Around the Airport

Friday, April 4, 2014

Crony Capitalism Aviation Style

It’s no secret the FAA plays for the other team.  They aren’t here to support aviation, only regulate it.  When they can’t find anything to regulate, there’s always something to be made theoretically safer.  And when all the proposed regulations are under construction and the mathematicians are busy creating formulas to locate minuscule safety improvements, the Feds are out looking for someone to violate.  After all, each of those things play a factor in job security.  Every pilot knows this.
The common knowledge of this punitive system creates a never ending search for far reaching solutions.  Aviation can’t sustain many more blows and everyone is out there looking for an answer to the riddle; how do we cut the chains on aviation but keep it from spinning out of control?  My answer of course is to set it free and let it be but that just doesn’t work here in a world obsessed with the notion of a rule for everything.  So, all that’s left are those solutions offered by others.
One of the most popular and potentially uplifting ideas is that of cutting GA lose from the FAA and letting an internal governing board keep it in line with the civilized planet.   And quite honestly, I like it.  There’s just one problem.
How many of you remember the dark ages of aviation?  You know what I’m talking about.  Remember?  Before formation clinic cards were required to fly formation in airshows things were bad; really really bad.  Formation was dangerous.  Planes fell from the sky like the colorful leaves of fall.  Collisions happened multiple times a day.  Pilots were dying at unparalleled rates.  Something had to be done!  Remember?  SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE!!!!
If you really do remember those days, you know there were actually very few instances of planes running into each other while in formation.  Yes, there were a few high profile examples of stupid pilot tricks and airshow acts swapping paint but there certainly wasn’t enough for needing “certification”.  Yet, when it seemed inevitable aviation would be burdened with some sort of new regulation, theoretical improvement to safety, or a wave of violations under the guise of “careless and reckless”, our sport stepped up to the plate and offered a solution.  Aviation itself would develop and manage a program to sign off pilots for formation flying.  Yippee!!!  Hooray!!!!  We dodged a bullet on that one; right?  Actually, not so much. 
Back in the early days of required formation training, there were two competing courses that existed and one of them was by far the favorite.  Why there were two is important as to why the “not so much” comment.
Why were there two?   Having only one would have been logical and the lack of options would have restricted the Top Gun wannabes from making their own silly rules.  From two grew four and from that came the modern notion of an "approved" formation course for every model of aircraft.
Of course if you talk to one of the instructor “flight leads” from any of the model specific formation groups, they’ll give you perfectly logical sounding reasons why they needed their own course.  But if you stand there long enough and think it through, you’ll realize they’re full of crap.
Formation flying is the same whether it’s a Champ, a P-51, or a Sikorsky CH-37.  All that changes per each aircraft model are the visual cues for proper placement in each type of formation.  Those who fall within the vainest of formation groups will deny this using the claim the different power settings, configurations, and techniques for each plane demand a separate group.  That too is horse hockey.  If you are qualified to fly any given plane in formation, you can very easily do it with any other flying machine ever built.  All you need to dive right in is a very small list of tips.  Yes, I said they were tips.
These tips, or differences as some would call them, constitute the things you as pilot will observe during your first flight in a new model.  Things such as the shape of each aircraft, their powerplants, useful configurations, and helpful techniques are covered and should never consume more than one page printed in large font, unless of course you have drawings to go with them.

If you learned formation in a Champ and you’re now properly qualified to fly the P-51, these points of difference will get you up to speed quickly.  Of course with such a structure, a single program and an index of differences, there’d be no need to suffer through another formation clinic run by a different group of people who created the organization to make it more like the branch of the military from which they retired.  It may also save you from having to buy a flight suit and a helmet.  WAIT; WHAT?
Yes, some of these groups even dictate what you wear when flying formation.  And this is perhaps the best example of how silly it is to have more than one group.  Unfortunately, some major issues come with them also.
Let’s say you buy a plane that has its own specific formation group and you live on the East Coast and the group is based out West.  How do you get checked out?  More and more often the answer is paid training.  You either pay their instructors to come to you or you pay to go to them.  Of course, you need more than one plane to get checked out and that is why you have instructors with an s.
You could also put together a clinic in your area if there were enough owners who wanted to participate.  Unfortunately, that can be difficult.  Therefore what aviation often ends up with is a core group of people with that model of aircraft who are the only ones with the cards.  It’s crony capitalism for aviation and it is nothing but senselessly stupid.
Why not have one approved formation course and an online open source collection of differences.  A formation instructor could then teach in any plane and a "student" could do the same.  It would also open up another fun realm of aviation to a much larger group of people.
Yeah sure, you don’t have to have a card if you aren’t flying in airshows, but with one approved course and an open source for differences, airshow or not, everyone would be reading from the same page.  And isn’t that what we really want?  Some people not so much.
Everyday, as a collective, aviation moans about restrictions to entry being the greatest roadblocks to growing aviation.  Yet each and every day someone in aviation comes up with another restriction to entry for some part of the sport.  And let's be honest with ourselves, that’s what having more than one formation group constitutes; a restriction to entry.  So maybe before aviation goes demanding the government quit burdening us with more regulation, perhaps it needs to look inward at examples like this and do some housecleaning of its own.

Ultimately, this is the problem with the notion of aviation self-governance.  Although I'm all for it, the only positive I can see it generating is the opportunity to die by our own hands. One only has to look to the world of formation flying to catch a glimpse of the direction it most surely would take.



Note:  There is some good news.  If you've stayed away from flying formation because you don't have a plane with its own formation group, all hope is not lost.  As one good friend pointed out, "as far as the FAA is concerned, a guy with a Formation Flyers FAST wingman card can legally fly a P-51 leading a 20-ship through waivered airspace".  All those other groups are just generating copy in an effort to convince themselves, and you, that they are more professional, fly to higher standards, and are better at flying formation than some everyday guy in an worn out $18,000 Champ could ever hope to.   Like I said, that's horse crap.
Idea:  How about a weekend of formation training for "rejects"?  You know who I'm talking about. They're the people without Red Stars, Stars and Bars, or sliding canopies on their machines. They do though have a strong love of flying.  And who knows, maybe we could finally get our own airshow team.  I'm thinking Aerobats would be perfect the perfect steed.  One side would be painted in full airshow regalia and the other to look like an old flight school beater.   It might also help people realize you don't need a flashy new plane to learn how to fly.

Form Note:  If you work for the FAA, or have a friend or family member who works there, please don't send me nasty emails telling me how not all people at the FAA are bad, or how you know good people who work there.  I already know that.

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