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Mon, Sep 11, 2006

ANN's Daily Aero-Tips (09.11.06): What's Changed


A good pilot is always learning -- how many times have you heard this old standard throughout your flying career? There is no truer statement in all of flying (well, with the possible exception of "there are no old, bold pilots.")

Aero-News has called upon the expertise of Thomas P. Turner, master CFI and all-around-good-guy, to bring our readers -- and us -- daily tips to improve our skills as aviators. Some of them, you may have heard before... but for each of us, there will also be something we might never have considered before, or something that didn't "stick" the way it should have the first time we memorized it for the practical test.

Look for our daily Aero-Tips segments, coming each day to you through the Aero-News Network.

Aero-Tips 09.11.06

Five years ago this morning I was pulling out of the company driveway. Just before logging off my computer I'd seen a CNN "breaking news" banner that a "small plane" had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers.

We all know the rest of that story.

ANN's editors posed the question of "what's changed" in aviation as a result of 9/11. I've thought about it quite a bit, and the answer for me personally is "not much". Most of my cross-country trips are flown IFR, so airspace isn't much of a challenge. In five years of actively instructing around the entire United States I've yet to have to cancel a flight because of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs). I've always been a proponent of checking weather and Notices to Aviators (NOTAMs), so a brief TFR check before each flight is nothing new to me.

Some of my friends have been very affected by 9/11's aftermath, people who live and fly in the vicinity of Washington, DC. In fact, I flew (commercially) out of Baltimore/Washington on the night of 9/9/2001 after a weekend of instruction that included "low approaches" over Andrews Air Force Base, home of Air Force One (we did have to hold outside the area for a while as the President came in from somewhere that last peacetime Sunday). Now pilots in the Baltimore/Washington metroplex have Draconian rules for VFR flight in the area.

Another demographic that has been hurt noticeably in the wake of 9/11 is the professional flight training sector. Before 9/11 a large profit center for US flight schools was training foreign nationals (ironically, most from the Middle East), for whom it was far cheaper and less restrictive to travel here than to fly at home. Now that lucrative market is all but gone due to stringent rules for teaching non-citizens to fly in this country. Some of the largest American training providers have established satellite centers overseas to recapture this market.

But for the vast majority of us, I think, not much has changed as a direct result of 9/11. This is not to say we don't face some serious obstacles as an industry and an avocation:

  • The Gulag Aero-pelago. Many lament the security measures in place at even the smallest airports since 9/11 that virtually eliminate the "airport kid" hanging around before finally beginning to learn to fly. Think back, though, and you'll remember we were talking about this long before September of 2001. We've put up more fences in the last five years, but airport managers were chasing onlookers off the ramp before the War on Terror began-worried then not about an attacker taking to the skies, but a legal offensive if the slightest little thing went wrong and the sightseer, or the airport kid's parents, took to the courts.
  • The cost. Fuel prices are a major issue for pilots today, but the very high cost of flying was in the news long before 9/11. Remember the Recreational Pilot certificate in the 1980s, and the Primary Aircraft category in the early 1990s? These were measures pushed hard to approval by the AOPA, EAA and others to avert the "looming pilot crisis" attributed to flying's great expense decades before wars (and natural disasters) kicked fuel prices higher this side of that September.
  • Insurance. Fuel notwithstanding, the cost, and the very availability, of insurance is a big deterrent to personal flight. This, too, predates 9/11-I'm guilty of writing articles with titles like "The Insurance Crisis", "Strategies for Lower Aircraft Insurance Premiums" and "The Airplane Owner's Glass Ceiling" in the 1990s, showing that 9/11 had little to impact in this area. Any improvement in aviation safety has been offset by the costs of repairing broken airplanes, and staving off passenger lawsuits-and the safety record is complete unrelated to 9/11.
  • Airports. Airport closures have been in the news since the 1980s. Except perhaps in the immediate Washington DC area, 9/11 has had no effect on the number of runways available.
  • Airlines. Indirectly private aviation suffers many of the same fates as the airlines, which were in a financial tail-spin long before the events of September 11th. The era of big legacy carriers was already crumbling before airliners morphed from hijacker's bargaining chips to terrorists' cruise missiles. Significantly, however, carry-on restrictions and public fears of commercial air travel following the recently foiled London-based airline terror threat have increased interest in charter and other "small airplane" flying, which may indirectly boost the Very Light Jets vision and help keep municipal airports open.
  • Public perception. This, too, has been a major detriment to personal aviation since longer before 9/11. The difference now is that the terrorists trained in, and apparently made at least preliminary plans to use, US-based light aircraft to carry out their schemes. Despite the wisdom that a light airplane could not carry out 9/11-style destruction, there are any number of scenarios where a small airplane (and to the public anything from a Regional Jet on down is a "small airplane") could be used to incite terror on a limited scale, if even something akin to the (non-aviation) DC area sniper a couple years ago. ANN has reported before that terrorist groups are even acquiring small, unmanned drones for some purpose, and if a payload-challenged Unmanned Aerial Vehicle causes concern, a Piper Cherokee could engender panic (remember James Bond's Goldfinger and the PA28 aerial gas attack on Fort Knox). One successful small-airplane attack on US soil would be catastrophic for all personal aviation. Short of that, however, a pre-9/11 public relations blitz must be sustained to combat the poor public perception of "little airplanes". This problem did no begin on September 11th.

Aero-tip of the day: Horrible though they were, in most cases the events of five years ago today did not precipitate impediments to most personal aviation. Concentrate on the basics -- safety, education and mentorship, airport security, public relations and a good Airport Watch program -- to focus on the real threats to personal aviation's freedoms.

FMI: Aero-Tips


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