Trevor Jacob jump

Is YouTube good or bad for general aviation? That seems to be a popular hangar flying debate these days, especially since a number of high profile pilots have found themselves in hot water with the FAA over the last month. The answer to this question may be more important for the future of GA than you think.

Any pilot with a smartphone knows the stories, so I won’t bore you with the details. To recap: Trevor Jacob recorded himself jumping out of a Taylorcraft that suffered a mysterious “engine failure;” Red Bull tried to one-up the former Olympic snowboarder with the made-for-Hulu “Plane Swap” but failed when one of the airplanes crashed; and well-known YouTuber Trent Palmer is fighting a certificate suspension after flying low over a friend’s house in Nevada (that he contends was a go-around).

Each of these events differs in important ways, but all three fit the same narrative: a government agency desperately trying to get control of a fast-moving cultural trend, and mostly failing.

YouTube’s warped incentives

Plane swap

Crazy stunts get attention, which is the most valuable commodity online.

Now before we launch into a good old fashioned “bash the feds” rant, let’s acknowledge a few uncomfortable facts. First, the FAA is not automatically the villain. Jacob got his certificate yanked and deserved it: crashing an airplane for views is the very definition of “careless and reckless,” and it jeopardizes the activity we all love. The Red Bull pilots did a little more planning but still don’t deserve much sympathy. They asked for permission, got denied, then went ahead with their stunt anyway. As Paul Bertorelli wrote recently, “If we agree to basic training and licensing requirements, we also agree to a rules framework which we accept in exchange for avoiding utter chaos.” The Red Bull stunt brazenly ignored that framework.

The Palmer case is more complicated, a “he said/she said” situation that was either a perfectly safe inspection pass on an unfamiliar landing strip or a reckless buzz job. If you believe Palmer, the FAA is criticizing exactly the procedure they recommend pilots perform when landing at an unfamiliar strip. At the very least, the agency seems to have wasted an inordinate amount of time on a very minor event (that happened in 2019). Why all the attention? Only the folks at 800 Independence Avenue know for sure, but my guess is they are trying to make an example of an internet famous pilot in order to crack down on what they see as increasingly dangerous stunts.

Here again, an uncomfortable fact to admit before we get too fired up: there are indeed some incredibly stupid pilot tricks online, and they seem to be increasingly common. The incentives created by the hyper-competitive “attention economy” are rarely aligned with safety. Boring flights that end with a perfect landing might get a few thousand views, while jumping out of an airplane will get millions. Some YouTubers, frustrated after years of fighting the algorithm, decide you can be righteous or you can be rich—but not both.

Think they’re wrong? Jacob’s video has over 2.5 million views. And it’s not just him: dozens of other channels have chimed in with their own videos providing reactions and commentary on the original (a genre popularized by YouTube). It’s a vicious circle, where outrage feeds outrage.

This is not a new trend. Since newspapers were invented 400 years ago, content creators have chased subscribers with lurid stories and hare-brained publicity stunts. What has changed recently is the scale. Herbert Simon famously said “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” and what a wealth of information we live with in 2022. Every day, over 700,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, thousands of times more than the entire TV industry created 50 years ago. Even if 99.99% of those videos aren’t about aviation, that means there are still 70 hours of new flying videos to watch. Every. Single. Day.

The result? We are all incredibly poor when it comes to attention.

Don’t reward bad behavior

Certainly not all YouTube pilots fall into this extreme flying trap; there are many who consistently put out excellent videos (including Palmer, who is a first rate drone pilot in addition to flying his Kitfox). I’ve worked with a number of them over the years, from Steve Thorne at Flight Chops to Chris Palmer at Angle of Attack to JP Schulze at The Candourist, and I’m continually impressed by how much planning and effort goes into each video. For every minute of fun flying, there are hours of grueling work behind the scenes to make it look easy, and the best creators are fanatical about safety.

Trevor Jacob jump

Videos like this have an impact on the rest of the industry.

This makes it all the more frustrating when a few bad actors draw the FAA’s attention—which is exactly what’s happening right now. To be clear, it’s not Trent Palmer’s fault that Trevor Jacob jumped out of a perfectly good airplane (indeed, the low pass happened years before these latest stunts), but those kinds of viral videos have knock-on effects that impact the good guys. The FAA is not known for discretion or keeping up with technology—only recently did they remove questions about celestial navigation from knowledge tests—so expecting them to be thoughtful about social media is naive. The baby will get thrown out with the bath water in an attempt to solve the problem.

Where does that leave us? I’m not suggesting aviation enthusiasts quit YouTube. Rather, we should reward good behavior by supporting those creators who play by the rules (subscribe, support their Patreon, buy their merch, etc.) and either call out or ignore the idiots who ruin it for the rest of us. That’s harder than it sounds. Because there are no gatekeepers online, consumers have to work hard to find quality content. As David Perrell has observed, “Information abundance, like all markets of abundance, is bad for the average person but great for a small number of people.” That means YouTube has more high quality aviation content than any medium in history, but it is still dwarfed by the tsunami of junk. If you’re not actively seeking the good stuff, you will be served up the bad stuff forever.

In addition to being consumers of aviation video, many pilots these days are also creators, and we might take a moment to think about how we fly and film. There’s great value in recording a flight lesson or sharing a great cross country trip with family and friends—our flight school at Sporty’s has done it for years and we consistently hear how meaningful those videos are. But you need to be thoughtful about how you use cameras: plan what you’re going to record ahead of time so you don’t get lured into spur-of-the-moment decisions, bring a co-pilot along so someone is always in charge of flying, and if you’re not sure whether you should post a video, you probably shouldn’t.

Most importantly, focus on the authentic experience of being a pilot, not chasing subscribers or trying to be an influencer (a vague and slippery term if ever there were one). The move from sharing your passion to monetizing yourself often leads to the worst decisions. Also remember to go out and fly with the cameras off once in a while. It’s a healthy way to detox.

Is Top Gun still on top?

One of the best aviation videos on YouTube right now involves daredevil flying, but of a decidedly different sort. The trailer for Top Gun: Maverick, a follow-up to the 1986 blockbuster, is packed with thrilling aerial dogfights and has over 37 million views. Take that, Red Bull.

When I was an aspiring pilot many years ago, there were no YouTube rabbit holes to fall into, no clickbait headlines to grab attention. But there was Top Gun, which raked in over $430 million at the box office—still one of the top 100 movies of all time when adjusted for inflation. It also boosted Navy recruitment rates by 500% and generally made flying look cool. I know it made me want to be a pilot. Baby Boomers had Sky King; I had Maverick.

Top Gun Maverick

Can Tom Cruise compete with YouTube?

Top Gun succeeded in the era of mass culture, something that ceased to exist about 15 years ago. In 1986, if you wanted to see a movie about flying, it was Top Gun. Everyone saw the same story and the same actors, and you had to go sit in a theater with other people to do it. Sure, you’d occasionally see knock-offs like Iron Eagle (sorry Chappy), but that hardly compares to the rich pickings on YouTube today. Major movies were cultural events, a point of connection that millions of Americans could talk about.

One other key distinction between big budget Hollywood movies and YouTube vlogs is often overlooked: films like Top Gun are fiction. Sure, it feels real, but there is no serious attempt to make it “reality” like Trevor Jacob or the Red Bull pilots. That has important implications for safety and the impact on viewers. I can make a low pass over a river like I saw on YouTube, but I really can’t dogfight a Russian MiG in my Cessna.

Can Top Gun: Maverick recapture the magic? The film studios are certainly trying, bringing back Tom Cruise, a big soundtrack (Lady GaGa this time, not Kenny Loggins), plus an even bigger marketing budget. I expect it to do quite well, but there’s no way it will have the same cultural impact as the original. Movie theater attendance was trending steadily down even before the pandemic, with revenue only holding steady due to higher ticket prices. Movies just don’t have the same reach, especially worldwide, as social media does.

I’ll certainly go see the movie and revel in the “just realistic enough” flying scenes. I’m sure I’ll see plenty of other pilots there, too. But for most young people in 2022, YouTube will do far more to inspire them to be a pilot than any Hollywood movie. I know for my kids and their friends, entertainment means YouTube, with TikTok (1 billion users) or even Microsoft Flight Simulator (1 million copies sold within two weeks of launch) also coming in far ahead of movies.

Older pilots may sigh when hearing that, but I think it’s actually great news. While the general aviation industry cannot and should not control what gets posted on YouTube—that’s the whole point—overall the platform has provided a huge boost for GA. Everyday pilots have shared the freedom and joy of light airplanes with a wider audience than ever before. As important, the best videos are often focused on the fun parts of flying, typically in 60-year old airplanes or two-seat taildraggers instead of brand new jets. That makes it much more relatable and is a major part of Trent Palmer’s appeal—it’s all about having fun, not finding a more efficient way to travel. And unlike Top Gun, which had a 36-year break between releases, new aviation videos come out every day on YouTube.

Pilots should all work to keep YouTube filled with inspiring flying videos, not publicity stunts. We should support the FAA when they go after bad actors, and let them know when they go too far (I’m not to worried about this part). And unfortunately, we should assume that whatever we do in an airplane will probably be recorded somewhere—ask Trent Palmer or Martha Lunken about it. Aviation culture is up to us now, not Hollywood. Fly like the world is watching.

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22 replies
  1. Skip Stag
    Skip Stag says:

    Good one John!
    This is just like the days of:” See the youngster pilot to fly an airplane some where? press releases and TV news stories” Very young children being promoted by Mom and Dad. (with an unknown CFI in the right seat.) To be the youngest pilot to fly cross country. As your readers will remember the flights did not end well.

    Reply
  2. Mike Coster
    Mike Coster says:

    “We should support the FAA when they go after bad actors, and let them know when they go too far (I’m not to worried about this part).” No, no need or benefit to supporting the FAA in enforcement actions, they can handle it themselves. Any cop will tell you, “dont try to do the cops job.”) Nor do public comments have any meaningful impact on the FAA when “they go too far.” Its an administrative law decision, not a poll.
    There is no way to evaluate the Palmer case, a person whom I fully support and appreciate, without seeing the record of decision. If his version is full and balanced, the FAA regional decision will be overturned by the NTSB, as rare as that is. But, again, one needs both sides and a full set of facts to know what the Board will be reviewing. And that is not available.

    Reply
    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I am not suggesting pilots try to play FAA – that would end badly – just that they grudgingly admit that some certificate actions are justified.

      And I agree 100% on Palmer. It’s like an accident; until we have all the facts, we really don’t know enough to make a judgment.

      Reply
      • Richard G
        Richard G says:

        I agree, we don’t have all the information, and his push for public opinion support doesn’t seen wise to me.
        If what I think happened, really happened, he not only got off super lite… he could still be sued civilly and charged criminally. The idiot sky diver, and Red Bull had no intention to harm or disturb anyone on the ground. I don’t think that was the case with Palmer.
        By the way… there was clearly someone else filming the plane as it was going down to crash. No way could that shot from above the aircraft of the aircraft going down have been filmed by him after jumping from the plane. Also, the change in the suns shadows etc… this stunt wasn’t filmed in one day. His gun (yes, he has a Glock) appears then disappears. The filming jumps from GoPro to phone format. There are numerous hints…

        Reply
      • Dick Gecko
        Dick Gecko says:

        It you follow Palmer’s channel, you’ll notice this is his 3rd chat with his FSDO. His first, I vaguely remember, was at the same RC field location, probably from the same neighbor, about tossing a drone out of his plane at the RC field.

        His second chum & gum with the FSDO about was endangering another person (his passenger) wheel skiing on the water at Lake Tahoe. Trent has since publicly sworn off wheel skiing…at least in his vids.

        This third incident, I suspect, falls into the neighbor dispute category over the RC field next door. But still, poking the complaining neighbor a second time with his approach over the neighbor’s property seems unwise.

        Regulation is about safety, but it’s also about managing competing rights of citizens. These “flying cowboys” often wear a shirt that has written on them: public land, owner-operators. They’ve got millions of sq. Miles to play in. I envy them from my mudflat river bars & crowded public beaches here on the East coast, well below the cactus line.

        The common denominator in his complaints is Trent having the bad judgment to think flying in public view is the same as backcountry flying.

        Reply
  3. George Wilhelmsen
    George Wilhelmsen says:

    You ask some very good questions, and make some very good points.

    Yes, the “Look at ME” nature of YouTube does in fact cause some dangerous one-ups-manship. It is clear that the FAA doesn’t approve of such stunts (as evidenced by the prompt and in my opinion, appropriate action taken against these pilots who clearly did not understand their responsibility.)

    What makes matters worse in my opinion, is these same “pilots” (and the word is in quotes deliberately) continue to defend their actions – it shows they do not have the appropriate respect for the required safety of flight.

    Is it just them? Is it just this video generation?

    Unfortunately, it isn’t. I can remember someone I wrote a story on from my home town of Morris being in the news, when she was flying aerobatics in a Piper Cub with her fiancé over a party with friends. Unfortunately, the plane crashed and she was killed. Her fiancé was seriously wounded, but eventually recovered.

    I could provide more examples, most of which are from aviation newsletters of the 80’s and 90’s before “the Internet;” the example noted above (and by other people making comments of the “youngest kid to fly cross country”) also highlight the “look at me” issue.

    In summary, I don’t think YouTube has caused this problem – it has always existed.

    I believe YouTube and the “Look at ME” attention-based economy may be magnifying the effect, as each person tries to one-up the other person and get more “looks.”

    I see further FAA action in the future for such pilots, as they fail to recognize that flying is an incredible privilege, and that such “look at ME” stunts dangerous and are not acceptable, will never be acceptable, and will not ever be “normalized” and accepted by the FAA.

    Reply
  4. Ken Lund
    Ken Lund says:

    In respect to the FAA for 2019 ‘buzz job’ how else could a pilot determine if a proposed landing site is viable. I once did a go around for a deer on the strip at night. It may not have been necessary but it was my choice. I suppose the Feds may have been interested if they knew, or maybe just thought they must justify their existance!

    Reply
    • Max
      Max says:

      Simple, DON’T GET WITHIN 500′ of buildings or people. That’s what they violated him on.
      Anyone that has spent more than one rainy Sunday at an FBO or Airport restaurant has heard someone pose the “just tell them it was a go around from simulated engine out” theory to cover a buzz job.

      Reply
      • Ron
        Ron says:

        Not Simple. My airport has hangers, parking lots, and a restaurant with outdoor seating all within 500′ of the runway center line. By that statement any go a round would put you in violation. This is a 2767’x 40′ runway with trees and building on both ends. Also not uncommon for there to be dear and large birds on the field. So go a rounds are not uncommon. What is simple is if it was a “go a round for a simulated engine out” by definition (being simulated) you never “intended” to land, so you should never be below 500′

        Reply
        • Jamie
          Jamie says:

          Yeah but you’re talking about an actual charted airport, not an unofficial backyard “landing area” which probably had the FAA worked up from the start.

          Reply
  5. Mac MCCLELLAN
    Mac MCCLELLAN says:

    Very good points, John. But I want to add one more observation.
    I believe general aviation has cycled back to its roots. In the early days of flying barnstormers attempted ever more outrageous stunts to attract attention, and also to amuse themselves with their new toys, airplanes.
    By the time I entered the GA industry in the mid 1970s the cycle had turned and we were all about reliable, safe and convenient personal transportation in our airplanes. The GA industry was working overtime to stamp out the daredevilry of earlier years and portray flying as safe and responsible. Cessna was perhaps most determined in this effort to the point that management decreed everyone from the company wear a necktie, and often jacket, when flying company airplanes, even a Cessna 150. At Flying Magazine we followed suit–so to speak–and were never seen in a photo subject airplane without a tie.
    Well, for a variety of reasons purposeful transportation in GA–other than for the Cirrus owners–is a thing of the past. What’s left is what we had in the beginning. Using GA airplanes as toys to amuse ourselves and impress others.
    GA is now almost entirely recreational. Gone are the days of honing your IFR skills and traveling on a schedule. And as with any motorized toy, people will find ever more extreme ways to test the limits.
    All we need do is look back to the barnstormers to see that hopping from one airplane to another is nothing new. The good old days are here again.
    Mac Mc

    Reply
    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      This is an excellent point, Mac. I mostly agree and I mostly like the trend – flying is fun, after all. But it does seem like Cirrus has carved out a profitable niche serving the transportation crowd.

      Reply
  6. Martin
    Martin says:

    YouTube has nothing to do with it and neither does the FAA. You will find good and bad people in every job, hobby and walk of life. It’s as simple as the people chose to be dumb and break laws and protocols. They now must suffer the consequences, but YouTube didn’t force them to do these things and the FAA are not bad guys. Rules exist for a reason. It’s also as simple as the more technology advances and the nicer things become the more greed bad people gain. The greedier, the more they want. When you have these fools alive they live for nothing more than to make money and in this case they make pilot content for money instead of getting jobs and they will do anything for that, including dangerous or illegal activities. You can’t blame social media. That’s like blaming the spoon for obese people or blaming alcohol for drunk drivers or guns (which mind you is an inanimate object just like a stick or blanket) for school shootings. Bad people will be bad. That’s all there is to it. If you watch Palmer’s videos he’s more about entertainment and not about safety. He even wears the parachute as a gag and not because he might crash. His whole platform is about unsafe acts and getting views. Sadly the world loves drama and that means people like him will be unsafe and so stupid things to gain ratings. I hope he loses his appeal and goes and stays in jail.

    Reply
  7. Daniel Millican
    Daniel Millican says:

    John, very well written. The problem is deep rooted in us, the corporeal nature. People want to watch the car wrecks. On my channel TakingOff, some of my favorite videos are when we focused on ChallengeAir, and Angel Flights, and yet they’re the lowest watched videos on the channel.
    I’m actually grateful for the aviation community outpouring of disgust on the TJ stunt– I think the peer pressure will do more than the revocation to discourage copycatters.
    For most of the pilots who decide they want to video their flights and become that slippery-slope term “influencer,” it’s akin to the plot of Close Encounters– millions get the impression, but only thousands make mash potato mountains, and then hundreds travel to Devils Towers, and only three start the climb and two make it to the top. The incredible amount of work that goes into a YouTube channel is a huge first filter.

    Reply
  8. Mike
    Mike says:

    If YouTubers got penalized with thumbs down likes and the view was deleted it would solve the whole problem, I didn’t want to watch the Trevor Jacob video just so he wouldn’t get the view but who’s to know what it’s all about when it 1st came out unless you watch it?

    Reply
    • Rusty
      Rusty says:

      That is an excellent idea. The problem with their model is, as you say, once you click on it to see what the fuss was about, they have already been paid for that. As system where your down-vote would remove credit for your watching it could only help. On a more positive note, I can HIGHLY recommend “Mentour Pilot”…airline captain does great informational videos, often from hotel rooms and in answer to viewer questions. Mostly Boeing related, but very well done.

      Reply
  9. Bob Walsh
    Bob Walsh says:

    Maybe sporty’s‘s and AOPA can create a marker that they could put on these videos like they do with organic foods to say we’ve looked at it and we think it’s worth looking at. Maybe that will keep them from just randomly looking through the 70,000 hours of aviation to find a good and proper one.

    Reply
  10. Richard G
    Richard G says:

    YouTube is a fantastic tool for training and learning.
    It is also a place for some people to try to make money by doing stupid things for clicks.
    Yes, like a train wreck, we have to look. And that pushes people to do Jack Ass things to get attention. Children of today think they need attention, likely attention they never got at home.
    Is a car a good thing? Yes, until some idiot tries to drive at 100 mph while drunk.

    Reply
  11. Jack
    Jack says:

    There is something unsettling about pilots flying with a half dozen cameras stuck around the inside perimeter of their cockpits, with four or five more affixed to the outside of their aircraft. One has to wonder what will the response be when NTSB finally makes a very public push for mandatory video in the cockpit for accident analysis.

    If you have seen the neighborhood where Trent Palmer’s low pass was performed, then it all comes into focus. He violated the FAR 91.119 distances, with only the takeoff and landing exception being his only justification. The FAA simply said you had no intent to land, you were buzzing, so the exemption doesn’t apply. He says he was doing a condition inspection of the terrain, in a place that he was already very familiar with, and had likely visited. If you listen to the syntax of his explanation, it’s obvious that he’s dissembling. It’s just lame.

    Not like such an excuse is new, we’ve all seen this act before, countless times. The FAA was not amused.

    Long after losing his case, Trent posted his version of events on Youtube to rile the mob into believing that the FAA saying that go arounds are now somehow illegal. Think about that. It’s particularly disingenuous to believe that the FAA would suddenly decree a longstanding practice that enhances safe operation illegal.

    AOPA jumped on it because they sell legal insurance. EAA took a much more conservative view, not accepting Palmer’s version at face value, and admonishing pilots that FAA is cracking down on low flying, and that they would wait t

    Youtube can be a valuable tool for new pilots, there are good people putting out useful content that enhances safety. Unfortunately, there is also an inordinate “celebrity cult” aspect to media these days, with too many sad viewers supporting the nonsense posted by someone they have never met, and have no sense of as a person.

    A content creator should understand that there are witnesses and cameras everywhere, and as a result, bias their choices away from anything that could alarm people on the ground. Palmer’s situation is another example of bad judgement by a young pilot, exacerbated by media.

    Reply
  12. Andy K
    Andy K says:

    My Dad flew for many years beginning in the 1930’s. He always said ‘if I die, that’s one thing but if people on the ground die because of me that’s a big problem.’ I agree with Martin’s comment. The FAA aren’t the bad guys here. To the point of another comment is that Barnstormers didn’t face regulations until the government stepped in following a series of accidents. The pilots had engaged in ‘one-upmanship’. Feel familiar ? One result of an idiotic stunt took the life of guitarist Randy Rhoads (March 1982 in Florida) when someone aboard the plane suggested that they ‘fly closer to the bus on the next pass’.

    Reply

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