At the very moment crazed kamikaze pilot Joseph Stack plowed his airplane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, propaganda machinery in suspended animation instantly sprang back to life to lament the danger of small airplanes. Hysterical comparisons to 9/11 were immediately bandied about by pundits and politicians. With knowing glances exchanged between talking heads, a cry went out that personal airplanes were dangerous, don't you know. Like Schwarzenegger's cyborg in The Terminator, nothing can kill this beast of misinformation and misunderstanding. But I nevertheless intend to act the role of John Connor and fight the machine.
People fear what they do not know, and the inner workings of aviation certainly are mysterious to all but pilots. So a terrible event like what happened in Austin brings forth fearful cries to restrict personal flying, known broadly as "general aviation" or "GA" for short. That initial response is understandable, but terribly misguided. The best way to counter the many misperceptions about flying is to bring to light the true benefits of general aviation, which should help dampen any future impulse to place restrictions on private and corporate airplanes. So here are just a few of GA's many positive contributions to society to consider.
• After the Haiti earthquake, more than 40% of all relief flights were GA. In addition, GA flights were able to get into small airports, grass strips and even roads, which were inaccessible to larger airplanes.
• The United States has more than 230,000 private airplanes that operate out of 20,000 public- and private-use airports. Compare that to the 565 large airports available to the airlines. To put this in perspective, small airplanes fly 166 million passengers every year, making GA effectively the nation's largest airline.
• Then take those facts and consider where American businesses would be if GA were not available to transport people and goods to every corner of the country. Community airfields provide local access to the entire country: "a mile of highway gets you one mile, but a mile of runway can take you anywhere."
• Small aircraft are used by farmers and ranchers to such an extent that without GA crop yields would drop 50% or more. And without GA, high value crops would not be brought to market except to a narrow geographic range around the producing farm.
• Without GA we would not have Medevac flights, volunteer transportation for cancer and burn victims. Organ transplants would be virtually impossible without GA, which is used to transport recently harvested organs to patients around the country in most need.
• Our entire power grid would never be built, and would collapse today, without GA. Power lines and transmission towers are built using helicopters, and airplanes are used to constantly monitor the multiple thousands of miles of power lines.
We all need to take a collective deep breath, and exhale slowly. Next count to ten, slowly, backwards. Then repeat. Yes, the attack in Austin is terrible. The loss of life is tragic. The trauma experienced by survivors in the building will be with them a long time. But none of those sad realities has anything to do with flying. Stack could have easily used his car as a weapon, or walked in with a bomb strapped to his chest. Blaming general aviation confuses cause and effect, like blaming a beating victim for pushing his face into the perpetrator's fist. As with any object, device or other mode of transportation, aviation in the wrong hands can be used to cause harm. The solution does not lie in placing more useless restrictions on private and corporate aircraft, or instituting new security measures at some airports that do nothing but cause inconvenience without providing any reduction in risk. The solution is to prevent the attacks to the extent possible using good intelligence, old-fashioned police work and effective interagency cooperation. We also must not pretend that we can always stop a suicidal madman from wrecking havoc no matter what actions we take.
Oddly, often the loudest calls to restrict general aviation come from conservatives who wish to wear the mantle of national security. But that really is counter to core conservative beliefs of less government, less regulation, and more reliance on the private sector. Even stranger is the call to restrict GA from conservatives who are also members of the NRA. Anybody who belongs to the NRA and defends the use of handguns, rifles or automatic weapons after a public shooting or school massacre should remain mum. If you believe that guns do not kill people, people do, you have nothing to say about airplanes being used as weapons. As with guns, airplanes certainly do not kill people. If you subscribe to the NRA philosophy, you have lost all rights to suggest that we should place any restrictions on airplanes. So all the NRA members can go to their corner and be quiet.
For all others, if you believe that airplane use should be subject to further security measures, ask yourself the following question. After a car bomb goes off, do you immediately call for restricting the use of automobiles and trucks? Of course not because that would make no sense. Nor does the call to restrict private aviation, for the very same reasons.
No matter the fearful urge, restricting personal aircraft is completely impractical even if the goal was desirable. Whatever restrictions are put in place, most pilots are going to go through the regulatory hoops and fly. A pilot properly certified and with appropriate security clearances could still take his airplane and smash into a building. No new security measures would stop that. Or somebody who did not pass muster could simply break into an airport, steal a plane, and fly into a building. Or the thousands of dirt air strips on farms and ranches could be used as a launching point, and no enhanced security at public airports will ever address that issue. As long as airplanes exist, these scenarios will always be possible. The only way to prevent the possibility of an airplane being used as a weapon is to ground all aircraft, every single one. And that is not going to happen anymore than we'll see all cars and trucks taken off the road after one is used to blow up a building.
So as we mourn the losses from the recent attack in Austin, let us also keep a healthy perspective. General aviation is the lifeblood of this country's economy. Calling for more restrictions on the freedom to fly simply makes no sense. While the misuse of an airplane will always remain a possibility, the extraordinary benefits of general aviation vastly outweigh any potential harm. A lone madman should not deter us from maximizing the advantages of aviation to business, agriculture, energy, transportation, medicine, ecosystems management and virtually every major component of the American economy.