When an Agenda Gets in the Way of the Facts

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EDITORIAL. CNN's recent brief

Before Lindbergh even took off for Le Bourget in 1927, he complained bitterly about the sensationalistic media coverage surrounding his and other attempts to be the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Between that feat and the tragedy of his son's kidnapping and murder, the mass media forced his retreat from the public eye. Of course, the mass media's treatment of aviation has greatly improved since the pre-war years. Or has it?

Last Wednesday, August 8, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired a brief segment entitled "Companies Opt More for Private Jets" as part of its CNN Tonight newscast. The segment was billed earlier in the day by asking the questions, "How safe are small planes? And how qualified are their pilots?" Of course, "small" is a relative term. To most AVweb readers, "small" could be a Piper Cub when compared with a Cessna 310. Or a Lear 35 versus a Gulfstream V. In this case, however, CNN was referring to corporate jets and comparing them to the only other form of aviation it apparently knows: airliners. One implication from the network's advance billing was that CNN recently "discovered" general aviation since more and more business people are opting for non-scheduled air transportation in lieu of the delays, poor service and crowds associated with scheduled carriers these days. Another implication was that the network would actually broadcast some facts providing insight into the relative safety of scheduled carriers versus general aviation.

But, neither was to be. The entire focus of the brief piece was to look at the crew of the Gulfstream III that crashed March 29 while on approach to Aspen, Colorado, killing all 18 aboard, and then to indict the training and qualifications of all pilots who don't fly for scheduled carriers. It ain't that simple, folks.

Instead, the relative safety of general aviation, corporate aviation and the scheduled carriers is an extremely complicated topic, one well beyond the scope of this editorial (not to mention 10 minutes of a weeknight broadcast on CNN). For one thing, the term "general aviation" can encompass everything that flies except the military and the airlines, including aerial application, flight testing and training, Alaska bush flying and illegal drug-running operations. Even if you strip out these higher-risk operations, you still are looking at experimentals, antiques, aerobatics and other activities that carry with them greater risk than traveling in a straight and level line from Point A to Point B while sipping a cocktail and trying to avoid being subjected to the latest Adam Sandler film.

But enough of that rant. Instead, let's look at the actual CNN broadcast. Below is the transcript found on CNN's Web site. I haven't changed a word of it, but I have inserted some comments and questions, in red.

CNN TONIGHT Companies Opt More for Private Jets
Aired August 8, 2001 - 22:08 ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Commercial airlines are losing business customers as many companies now opt for private jets. But aviation safety experts are raising some concerns about the training and safety of flight crews piloting these planes.

They are? To which "aviation safety experts" are you referring?

A CNN investigation into one private jet crash is the focus in our cover story tonight. With that in California here's CNN's Charles Feldman.


CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was to have been a joy ride to a vacation resort, 15 people flying from California to a ski outing in Aspen, The approach into the Aspen Pitkin County Airport, because of terrain is considered tricky even under the best of circumstances.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board the flight crew was aware of an FAA warning issued two days before, prohibiting nighttime instrument approaches into the field. But as night approached and bad weather set in, the AV Jet plane arrived on its final approach mere minutes before the nighttime ban.

There remains a great deal of speculation and misinformation regarding exactly what this plane's crew knew about a NOTAM addressing the approach. AVweb's coverage discusses only a few of these questions while the most recent official statement from the NTSB only states some basic facts. As usual, we will all have to wait for the NTSB's final report and finding of probable cause.

It crashed just short of the runway killing all 15 passengers, a flight attendant, and two pilots.

When investigators quickly concluded the aircraft suffered no apparent mechanical difficulty before the crash, all eyes turned to the tricky approach and the qualifications of the pilots.

MARC FOULKROD, AV JET: The aircraft was operated by a highly experienced crew and as the primary crew assigned to the aircraft had flown multiple trips to and from Aspen during the month of March.

FELDMAN: But documents obtained by CNN paint a portrait of the duo that some aviation safety experts say should have raised red flags and may show a pattern of bad judgment leading up to the March crash.

A lawsuit just filed against AV Jet by the family of 26-year-old Paul Standerman (ph) , who died in the crash alleges that AV Jet should have known of what it calls the "unfitness" of the flight crew, citing their alleged reputation for operating aircraft in a reckless and dangerous manner.

Well, that's certainly a solid foundation on which to base a news story; indicting the dead crew. Does the lawsuit constitute the "documents" CNN obtained? How rarely do those filing a lawsuit interpret facts to fit their view of events?

The man at the controls of the AV Jet plane that night was Captain Robert Frisbie. Some two years before the fatal crash, Frisbie, CNN has learned was also pilot in command of this business jet that ran off the runway at Chino Airport in California.

AVweb could find no entry for such an event in the NTSB's online database. The FAA's incident database was offline and unavailable when we prepared this piece.

An FAA inspector charged Frisbie with operating an aircraft in a careless manner, by landing on a runway that was not of sufficient length due to the inclement weather.

The FAA declined to take action against the pilot.

That should tell you something right there. When was the last time you ever heard of the FAA declining to initiate an enforcement action against a pilot if there was single shred of evidence in the FAA's favor? Can you say "Bob Hoover"?

JIM BURNET, FORMER NTSB CHAIRMAN: It was of course an accident, and a very serious one to run off the end of the runway. And it suggests problems with judgment in determining under what conditions to land and whether or not to do a go-around.

Thanks, Jim, but if it was an "accident" per the NTSB definition, where's the accident report?

FELDMAN: Earlier in his career, FAA records show Frisbie was disciplined by another company for making an unsafe take-off from Burbank Airport in California.

Disciplined by his employer but not the FAA? Why? Did be break a company rule but not a FAR? What, specifically, was "unsafe" about the takeoff?

Paul Standerford's mother is particularly galled by Captain Frisbie's background.

MICHEL EDWARDS, CRASH VICTIM'S MOTHER: I feel that he was reckless and foolish. And as a result of that I've lost my son and so, if you want to know if I hate him? The answer is yes.

While Ms. Edwards' loss is certainly a painful one, what do her feelings have to do with aviation safety?

FELDMAN: On the night of the Aspen crash, Frisbie's co-pilot was Peter Kowalczech (ph) . FAA records reveal that Kowalczech failed three critical flight tests for his pilot's licenses tests FAA records show the vast majority of applicants pass the first time.

BERT BOTTA, PILOT EVALUATOR: Every pilot has a problem at some point in their career, either failing a check ride or coming close to failing a check ride, or failing a portion of a check ride. So one failure is not a big issue, but three stacked up like that you know over a relatively short period of time would raise a flag for me.

Which tests? Did he fail the same ride three times in a row? Did he fail a Part 135 recurrent ride? Did he fail an initial ride in the G-III while upgrading from a Seneca? What elements of the ride did he fail? Who trained him? Who failed him?

For years, FAA examiners have been extra-tough on applicants for certain certificates, the initial Flight Instructor-Airplane certificate among them. Unfortunately, CNN couldn't be troubled to check into these details.

FELDMAN: And just how much did AV Jet know about the background of its two pilots? AV Jet, one of the nation's largest business jet operators repeatedly refused requests by CNN for an interview. It did however provide documents showing Captain Frisbie had been recertified to fly passengers in the Gulf Stream 3 jet shortly before the accident, because he hadn't been flying that kind of aircraft recently.

FAA records show AV Jet apparently failed to request background info on co-pilot Kowalczech, as required by federal law for new hires.

If so, this is inexcusable on AvJet's part.

BURNET: You have the pairing of a captain who was recently recertified to operate the equipment he was operating at the time of this accident, paired with a very inexperienced first officer. Now, that poor crew paring of inexperienced or not recently experienced in their position has been an issue in a lot of accidents.

Secondly, you have a very troubled training record on the part of the first officer.

Frisbie had accumulated more than 10,000 hours; Kowalczyk more than 5,500. While not the most experienced G-III crew ever, this is more experience than might be found in the pairing aboard a scheduled regional carrier these days.

FELDMAN: Several aviation experts question whether pilots with the backgrounds Frisbie and Kowalczech would have ever been hired by a major airline.

Again, who are these experts?

Most major carriers would snap up pilots with this experience level in a heartbeat. Delta Air Lines' web site says its minimum qualifications are 1,200 hours total time; 1,000 turbojet or turbofan. American doesn't even bother anymore to list minimum experience qualifications, saying only that flight time should be "commensurate with other qualifications." Let's face it: The airlines are hiring 500-hour flight instructors to ride shotgun on regional jets these days.

The business jet industry vigorously defends its overall safety record.

JACK OLCOTT, NATIONAL BUSINESS AVIATION ASSOCIATION: Turbine aircraft flown by a two person professional crew in other words the classic business aircraft, has a safety record on a par with the largest scheduled airlines.

True statement. For 1999, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, the total accident rate for corporate/executive operations is 0.230 per 100,000 flight hours versus 0.298 for Part 121 carriers. The fatal accident rate is 0.130 and 0.011, respectively, according to Robert E. Breiling Associates Inc., a well-respected source of aviation safety statistics.

FELDMAN: But increasingly, business charter planes are being used much like small airliners. The planes' crews subject to the same strings but not to the rules that cover commercial carriers.

Huh? What's a "string"?

(on camera): With an estimated 12 million passengers flying private jets in the United States, the question being raised is, why the double standard?

But this is the wrong question. The G-III that crashed at Aspen was a Part 135 non-scheduled operation. Since no scheduled 121 operations are currently conducted at Aspen only scheduled 135 CNN's question is not relevant. Instead, the more appropriate comparison is between scheduled and non-scheduled 135 flights. According to Breiling, those 1999 numbers 2.88 total and 1.11 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours for scheduled Part 135 flights versus 3.45 and 0.53 (i.e., less than half the scheduled fatal accident rate), respectively, for non-scheduled operations demonstrate that the premise on which CNN based its broadcast is false.

(voice-over): It is up the Federal Aviation Administration to decide whether business charter flying ought to be held to the same standards as the airlines. The FAA declined an interview with CNN but has over the years resisted numerous attempts to tighten the regulations.

Sounds like the FAA has decided, but CNN doesn't like the answer. The simple fact is that the three basic tiers of Federal Aviation Regulations (Parts 91, 135 and 121) have been in place for decades, are constantly updated to reflect changes in technology and industry practices, and exist to recognize the operational and economic realities of air transportation in the U.S. No one (except maybe CNN) expects that the FAA should should apply to a sightseeing flight in a Cessna 172 the same rules governing a scheduled United Airlines 747.

Charles Feldman, CNN Los Angeles.


HEMMER: Let's take the topic a step further. Joining us now to talk about private jet safety is Jim McKenna, executive director of the Aviation Safety Alliance. And Jack Olcott president of the National Business Aviation Association.

Gentlemen, good evening to both of you tonight.

Jack, how big is the difference between a pilot's experience who is flying for say Delta, and a pilot who is working for a private company?

JACK OLCOTT, NATL. BUSINESS AVIATION ASSN.: The pilot flying for a company such as an NBAA member company has really quite a lot of experience. In fact frequently the requirements to be hired by a corporate operator are higher than the requirements to be hired as a co-pilot for a large scheduled airliner.

Another true statement. Most corporate operators wouldn't even consider hiring someone with the same level of experience the airlines are accepting these days. In fact, a lot of pilots being forced to retire from an airline because of the age-60 rule are finding jobs in corporate flight departments.

HEMMER: How does that translate then, Jack, into safety?

OLCOTT: The safety record of turbine powered aircraft flown by two person professional crews is excellent. It's on a par with the very, very high safety record of the largest scheduled airlines.

Correct. See above.

HEMMER: But it's not top of the line, correct, the way I understand it. You have four steps for a license. The top line would be airline transport and line underneath that would be commercial flight, right, and that's what you're referring to?

Bill, an Airline Transport certificate does not mean the holder can fly only for an airline. Please do some more research.

OLCOTT: No. The typical pilot for a corporate operation has an airline transport pilot's license, has minimum requirements for our member companies, average about 4,000 hours for a captain and 2,000 for a co-pilot. You'll find that those standards are very high and on a par with the major airlines.

Again, the standards at many corporate flight departments are well above those at major airlines.

HEMMER: On a par but again, as you stated not quite as much experience as your top of line pilots.

OLCOTT: No, I did not state that.

HEMMER: In your first answer you said they don't have as much experience as many of your other pilots who fly the commercial airliners, and the example I gave was Delta.

Bill, go back and read your own transcript. Jack said exactly the opposite. You "heard" what you wanted to hear, didn't you? You wouldn't be putting words in his mouth would you? Perhaps to match your own agenda?

OLCOTT: Correction. If I said that, please let me allow a correction here.

HEMMER: Fair enough. Well stated.

Ahh, that electronic voice in your ear telling you to back off, eh, Bill? Jack handled your inability to listen to his previous answer quite well. This just shows what happens when the facts get in the way of a well-planned agenda. Again.

Jim, what about the flying public. Should they be concerned in any way about the quality of the pilot flying a charter jet?

JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION SAFETY ALLIANCE: No, not at all. In this case, Bill, for example, the pilots involved in this accident both had the highest rating that you could get from the FAA, the same rating that every airline pilot in this country would have, the air transport pilot rating.

The captain in this flight had I believe about 5,500 hours or I'm sorry he had over 10,000 hours of flying experience including 175 hours in the airplane that he was flying at the time. The co-pilot had about 5,500 hours and 500 hours in the Gulf Stream. So this was an experienced crew.

These guys work hard to get to the position where a corporation will entrust them at the controls of an airplane that's flying high profile customers.

HEMMER: I apologize for the interruption, we are just tight on time tonight, are you suggesting that with 12 million people flying on private jets a year that we are picking on a problem that does not exist?

Wow! You're finally getting it, Bill! Who researches these programs, anyway?

MCKENNA: The intro mentioned that these pilots have been facing the same strain as airline pilots but not under the same rules. These pilots often face far tougher strains than airline pilots. They have to be ready to go, they have to be competent to go to any airport that a customer wants to go to. They have to do so competently to make sure the customer in the back is satisfied and comfortable.

So no, I don't think the people who fly on these aircraft even if the number of people flying on these type of aircraft is increasing, nobody has anything to worry about.

It's about time someone said this.

HEMMER: Quickly, back to Jack, before we run out of time here, when one watches this story tonight, what should one take away from it?

You mean aside from the fact that the mass media still has a long way to go before it approaches impartial, accurate coverage of aviation?

OLCOTT: That it's very difficult if not impossible to make a judgment of what caused the accident until all the facts are in. That's why we have the National Transportation Safety Board. That's why I believe the FAA is reluctant to make any comment at this time until the NTSB report is in.

And that's why CNN's attempt to discern the cause for the Aspen G-III crash and indict non-scheduled aviation safety in the bargain before the NTSB's probable cause is known failed miserably, harming its reputation in the process.

HEMMER: Jack Olcott, Jim McKenna, thanks for sharing, gentlemen.

Much appreciated. An issue that will get more and more popular as again we take to the skies across the country.

"More popular?" What does this mean? Does it mean CNN still isn't convinced of the facts associated with corporate aviation safety versus the airlines? Does it mean that CNN only covers subjects that are "popular" with its viewers or its producers? Does it mean we can look forward to more instances of CNN's failure to objectively research and report general aviation safety?

Whew! That's a pretty painful transcript to read. Painful not because of the spin CNN put on the story, not because of the network's breathtaking lack of research and not because of the many misleading statements and questions that were broadcast. No, it's painful because CNN (like so many other major news outlets) simply doesn't know any better.

While travel aboard the commercial carriers has been going down the tubes the past few years, general aviation has (in spite of itself) experienced a rejuvenation of equipment, activity and technology. Even the simplest aircraft flying around the U.S. today often is equipped with better technology than the 727 that just landed at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport. The GA airplanes designed and certificated during the airlines' current decline bear little resemblance to what CNN, major media outlets and the general public commonly refer to as "small airplanes."

While general aviation is this nation's best-kept secret when it comes to personal transportation, that same lack of familiarity among the general public and the mass media with GA results in the local news story about the twin-engine Cessna Cub that crashed because it didn't file a flight plan and in pieces like CNN's. Because of the mass media's lack of understanding, of familiarity and of knowledge (I'm not referring to it as ignorance, but some may) with aviation generally and with non-commercial aviation specifically, the average member of the public will view a broadcast like CNN's and take it as gospel. In this instance, CNN failed miserably in fulfilling its responsibility to accurately and objectively report the facts and to refrain from speculation. (Note that if CNN had labeled its broadcast as an editorial, that would be a completely different animal. But it didn't.) CNN also did its viewers the disservice of raising a number of issues and then failing to give the outside experts it assembled the opportunity to address them. When CNN did allow its outside experts to respond to questions, its on-camera talent failed to listen objectively or otherwise to the answers.

Clearly, CNN owes its viewers an objective look at aviation safety. That look should distinguish between the many variables present in comparing the apples of the scheduled carriers with the oranges of, say, aerial application or bush flying. It should also distinguish between a pilot's first couple of hundred hours and the owner who flies his or her piston single or twin IFR that much in a year. We'll see.

Like Lindbergh just after his departure from Long Island, we all still have a long way to go.