A recent television documentary discussed the “crisis” in general aviation safety. “600 people die every year in little airplane accidents,” heralds the narrator as scenes of post-crash devastation and amateur video of a Cessna in a deadly spin play and replay across the screen.

The JFK, Jr. crash. John Denver’s fatal plunge into the Pacific Ocean. Six people in a pair of Bonanzas die while flying formation into a canyon wall. A twin Cessna crashes into a July 4th picnic — killing two children on the ground along with the two on board. High-profile tragedies like these naturally draw criticism of personal aviation. After all, there are only about 600,000 of us — put 1000 people in a room and on average only about three have ever held a pilot certificate.

Internal Factors: We’re not helping. The airline vs. weekend pilot vs. ultralight vs. helicopter vs. lighter-than-air vs. “anybody else” rivalries in our little community exist — we do not present a united front, and are often publicly critical of persons not in “our” brand of flying. And yet, we pilots are willing to take the risk of lightplane flying … because we have perspective.

External Complications: Now we have the paranoia of terrorism to overcome … it seems there may actually have been some credible investigative evidence that lightplanes and especially agricultural application aircraft were at least considered as weapons of terror, leading to our nationwide grounding after September 11th of last year.

There are about 600 deaths annually in “general” aviation. That’s about eleven per week. It’s undeniably tragic, and we can do much better. Many of the deaths result from consciously trying to exceed our own capabilities, or those of the airplane. Often that means flying in poor visibility without the skills or equipment; trying to “stretch” the range and running out of fuel; or maneuvering too close to the ground only to run out of airspeed, or altitude, or both. It’s especially bad when pilots take a nonpilot along for the fatal ride, or when persons on the ground are injured or killed … and even worse when they are children.

Yet the same reporters shy away from the 42,000 deaths annually that occur on American highways. That’s more than 800 per week (versus general aviation’s 11) often killing innocent passengers, occupants of other vehicles, and pedestrians who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. And what kills in automobiles? The same sort of bad decision-making about driving in poor weather; or exceeding the capabilities of the car on the road being traveled; or in trying to maneuver in tight traffic; or breaking the law — only the run out of options and run into something … or somebody. And alcohol abuse, so prevalent in fatal traffic accidents, is virtually unheard of in aviation, recent (and extremely isolated) incidents aside.

We don’t hear a clamoring for tighter training requirements for drivers; or recurrent training to renew a driver’s license; or criminal background checks before being able to learn to drive. In the perspective of the public, driving (and its accidents) are completely banal … an inalienable right … part of everyone’s daily routine. In short, there is nothing sensational about driving — or crashing — and journalism is too often about sensationalism. Flying is sensational. Unfortunately, our “sensational” is someone else’s self-destructive and publicly dangerous black art exclusive to rich crazy people … and a flying accident therefore makes for sensational journalism. We need to change that perspective.

It was a warm spring morning. The Southeast was again blanketed in haze — with small pockets of very dense fog. Interstate Highway 75 just south of Chattanooga, TN (a very heavily traveled highway, with six lanes of traffic in each direction) was moving along at its “usual” 75 to 85 mph pace when the visibility suddenly dropped to nearly “zero.” The chain-reaction started when an 18-wheel truck strayed out of its lane and glanced off another large truck. In the end, over 150 cars and trucks littered the busy highway, and a number of people were dead.

Did the press or legislators send the call requiring all drivers to receive (and pay thousands of dollars for) professional training in low-visibility driving, or the hazards of weather? How about just a written examination, plus an oral and practical evaluation by an agent of the Federal government?

When a single pilot loses control and crashes, and his or her airplane spirals into the ground (or the sea), somehow, the naysayers who are either afraid or jealous of the freedom that personal aviation provides, are dug out from under their rocks and put on national television. The current cry is that all lightplane pilots should be instrument rated.

We with aerial perspective know that weather-related accidents are almost always the result of poor pilot judgment — either a pilot launches into known, adverse conditions, or by chooses to continue into deteriorating weather when a better option exists. An instrument rating does not compensate for poor judgement. Sure, there are all sort of time and financial pressures to “keep going,” but if pilots stick to a disciplined approach and account for potential weather delays, then we can dramatically reduce the chances of making the headlines and giving the naysayers another sound-bite from the soapbox.

Another criticism that’s made it to the public eye is the notion that most instructor pilots are aerial neophytes themselves — that we have “greenhorns teaching novices” to fly. We’ve all heard stories of time-building young pilots who will cancel lessons to take a charter, and quit their instructional job at the first hint of a co-pilot’s seat. Ask around and you’ll find most experienced pilots want an experienced instructor … and many are able to find one.

But look at what even the brand-new instructor pilot needs to do to get that first instructional job. At a minimum he/she has a Commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating. He/she will have passed at least three grueling written exams (private, commercial and instrument) and three Federally overseen checkrides, before even being allowed to take two more “writtens” (the Instructor test, and the “Fundamentals of Instruction.“) required to be an instructor pilot. But let’s not forget icing. Aspiring insctructors must then take the most difficult of all flying examinations — the Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) checkride.

Inside Information: Expect four to eight hours of verbal quizzing before even getting into the airplane, then at least a couple hours demonstrating not only your ability to fly precisely, but also your ability to teach.

The route to the first instructor’s job usually takes years of effort, and thousands upon thousands of dollars.

Compare this with the professional qualifications and financial/time investment of most who teach people to drive … and the requirements of maintaining a drivers’ license. Although the skills required to fly an airplane are vastly more involved than driving, the thousands of general aviation flights each week — the ones the public never hears about — demonstrates that even “entry-level” instructors are well prepared to teach us to fly safely. And “entry-level” pilots are up to the task, too.

Often, we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to aviation’s public relations. A few “bad apples” scud-run one time too many, or try to impress “groundlings” with low-altitude aerial exploits. A miniscule minority fly at wave-top height over New York beaches, or think it’s “cool” to spray airshow smoke over the high school football field when the public fears an aerial bio-attack. Every now and then someone “pushes their luck” by trying to stretch an airplane’s range beyond its fuel load, or continues into weather for which they or the airplane are not equipped.

PERSPECITVE and professionals
Even at the well-attended air shows professional “stunt” pilots demonstrate edge-of-the-envelop maneuvering (because straight-and-level flight is not a spectator sport). In this country, such performances are strictly regulated and no maneuver is flown closer than 1,500 laterally from the crowd and no maneuvers (other than positioning turns) should direct the energy of the aircraft toward the crowd. Still, this is the only contact most of the population ever has with “little” airplanes … except for accident footage on the evening news. No wonder the public fears our tiny number!

The only way personal aviation will survive is for us to each do our part to improve its public relations. Fly safely, don’t push your luck, and stay within your own limitations and those of the airplane. You can still have a LOT of fun when you’re trained for the flying you’re trying to do, and you fly each airplane only for the purposes for which it was designed. Once you’re committed to safe personal flight, take as many of your friends up as you can, and every now and then spice up the office conversation by briefly mentioning that weekend family fly-away or the view from 1000 feet on a warm summer’s evening.

BOTTOM LINE: You may never coax another person into becoming a pilot — but you can help nonpilots gain perspective.