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Opinion: Making the Headlines

Or, the feeding frenzy

The general media does a great job of keeping us abreast of what is going on with fast-breaking events. Take away the tsunamis, tornados, executions and weddings, though, and it seems like the media wanders aimlessly while looking for something to attract viewers or readers. Often as not this means that some profession, activity or business gets screwed over by folks looking for something to sensationalize.

Aviation has had its fair share of negative media attention. When general aviation is the subject, we all bristle. I also bristle when they go after other aviation-related things.

The flap about air traffic controllers napping on the job is a perfect example of much ado about nothing. We have the finest air traffic control system in the world and we should be proud of that. Our good friends, the controllers, are as talented and dedicated a workforce as you will find anywhere.

Air Traffic Controllers don't all sleep

Most of them aren't sleeping on the job...

The media attention to naps did a lot of damage. It cost some controllers their jobs. It caused some officials to issue pompous statements of outrage that, in retrospect, should be an embarrassment to them. It alarmed the flying public. It didn’t help the delicate labor/management relationship between the FAA and the controllers. Finally, it painted an erroneous picture of how things really work.

Controllers are human beings. And while the emphasis has been on fatigue being the cause of the naps, I think that is a bunch of hooey unless it is acknowledged that boredom can be a primary cause of fatigue.

Just as the Vice President might become bored with a speech by the President and nod off on national television, a controller might suffer the same fate. Much of the publicity was about a controller at Washington National sleeping through a couple of arrivals in the middle of the night.

There is a curfew at National to keep the nighttime noise down. No airline flights are allowed to be scheduled during the curfew hours but flights that were scheduled in before the curfew are allowed to keep coming if they are running late. Thus, there were two inbounds to National in the middle of an otherwise boring night for the lone tower controller on duty.

When the flights were handed off to the tower, nobody answered their calls. Potomac approach control was still available for conversation and after further consultation with that facility, both flights landed safely at National. Potomac had been unable to reach the National controller on the landline.

In the brouhaha brought about by intense media scrutiny, some pretty dumb things were said.

One contention was that the airplanes had to land without the “help” of the control tower. What does a control tower do to help a pilot land? The tower controller is a runway referee and his job is to make sure there is no conflict with other traffic and clear the airplane to land. There are thousands of landings every hour at uncontrolled airports without any tower to “help” the pilot land.

Some held that the runway could have been fouled and the controller could have warned of this. Hey, it is dark on that runway so the controller can’t really “see” it at night. Nobody can until the intensely bright landing lights of the approaching airplane bathe the runway with light. If there is an elephant on the runway that is when it would be seen and, the last I heard, pilots know how to go around when it becomes necessary.

That night at National things did not operate as they should have but any contention that the airliners were any danger at all is absurd.

Rather than “fixing” things by firing controllers and wasting resources by putting two controllers on the boring all-night shifts, why can’t the FAA take a logical step? One that comes to mind would be a loud bell that rings in the tower when activated by a tracon. If the controller doesn’t answer, ring the bell. Or the old “dead man” switch concept from the railroads might work well. I wonder how many train engineers were awakened by that when they nodded off?

A further thing the FAA should do is publish a landing procedure for pilots to follow if contact can’t be established with a tower. Some said the pilots at National shouldn’t have landed, they should have diverted, but that suggested action was made up after the fact.

Another controller-related incident involved the First Lady’s 737 following too close behind a C-17. It was the standard three miles instead of the prescribed five miles when a lighter airplane is following a heavy (over 255,000 pounds) airplane. That might have been a simple mistake of the controller thinking three instead of five miles. When the mistake was caught, the 737 was told to abandon the approach and line up for another. From the reporting, you would have thought this routine maneuver was fraught with peril. It wasn’t.

A380 engine explosion

A real emergency--the A380 engine that exploded in flight.

An incident that didn’t cause widespread media hysteria came when an airliner, in consultation with a controller, pulled along side an out-of-touch light airplane to see if it appeared the pilot was disabled. He was fine, though not paying attention. The FAA was pretty upset about the airliner getting so close to the light airplane, and the controller’s role in this, as if doing a good deed is a bad thing.

In a corresponding media blitz, much was made about a 737 shedding a bit of skin and depressurizing. That was not a good thing to happen but it did illustrate how well the design standards protect the flying public.

The problem was likely caused by a combination of aircraft age, the number of cycles (times the cabin had been pressurized and then depressurized) and a likely manufacturing defect. It was uncomfortable but there was no real danger involved.

That was a simple emergency and there was a procedure to follow. Why then did it get more attention than the blown engine on the Airbus 380 that handed the crew multiple emergencies and activated almost every warning in the cockpit? Probably because the airline in question and Airbus have really good spin doctors and the media couldn’t tell the difference. In truth, the people in that airplane were in greater peril than the ones in any of the events that got so much press in the United States.

Over the years aviation, and every other activity in this country, has been the victim of sensational, and some might say cheap, so-called journalism. As far as aviation goes, following this tome is something written by my father, Leighton Collins, in the May, 1949 issue of Air Facts. Read it and I think you’ll see how media problems are nothing new for aviation. For your information, The Saturday Evening Post was at that time a weekly features-type magazine. Cosmopolitan was a literary magazine.


Air Facts

May 1, 1949

Report to the Editors

Most of the time when you read something about aviation in the big magazines it makes you won­der if that is a sample of their ac­curacy in other fields. The most recent example of this was in “Sunday Drivers Take to the Air” in The Saturday Evening Post of March 19th, 1949.

It appears that one Elsie McCormick read in the papers about a collision over Long Island and went over and had a chat with some of the boys at the Civil Aeronautics Board.

The article, under the heading “Report to the Editors”, starts off with a picture of a badly spun-in Luscombe, apparently, with the caption: “Private-plane accidents like this cost many lives each year.”

Then the article starts off, “When a private plane swooped down on a seagoing Constellation over Long Island a few weeks ago and embedded itself in the top of the fuselage, people were horri­fied. Most of them didn’t realize that private fliers go on piling up casualties day after day in equally serious if less spectacular acci­dents.”

The facts in the Cessna-Constel­lation were these: the Connie was climbing on an easterly heading at about 180 m.p.h. and the Cessna, a 140, was flying level on a north easterly heading. A competent witness noted the planes on their col­lision courses and “couldn’t look away” and saw the actual collision. In addition, well down on the right side of the Connie fuselage were the hole made by the Cessna’s left landing gear and also marks of where the McCauley propeller first sliced into the fuselage. True, to newspaper reporters, the Con­nie looked as if something must certainly have “dived” into it, for there was really a hole there. But actually it climbed up into the Cessna and sideswiped it. The Cessna pilot, an ultra conservative private pilot of 45 on a cross country flight, would have had to have been flying along looking back and down to have avoided the collision. Other physical evidence: after losing its nose in the Constellation the fuselage of the Cessna hurtled over the Connie fuselage and was struck by the left stabilizer of the Connie: about four feet of the leading edge of the Connie stabilizer was mashed back to the stabilizer spar. Besides, with a 105 m.p.h. airplane you don’t overtake and ram something going 180. You have to lead it. No, this one wasn’t on Private Flying. It was on the airlines and related to the amount of book-work heads-down flying required in that business.

The next paragraph in the ar­ticle scoops up some typical CAB figures: “Of the first 6,000 air accidents in 1949 …” What are “air accidents?” There are about 6,000,000 “automobile accidents” a year, if you want to count on the same basis. Yet big-magazine editors never use automotive statis­tics to imply that you really should keep out of automobiles. Instead, they use them to say that if you don’t drive carefully, you can get hurt. Why can’t they take the same attitude towards Private Fly­ing?

A little farther on, the reporter got, probably unawares, an awful big load of propaganda: the idea that private pilots really just shouldn’t be out flying around without someone in Washington knowing just where they are or are supposed to be every minute they are airborne. “This air-happy group includes men and women from seventeen to over seventy, who take off into the blue without weather information, adequate maps, enough gas or a flight plan letting people on the ground know where they are going and when they propose to arrive.”

It would make a nice expansion in our already monstrous air bu­reaucracy to require flight plans for every flight. But shouldn’t there be an identical requirement for the country’s 300,000 boat owners, or even car drivers? An automobilist turned over recently on a main California highway and was pinned in his car, in the ditch, for the next three days while hun­dreds of cars passed by. A drive-plan would certainly have taken care of that, and think of how many people it would make jobs for. As a matter of fact, this is only an opener. Set up a Civil Automotive Bureau like CAA-CAB and it would employ over 5,000,000 people and take care of the next depression’s unemployed! No. If the Private Pilot is flying over desolate terrain let him file a flight plan if he wants to, which he usually does, but let’s not let the tax­payer be propagandized into a fur­ther senseless expansion of govern­ment regulation of Private Flying. If the Private Pilot doesn’t care if anyone knows where he is, why should the taxpayer?

The author next gives consider­able attention to the large number of accidents caused by Private Pi­lots flying with automobile road maps. “As such maps do not gen­erally show altitudes, he is apt to fly into a cloud and find, as air­men say, that it is full of rocks.” That’s pretty naive. Not many pi­lots actually use road maps (they are too hard to fly by) but main­ly, when you start talking about “flying into a cloud” you are off into the subject of instrument fly­ing—where the cloud itself is the first and a most serious problem, even with the right kind of map. But of naivety: “Control-tower men turn an apologetic mauve at the thought of the Sunday fliers who land and inquire, ‘What state am I in?’ ” Now really—it may have happened once, but can’t you imagine the average private pilot doing that? He’d at least park his airplane and get someone off to the side and ask them confidentially what state he was in. He wouldn’t broadcast it on the radio. But there’s this element of fact in the situation: the map makers being all-out federalists practically hide the state boundaries on the Aero­nautical charts. As a result, a pilot can frequently show you right where is on a chart, or what airport he is landing on yet may be confused about what state he’s in because, as stated, the idea of states on the aeronautical charts is heavily suppressed.

Then, “the 5,000 or so feminine private fliers aren’t generally very good mechanics, but are conscienti­ous about obeying traffic rules.” The implication is horse and buggy stuff. Few automobile drivers are very good mechanics, nor do they need to be. Private flying is no different, yet several million Post readers must by now assume that to be a private flyer you really need to be somewhat of a me­chanic also.

Finally, “Pilots over fifty, though they occasionally get into trouble because of their slow reaction time, usually follow safety procedures.” This smacks too much of the generally held and erroneous belief that flying is really a young man’s game. The CAB also has statistics to prove that the older pilots have the lowest serious accident rate of all.

On top of the Post item, then came J. C. Furnas of “And Sudden Death” fame, with a longer and more intensively researched article in Cosmopolitan under the title “Damn Fools in the Air!” The ar­ticle wasn’t too bad except for the effect it had on some Cosmopoli­tan editor who hung this banner on the article: “THERE ARE NO STUPIDER PEOPLE ANYWHERE THAN THOSE WHO FLY PRIVATE PLANES. STUPID? THEY ARE CRIMINAL DAMN FOOLS. LET’S GET RID OF THEM BEFORE THEY GIVE A BLACK EYE TO ORGANIZED AIR SERVICE.”

That is, of course, pretty big talk in a free country. Sure, Private Flying seems to attract more than its share of emotionally un­stable people and it admittedly provides them unusual  opportunities to do disastrous things; but in relation to the man on the ground, they are far, far less of a menace than their counterpart on the high­ways. The point big-magazine editors miss about Private Flying is not how dangerous it is but how safe it can be. Evidence? The average reader of Air Facts is a busi­ness or professional man, crowding forty, owns his own airplane, flies a lot and for over ten years now has consistently turned in as good a record with his airplane as he has with his automobile.

So, let’s not in either our public understanding or our regulation of Private Flying ask for straight jackets for everyone just because one in a thousand really needs one.

Meanwhile, thank God for Godfrey. He immediately answered Cosmopolitan in his next TV broadcast, starting off “You mean I’m stupid?” And on his next broadcast he punched a hole, in fact let the whole bottom fall out of the paper bag full of ex­planations he’d been handed about the necessity of magazines being sensational in order to get readers. It isn’t true, of course. Godfrey has 20,000,000 listeners—because what people really want to know is the truth.


Richard Collins
1 reply
  1. Gaetan Bourgault
    Gaetan Bourgault says:

    Dear Sir,
    I feel my concern about big problem sleeping and FAA. I belive FAA & ATC have two face problem.
    Well both should change P.A.V.E. ( Human Factor Safety)
    I feel sorry bad happend accident but big worth it lot of billion dallor.

    Gaetan Bourgault
    Civil Aviation Safety Authority

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