears no responsibility for getting the facts straight, including whether the incident was or was not dangerous? What makes it ok to create or reinforce misguided "perceptions" just because those who would hold to them are content?

Mr. Paul: "Re Secretary LaHood: let's be realistic for a moment. Take off your aviation hats and imagine the reaction, press and in Congress, if he had said that the incident was not a problem. He would not have lasted in office a week, because the vast majority of people simply do not, and will not, believe that a child giving operating instructions from the JFK tower can possibly be okay."

Please inform us, Sir, in which area of your life you enjoy or appreciate being lied to or deceived. Ignorance being bliss notwithstanding.

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | March 9, 2010 8:08 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Holshouser : I am astonished by the ferocity of the attacks here on the media and Mr LaHood. There seems to be absolutely no willingness to even consider the other side of the argument, which I have tried to do - that it was wrong or at the very least imprudent at JKF, but fine at smaller locations. JKF is the key, as would have been O'Hare or LAX, etc. It would simply not have been a story if it happened, as it does, at smaller towers, and the public would not have been alarmed, rightly or wrongly.

Mr. LaHood reflected that. It is not a question of "being lied to or deceived." I am with other commentators above (and on PB's previous post) - the fact that it was safe, as it turned out, is simply not the issue. Please take a moment to consider the fall-out, not least in Congress, if Mr. LaHood had said :"Not a problem, it was quite safe." I have no political reason to defend him, I'm in the UK. But I do think I can see the politics of the situation clearly, that he had absolutely no choice but to react as he did. Later, when things have cooled down and there has been a formal investigation, he may well be able to say: "Careful investigation has shown there was no actual risk. But it was an imprudent thing to do."

The argument that the pilots at JFK were not upset does not change the overall situation for the public (and someone mentioned rogue ATC transmissions, which at least might lead to asking for a repeat of a child's instructions).


Posted by: treuthardt | March 9, 2010 9:33 AM    Report this comment

"And the media bears no responsibility for getting the facts straight, including whether the incident was or was not dangerous? Of course it does. This is not the place for a detailed explanation of how the media work, which would be helpful. But the media is under extreme time presure, more than ever now with 24/7 rolling news. They have to instantly call the experts on their books to comment. Perhaps to you the experts are wrong, but that's how it works.

I repeat that other commentators here have said the father was wrong, or at the least imprudent, to do this in the JFK tower, so there are legitimate differences of opinion among the experienced aviation people in this specialised space.

Posted by: treuthardt | March 9, 2010 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I didn't field an opinion here about whether what happened was right or wrong. I addressed your contention that it's ok for the media, or the government leadership to give people what they want to hear, whether it's the truth or not.

And no, I don't see the problem with Mr. LaHood saying "Not a problem, it was quite safe," if in fact it was. It might have put some in a temporary huff if that shot down their "perceptions," but wouldn't they be better off in the long run by having misconceptions corrected? Should an uproar based in misunderstanding be fed or calmed by those with the power or responsibility to do so?

I didn't intend to imply you are ignorant, by the way, so let me rephrase my previous question to you; excluding the ignorance is bliss factor, where has misunderstanding reality (a condition you seem to indicate is normal if perpetuated by the media or governmental leadership) ever benefitted you in your life?

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | March 9, 2010 11:20 AM    Report this comment

For UK Paul, we have here some things in prominence that you may not have over there. Emotions are not quite as disciplined in our society for one. Heat rather than light is valued more by many people because it is temporarily more effective, is flashier and gives the illusion of strength over weakness. The media is generally reactive and more favorable to it too for ratings - even if it is wrong. We have an over-abundance of citizens who refuse, absolutely refuse to take personal responsibility for themselves. It's everyone else's job to do that, as many posters here say it's the media's job, the gov't's job, the publics job to not lie or deceive us or to be more aware for us - we can't be bothered with the disciplines of personal discrimination to decide for ourselves. Ranting about our freedoms lost - yet refusing the personal freedom of self-responsibility is supremely ironic.

This is all part of change that is happening very fast in our increasingly connected world. It's very good and necessary change, but so much new responsibility so fast has got quite a few folks emotional, resistant, and afraid - the very things they blame abstract entities like media, gov't. and the public for.

Another prominent factor I feel here is how the differences in consideration for either just oneself, or for the greater good so to speak, were exemplified in the controller's decision. Being blindsided is human but is a stretch in this case to me.

Posted by: David Miller | March 9, 2010 12:41 PM    Report this comment

My opinion is the controller did nothing wrong safety wise, but used poor judgment or rather lacked poor foresight, PR wise.

It's a shame that we, and not just aviation, are forced to operate in specific ways due to unknowing public and political perceptions.

This type of pressure some times creates a situation where we have to decided on making the public happy or operating outside our comfort zone.

But when it comes to analytical Vs Intuitive, The analytical has to be done ahead of time. Often in an emergency you do not have the time to analyze, but have to react now. That is where good, repetitive training comes in. You are trained to react, instinctively and with the proper responses. When the engine quits on take off and the runway is getting shorter, fast...you best not take a lot of time to analyze.

Roger Halstead

Posted by: Roger Halstead | March 9, 2010 12:42 PM    Report this comment

After a bit of a web search I cannot find details on what time of day the incident occurred. I'm speculating, but if it was during a slow period I see no harm. If it was during a busy period then I agree, it may have been inappropriate.

Misperceptions aside I wonder if it is illegal. If you were a cop giving the controller a ticket, what specific law would you cite?

Perhaps this is a child labor issue.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | March 9, 2010 1:33 PM    Report this comment

The analytical has to be done ahead of time. Often in an emergency you do not have the time to analyze, but have to react now.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 9, 2010 3:58 PM    Report this comment

Agreed, or mostly so. When the engine quit on climb out, there was no panic and no heightened sense of awareness. As I started to think about where to set down, or where I'd be able to set down I felt no different than coming in for a normal landing, other than the dark humor thought of, "Now this could ruin my insurance company's day" (It might have a been a bit more colorful than that though

Posted by: Roger Halstead | March 9, 2010 5:16 PM    Report this comment

The general public has no more knowledge of Aviation than they have about Computer Chips or Brain Surgery and they don't want to know. It is easy to be ignorant and scared. The politicians and their groupies will protect them.

Posted by: Russell English | March 12, 2010 10:01 AM    Report this comment

A general comment on the way things are reported by the media - while I hear the hype and the hysteria that surround a lot of stories, I also know plenty of people who don't over-react and there are clearly a lot of thoughtful people who visit this site. My thinking these days is that it is all about competition for ideas and attitudes. The freak cabin depressurization of Qantas 747 (due to the failure of an oxygen bottle) and following emergency descent was reported here in Australia as a terrifying death plunge. I wrote a sensible letter to a couple of papers and news websites and guess what? They all ran it and I saw a change in the reporting of the matter overnight. Australia isn't huge but several million people read my words and that had a positive effect I am sure. While bitching and moaning to the choir is both fun and entertaining, I urge the people who visit this site to be more active in putting out a more sensible, more correct message whenever it might be called for. While the commercial media that dominate all of our countries thrive on sensation, if the vast majority of the opinion they receive was to come from informed, sensible people I bet things would change. Then maybe one day if a similar event occurred, when questioned by the press a Mr LaHood might say, "I have the utmost confidence in the men and women who staff our traffic control system. If they and the pilots who rely on them judged it to be safe then it is not for me to question that."

Posted by: John Hogan | March 13, 2010 6:04 AM    Report this comment

Excellently put, Mr. Hogan.
Mr. Bertorelli: Are you going to sum up this discussion at some point ? With the widely opposing views, I would find that very interesting.

Paul (UK)

Posted by: treuthardt | March 13, 2010 10:17 AM    Report this comment

I'm not sure what else there is to say, actually. I'm not sure the UK and Australia have the exact equivalents of our major 24/7 outlets which struggle to retain audience and thus tend toward the sensationalistic.

AOPA, NBAA, EAA and others do good work in pushing back against this, but they are reactive and rarely involved in the first day or breaking phase of the stories. We have, in the past, made ourselves available to reporters to serve as expert sources which helps some, but doesn't solve the problem.

I see it as the nature of modern gotta-have-it-now media, at least in the U.S.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 14, 2010 10:47 AM    Report this comment

Wow! This subject certainly has hit a nerve. This whole circus illustrates that you just do not know who is listening in on your conversation. I doubt it was any surprise to ANY of the controllers in the JFK Tower that day that there were kids in the Tower and maybe some would talk on the radio. Obviously, someone with a bug up their butt heard this on their scanner and ran to the media about it.

This is the same reason why I do not deviate from the script when doing PA announcements from the cockpit. You just do not know who is listening. It is also why pilots are doing defensive deicing. There are people who think they know more than they do about ice on aircraft. It comes down to one person is trained and knows what they are doing, while the other person is not trained and does not know what they are doing. So what are you going to do? Even if you know you are right, you cannot win this battle. It is far better to deice (even if not technically necessary) and get on your way than spend time in the chief pilots office on your day off.

I feel for the controllers in this incident. They were probably totally blind sided by the hullabaloo over the kid in the tower.

Posted by: DAVID HEBERLING | March 14, 2010 6:02 PM    Report this comment

>>Obviously, someone with a bug up their butt heard this on their scanner and ran to the media about it. >>

More likely www.liveatc.net, which records ATC radio and allows other to do the same. Then the recording got out on a few forums. It got a very wide audience fairly quickly.

And that's what changed since the last few years, altering the profile and thus the risk.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 15, 2010 5:10 AM    Report this comment

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