Friday, March 25, 2011

Are You Kidding Me?

Remember this airport that inspired kids along Chicago's waterfront?
Politics in aviation is something we must all learn to deal with. You may not like it, but it rules our lives. Therefore, we can choose to know it so that we may in turn defeat it, or we can ignore it and get run over. Or, in this case, we could be insulted with no recourse.
I have not been a fan of NASA for many years now. I would love to be but I am not. Inside the walls of these letters lie a plethora of intelligent people stifled with bureaucracy. Brilliant people, who once sought to advance aerospace, in the greatest aerospace organization on the planet now find themselves working for a dwindling government agency driven, not by scientists or engineers, but by the whims of politicians de jour. This is why I do not like NASA. They are stifling our talent and our dollars.
But now, NASA has come up with a way to recoup some of our misspent dollars and in the process a way to win back my heart. How? That’s easy. They can tell Chicago to go the #$@@.
What? You haven’t heard? NASA is offering the retiring Space Shuttles up for “sale” and one of the organizations in the bidding is Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. So what’s the big deal?
The Adler Planetarium sits on the same peninsula where the famed Meigs Field once sat before it was deviously cut up in the darkness of night by the City of Chicago. And now, the city’s planetarium has the audacity to say they want to orbiter so that they could use it "to inspire the next generation of explorers" and "serve as inspiration for math and science education." This is total bunk.
That's Adler at top right.
Let’s just call it how it is. These orbiters are seen by these people at trophies, not teaching tools, and the actual exchange of money is merely a way of making it look legitimate. But already it has been said the final decision, as to who gets them, will come down to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. He has asked that those in the running for the orbiters describe the "benefit to the nation" that would come from their receiving a shuttle. This includes how they would use it to "inspire the American public" and "increase the public's ability to understand the nation's space exploration agenda." I find it very insightful that NASA chose to use the word “agenda” instead of “mission” when it comes to this so called bid.
On NASA’s website, it clearly says it conducts its work in four principal organizations, called mission directorates: Among these four missions is one critical to the Space Shuttle’s success, “Aeronautics”. This mission “pioneers and proves new flight technologies that improve our ability to explore and which have practical applications on Earth.” This mission is also clearly at odds with Chicago and the location upon which the orbiter would sit. Awarding an orbiter therefore, to the planetarium, would be an insult to the combined intelligence of the aviation community, without which the shuttles would never have completed a single successful flight.
Knowing this, you might think there is no way Chicago would win one of the orbiter bids. But let’s look at some recent history. During the past decade, many airline mergers were proposed and road blocked or shot down all together by the federal government and politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. These included United and USAir (twice), American and Northwest, and Delta and Continental. Through the years, airline mergers have faced a long tough process of federal government approval. And, as a result, many airlines folded, others continued operating in the red, and the rest somehow managed to attract enough passengers with the allure of terrible service to stay afloat. Then, in 2010, United and Continental announced their proposed merger.
When this proposed merger hit the news, it was reported in such a manner that sounded and felt as though it was already approved. Three months later, in record time, it was just that; approved. In the merger, the strong airline, Continental, agreed to move its headquarters to Chicago and take the name of the airline on life support; United. Now why would they do such a thing? Political posturing is why. Chicago jobs were saved, jobs were added when headquarters were moved to Chicago, the name of the Chicago based airline was taken, and ultimately they received, what was considered by many, guaranteed federal approval from a federal government led by a President from Chicago.
Now move forward to today when Chicago’s very own Adler Planetarium decides it wants a Space Shuttle. The new mayor is the President’s previous right hand man, and the person who will make the final decision, as to who will get the orbiters, is the NASA Administrator who in an interview said he has three goals as administrator; re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, to expand NASA's international relationships, and to reach out to and engage the Muslim world. Neither of these is on NASA’s list of mission directorates. So clearly, he is driven by politics.
Having looked at this situation thoroughly, there is but one question left; who will get the other one? But let’s not give up.
If you would like to contact NASA and “encourage” them to award the orbiters to someone other than Chicago, here is their contact information. You do not have a lot of time as they plan to announce the winners on April 12th and the administrator’s decision will be made days before then.
Public Communications Office
NASA Headquarters
Suite 5K39
Washington, DC 20546-0001
(202) 358-0001 (Office)
Before writing this, I contacted the Adler Planetarium to find out what their President’s position was on the closing of Meigs Field. Since he was there during the battle for Meigs Field, I felt it was important to this debate. Traffic departing or landing at Meigs passed directly over the heads of people visiting the planetarium. The sight of flying machines actually seeming to defy gravity must surely have been an inspiration to the many kids visiting Adler and I therefore find it hard to believe he would have been for closing it. But I guess I will never know. Neither he nor the planetarium responded.
Note: To my knowledge, I was the last person to base a commercial operation at Meigs, not counting the contractor that sold fuel. Having seen the blatant corruption that exists in Chicago first-hand, I feel qualified to make these remarks. I also know, in my heart that Chicago does not deserve either of these orbiters. And, in the Chicago way, you take one of mine, I take some of yours. So please, voice your objection to the Adler Planetarium’s quest for another Chicago trophy.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Barnstormer Anonymous - A Short Book About Long Memories.

I was a barnstormer once. Flying about the country in an old sack of metal and wires, I learned about flying and myself. Thanks to people who believed in me, rightfully so or not, I gathered experience against the grain, into the wind, and despite my failings. Yes, I was a barnstormer.
Today the title rests on desks, tattered and stale. When fresh the label was given only to those who earned it. Back then it was colorful and clearly defined. Real Barnstormers were not wealthy types offering rides on weekends as a way to depreciate assets or generate losses. Nor were they professionals playing airplane as a form of escape. Instead, often times all their possessions would fit in their planes.
Barnstomers loved their flying machines, a challenge, and their freedom. But above all, they loved flying; the thing that gave all the others. It was in their blood, it was their existence, and often it brought the end. Whatever it delivered the barnstormer was willing to take. Flying was the spark that made life worthwhile and the powerplant run. It was all they knew.
Chapter 1
“Old Bess,” that was her name; a thing of beauty. Dressed with insignia blue and yellow, her soul was that of a shoeless country girl possessing a sweet southern draw and makeup bare skin. She was what you saw, nothing more or less. She was mine for a while and I loved her.
We found our wings, Old Bess and I, together. Neither of us really fit in anywhere. She was the red-headed step-child of Stearmans. Upon her basic fabric was none of the high society jewelry that accompanied more desirable A-75s. In fact, her only markings were the small Stearman birthmark and the N-number she carried by law. Myself, I was a young pilot with only 220 hours logged and a desire to experience flying the way it was meant to be. We met through the classifieds and our first date was chaperoned by my brother.
Flying home to Kentucky, from California, dual would be acquired in all environments. My brother’s intent therefore, as chaperon, was to teach me how to take care of a lady in all of them. If he was successful, by the time we landed at home, Old Bess and I could be trusted on our own. But first, we had to get to Reno.

Check back soon for more chapters.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Something's Missing - Another Installment of Cause and Effect.

The time has come for aviation to embrace a cold soul searching willingness to challenge everything we’ve been told or believe about our sport. Instead though, aviation’s leaders continue to shore up reputations, seek out quantity over quality, and treat us like mushrooms. Today’s example comes from EAA.
You may have read recently, my take on EAA’s Young Eagles Program. If so, you likely had one of three responses; he’s wrong, he’s right, or I feel he’s right but I am unwilling to let go of my desire to believe Young Eagles produces new pilots. Well, if you are the later, please remember that I did not say Young Eagles never produced a pilot. And if you said “he’s wrong”, today you are likely laughing with glee due to EAA’s release of their Young Eagles pilot certification matching statistics. Unfortunately, EAA is wrong once again.
Today, many people learned that EAA has been matching up names of Young Eagles, the only record they ever kept, to the FAA pilot database in an attempt to extrapolate information; information that would prove Young Eagles is a great success. And boy did they pull, tug, and rip information from the data they found. Unfortunately, there is a problem; they are making baseless assumptions. This is concerning. EAA flat out refuses to look at reality and instead they are seeing what they want to see; their pet program is a huge success.
Many people, when they hear me question these EAA releases, go immediately to the “you hate EAA” fallback position that allows them to discount what I am suggesting without putting any thought into it. That’s fine with me. It’s their choice what to believe. But please do not say I hate EAA, simply because I am asking for logic. To the contrary, I love EAA and I believe it needs help. And when things are not going well, I think some tough love and logic should win out over feel good “trust me” promises.
EAA’s latest feel good production is the result of their pilot certificate database search for names recorded in the Young Eagle’s logbook. In what is perhaps one of the most blatant twistings of irrelevant data I have ever seen, EAA has left me with two feelings, either they are blatantly telling us something they do not really believe, or they have people running the show who do not understand basic cause and effect relationships. Neither of which is a good indicator for the longevity of an organization.
With this recent release of “data”, EAA is making the following claims, assumptions, or inferences:
•7.3 percent of all pilots below age 35 are former Young Eagles (the oldest Young Eagles from 1992 are now reaching age 35).
•Young Eagles are 5.4 times more likely to earn a pilot certificate than those who have not flown as a Young Eagle.
•Nine percent of those pilots are female, a 50 percent difference when compared to females being just 6 percent of the current U.S. pilot population.
•Two out of every 100 young people who take their first Young Eagles flight at age 17 earn pilot certificates. The older a Young Eagle is at the time of a first flight, the more likely that young person is to become a pilot. Young Eagles ages 13 and up are especially more likely to pursue a pilot certificate.
•The more flights that a Young Eagle takes, the more likely that young person will become a pilot.
The interesting thing is that Young Eagles has been very successful with one act, giving free rides to kids. Nobody can deny that and nobody would say that these rides are patently useless. To the contrary, giving kids rides is a great way to share aviation. I just do not believe these rides just are an economical or effective way to generate NEW pilots from a population of kids who otherwise have no PRIOR interest in flying. This is the hidden flaw in all of EAA’s assumptions and inferences.
To make my position easier to understand, think of the kid who builds airplane models. I think nearly everyone would agree with the statement “Kids who build airplane models have an inherent or pre-existing interest in aviation”. But if Monogram or Revell model companies were using the same statistical analyst EAA is using, whoever that mystery person is, they would be telling us the same thing; kids who build their models are 5.4 times more likely to earn a pilot’s certificate than kids who have never built an airplane model. Do you see how laughable and yet relative this information is? And do you see how this information relates to pilot’s certificates?
If my example was successful, you now see what a good statistical analyst would see in this information; the truly useful information that is overlooked. If you had a way to track the kids that build aircraft models, you would already have a wealth of information as to who would be seeking out flight training in later years. Likewise, if you were honest with the Young Eagles information, you would understand that Young Eagles doesn’t create pilots. More correctly stated, Young Eagles is an indicator of kids who have a pre-existing interest in flight.
EAA is not alone in their mistake though, and it’s time for aviation to get serious about the future of flight.
Here is a brief explanation of EAA’s inferences above. I say they are inferences because they do, more than anything, infer that Young Eagles is responsible for all the data. Unfortunately, their statistics merely mirror what we already knew about aviators.
*EAA - 7.3 percent of all pilots below age 35 are former Young Eagles (the oldest Young Eagles from 1992 are now reaching age 35).
Explanation - This is written to infer 7.3 percent are because of Young Eagles yet it doesn’t say that does it. Like my example above, I’m sure you could generate a statistical number that showed a certain percentage of pilots in that age group built aircraft models. This does not convey model building created an interest that wasn’t already there. Young Eagles is also very good at one thing, giving free rides to kids. Therefore, if a kid had a true interest in aviation during the lifetime of Young Eagles, it is very likely they went for a free ride. It does not mean 7.3 percent of all pilots in the stated age category would not have been pilots were it not for a Young Eagles ride.
*EAA - Young Eagles are 5.4 times more likely to earn a pilot certificate than those who have not flown as a Young Eagle.
Explanation – Again, this is written to infer Young Eagles increased the likelihood of people earning their pilot’s certificate. Unfortunately, it does not do that. It merely indicates the obvious correlation that kids who were already interested in flying were 5.4 times more likely to go for Young Eagles rides.  Yet another major problem here is 5.4 times more likely than who? Where is the comparison data and how credible is it?
*EAA - Nine percent of those pilots are female, a 50 percent difference when compared to females being just 6 percent of the current U.S. pilot population.
Explanation – This increased has happened in every aspect of our culture over the same period. Are we to believe Young Eagles rides are responsible for the increase in female CEO’s, the increase in female Harley Davidson riders, females on previously all male sports teams, and female politicians? No, this merely parallels trends in all of the USA.
*EAA - Two out of every 100 young people who take their first Young Eagles flight at age 17 earn pilot certificates. The older a Young Eagle is at the time of a first flight, the more likely that young person is to become a pilot. Young Eagles ages 13 and up are especially more likely to pursue a pilot certificate.
Explanation – Again, didn’t we already know this? Wait, what is it we know? This infers Young Eagles rides increase the chance of a kid getting a pilot’s certificate if the kid is older. Unfortunately, the older a kid is, the more firmed up their desires are and the more life experience they have. Therefore, just like the older kid that is still building models at age 17, the older kid going for Young Eagles rides is naturally more likely to have a real passion for flight. The building of models, or Young Eagles, did not create that passion, it is an expression of it.
*EAA - The more flights that a Young Eagle takes, the more likely that young person will become a pilot.
Explanation – In letter count, this is the smallest inference advanced by EAA. Yet what they infer is bold. Here it is suggested that the more you fly with Young Eagles the more likely you are to become a pilot. Instead, I believe a good analyst would find those kids, who are most passionate about flight, do everything they can to get additional rides. This is the logical inference but it is nowhere to be found. And what about EAA’s one flight rule?
*EAA - They do not give a total number of pilots produced
Explanation - You figure it out.
In conclusion, what I wish to point out that if EAA, and aviation as a whole, were willing to see the true morsels of information in these programs they might be useful to the future of aviation. Just look at Sporty’s.
Hal Shevers, of Sporty’s fame, has been in business a long time and he is no dummy. He also is a big supporter of Young Eagles. By getting Sporty’s in front of Young Eagles at an early age, I’m sure he knows what few are willing to admit or maybe they don’t realize; the kids coming for Young Eagles are already tomorrow’s pilots. Young Eagles merely finds them for him.  This allows Sporty's to offer programs that help both Hal's bottom line and potential students achieve their goal of flight.
I hope you do not misunderstand. Hal has been a long time supporter of aviation. I am just pointing out that if you want to keep aviation alive, aviation businesses must be kept alive, and to keep them alive, we can no longer afford feel good baseless information over honest, hard cutting data. Of course, that kind of information doesn’t generate the level of donations EAA expects. But maybe it would; if only they would try.
With all the above considered, there is one question that must be asked:
If EAA has touched 1.6 million kids who had an interest in flight, why then have they produced so few pilots from these ranks; a number conspicuously absent from EAA's statistics.  It really is a good question.

*Reference image at top:
Cause equals the kids with a pre-existing interest in aviation
Event equals the Young Eagles program.
Effect equals the conversion to pilots.  (without total claimed pilots from Young Eagles, this cannot be determined and neither can the success of the program)