Around the Airport

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Safety Is Killing Us

When I first saw this video, one thing quickly came to mind; safety is killing us.  Of course, by “us” I mean aviation, and by "killing" I mean destroying the sport of flight. There simply is no better example than flying to demonstrate how the disease of obsessive compulsive safety disorder destroys greatness.  Even worse, most people refuse to face it.
When you see videos like the one above there are always comments that follow.  One striking example I saw today was from a person who runs an aviation insurance company.  This person’s comment was about what humans can accomplish and endure and to me it was incredibly striking.  Nowhere did this individual mention, and perhaps did not notice, that aviation was almost absent.  Maybe it was missed because it starts with some straight and level formation shots then moves on to a video that is full of risky sports which attract millions of spectators worldwide.  Whatever the case, I’m not faulting their observation as it was good.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder if it was noticed how relatively little aviation was present in the film?
How can that be?  There are few sports which offer more potential thrills than aviation. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any to be had.  Let me rephrase that; there aren’t any that would draw spectators without the scorn of the aviation community itself.  Why is that?
Some of you may say, “Fun aviation is done at heights and distances too far for people to see”.  And although that notion doesn’t explain it, it is on the right track. 
The true core of this problem is that aviation, even airshows, are old hat when the people of the world want to see radical crazy stuff.
So maybe you’re thinking “what about aerobatics”?  If that's you, I'm sorry, but aerobatics just aren't exciting.  The most easily thrilled person on the planet begins to yawn the first time they see the second person do 33 snap rolls.  And this is the best we have to offer, with one exception.
Nobody has proven what works and what doesn’t better than Red Bull.  They took pilots that were typical aerobatics guys and put them in a race course, feet from the ground, with little to no airshow aerobatics taking place and received a predictable response? The world exploded in applause.  Do you know why?  The answer is obvious and it’s not because it is safe.  Yet, sure enough, even those races were shut down for a while. 
Early on, although they did do everything they could to make it safe, it wasn’t Red Bull that wrung their hands about safety.  No, it was the pilots receiving all the glory and all the fun who did that.  Within a few short years and near misses, they were the ones complaining that pilots who weren’t up to par were being allowed in the race; translation – they aren’t safe enough for us.  Think about that.  They aren’t even on the course together.
It's hard to believe isn't it?  The Red Bull racers are the best example of why I believe the obsession with safety it a disease; a mental disorder.  Drug addicts have the same problem.  Many of them know they should stop but they can’t, and most pilots know safety is killing aviation but they can’t quit calling for more of it.
Look around, go ahead, it won’t take long; everywhere you look is an admonishment to use the glorious gift of self-awareness and consciousness found only in humans to overcome the animal instincts that put you at risk.  Pay attention and you’ll also notice those stern words almost always come from people who tell you to never eat meat, drive fast, and fly below 3000’ or without a flight plan.  It’s true.  And sadly, people listen.
When I brought up this subject to a friend, he pointed out that I had recently called some guys idiots for a low fly-by caught on video.  And you know what?  He was right. So why am I telling you about it?  Because as as I pointed out to him, I called them idiots; I didn’t say they shouldn’t do it.
There was a time when people did these crazy things way more often.  They also had truck loads of fun and accomplished far more.  If they had a plane they tried it all and, if they survived, a few crashes did not ruin their career or ability to fly.  Naturally more people died operating in such a manner but, as long as everyone involved was ok with and aware of the risk before hand, I see no reason to be concerned.  I mean that.  Stupidity killed them.  Now safety is killing us.
Ages ago sanctioned short field landing contests disappeared from the lower 48 fly-ins because people and planes were getting hurt and the liability issues that followed. Today, because of one accident, Reno is on the ropes and the pilot is blamed for being reckless with his machine.
Remember, it was a race of the “unlimiteds” in which the accident happened.  Yet now it seems the pilot’s definition of “unlimited”, the old school version, is to blame.  After he crashed, it was discovered the class should have be called the “tightly scrutinized, sterilized, and safety-wise planes flown by the same people from a very small club”.  And what was the solution to the confusion about “unlimited”?  New safety rules were created that actually made it less safe.  That’s usually the case.  The airway to hell is controlled by good intentions.
If it were up to me, I would solve all Reno's problems with one easy step.  Outside the gate I would place a camera and a sign that read “Look at the camera and repeat these words, “By attending I acknowledge that due to both predictable and unforeseen dangers I could be killed and I therefore waive all liability”, and then I would allow each category to run unlimited.  I would also bet any number of you a thousand dollars that after three years attendance would have gone through the flight levels. Instead, with today’s focus on safety, interest is waning. You just can’t get away from it.  Safety is killing our sport.
Think about it.  Is there any real reason why we don’t have air combat competitions or armed aircraft that run courses shooting up targets in the desert or on military proving grounds?  Can anyone explain why nobody flies disposable airplanes into flimsy buildings at airshows?  There are no X-games for aviation.  Why not?
Think about a contest where entrants had to fly a cropduster under wires and over fences as they navigate between smoke obscured pylons to put out a fire with water from the hopper.  Afterwards they would do a 180, fly back out, and touch down on a narrow winding road lined with signs?  Or what about this one?  Can you think of a real reason not to have a contest in farm country where anyone could enter any plane of their choice to fly a course weaving through trees, over fences, and around barns?  In my mind there at least has to be room for a competition where pilots flying taildraggers start at 1500’, deadstick through a prescribed set of maneuvers, and land on a 20’ x 800’ strip surrounded by a moat. Heck, that could be done at Oshkosh and as long as it was fresh water the planes could be dried out and used again.  All it would take is for Americans to embrace the risk inherent in living life to the fullest and remove the restraints.  
Of course if we were to do these things, people would be spurred to step up their skills, create new designs for the competitions, and imagine crazy new stunts that would make their videos go viral.  Furthermore, and rather ironically, the greatest developments spawned by this atmosphere of embraced risk would be safety features which would allow you to survive horrible crashes.  The boundaries of possible would expand exponentially (Evidence exists to support that belief ***).
Behavior based, aka programming
A few years later, attendees to airshows would go wild over the two guys who took off in the Fly Baby mounted to the top of a modified AgCat, separated in flight to perform a cat and mouse airshow, then mated back up and landed.  After their first appearance, the Youtube video of the act would have 50 million views overnight and they would be booked in all corners of the world.
The next year they’d be back but with something new. The routine would consist of the mated take off and the usual cat and mouse airshow.  The difference would be the finale where the Fly Baby would crash into a barn built for the show and burst into flames.  The AgCat would then fly by and douse the fire set by the Fly-Baby pilot after climbing out.
And yet, after two years of the greatest team in aviation setting airshow attendance records and making the world go wild with their “insane”act, aviation would be doing its best to shut them down.  And sadly, they would succeed.  Why?  Because it encourages unsafe behavior in our children.  Don't you know, it's always about the children.
To add insult to injury, our publications would discuss the team as a black eye on aviation and include, on the opposite page, a coupon for $50 off an angle of attack indicator called “The Angle of Safety”. The logo would be an Angel holding up a wing.  Their motto would be, “Safe pilots go to heaven on their own terms”.
Two years later the FAA would celebrate, with great fanfare, the lowest airshow death rate in three years.  Of course it would also be the season with the lowest attendance.
The Evidence
*** Before the CAA (later to become FAA) was created in 1926, the skies were open to interpretation.  And before the dreaded three letter bureaucracy took over, nearly everything that is aviation and space today was dreamed up and at the very least put on paper; ducted fans, jets, rockets, flying wings, canards, helicopters, everything.  Usually it was even attempted.

Even more telling about that era in time is the fact that to this day engineers look to those early years for inspiration.  Many modern designs therefore actually trace directly back to those formative decades. Unfortunately though for yesterday's developers, something incredibly crushing to it all was on the horizon; regulation.
Already in the pipeline when the CAA was born, flat air-cooled powerplants would soon dominate the world of small aircraft.  Yet thanks to the CAA, now the FAA, we’re still running the same engines.  Under the shadow of the Feds, experimentation, invention, and the motivation to expand the horizon of what was possible stalled.

If you want to see modern evidence of this, look only to the FAA’s online history.
A Brief History of the FAA (from the FAA's website)
The modern age of powered flight began in 1903, when Orville Wright made the first sustained, powered flight on December 17 in a plane he and his brother Wilbur built. This twelve-second flight led to the development of the first practical airplane in 1905, and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines. As a result, the early twentieth century witnessed myriad aviation developments as new planes and technologies entered service. During World War I, the airplane also proved its effectiveness as a military tool and, with the advent of early airmail service, showed great promise for commercial applications.
Despite limited post-World War I technical developments, early aviation remained a dangerous business. Flying conditions proved difficult since the only navigation devices available to most pilots were magnetic compasses. Pilots flew 200 to 500 feet above ground so they could navigate by roads and railways. Low visibility and night landings were made using bonfires on the field as lighting. Fatal accidents were routine.”
So much incredible massaging of reality exists in these two paragraphs it’s hard to know whether to be stupefied or pissed off.   First and foremost, as usual the FAA downplays advancement and portrays the world as an orb constantly in need of more oversight and safety so as to improve commercial aviation.  They also imply the only reason for advancement was to increase safety; “Despite limited post-World War I technical developments, early aviation remained a dangerous business”.
But wait, what about all the advancements they touted prior to WWI?  “As a result, the early twentieth century witnessed myriad aviation developments as new planes and technologies entered service”.  Interesting isn’t it?  And of course there was WWI; “During World War I, the airplane also proved its effectiveness as a military tool…”  And surely everyone knows WWII brought huge advancements in aviation.  Do you notice a trend?
All of the great moments of growth and expansion in aviation either happened before the CAA existed, or during a time of war when the CAA had no control over what was designed and built.  It happened because safety was not the primary focus.  But, if you still don’t believe the cult of antithesis exists in the FAA, read this last line from their history page.  That is why FAA has defined a vision of the future that integrates achievements in safety, security, efficiency, and environmental compatibility.”   The FAA believes the future of aviation is safety, security, efficiency, and environmental compatibility.  Yeah, that’s right, nothing grows a sport or elicits the howls of excitement like a gray message of safety, security, fuel economy, and subjective superfluous restrictions based on theory.
Finally, never forget what the FAA itself admits:
"The modern age of powered flight began in 1903, when Orville Wright made the first sustained, powered flight on December 17 in a plane he and his brother Wilbur built. This twelve-second flight led to the development of the first practical airplane in 1905, and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines."  In other words, flight itself came into being in an environment of zero regulation.  And as the FAA says, that environment led to the development of the first practical airplane and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines.  I couldn't have said it better myself.
“A focus on safety will always kill that to which it is applied".
"The FAA beats the drum and aviation marches in step".

1 comment:

Clement Lawrence said...

- to that, I would ad the current Second Great Depression. In other words, $$$$ is killing General Aviation. From personal experience - "When you ain't got it, you ain't flying".

The irony of it all is when I was younger (late 1960's), I was flying ten times more hours on ten times less money. I could afford it yesterday. I can no longer afford it today.

"Bravo Zulu"