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Why fos­ter­ing an avi­a­tion com­mu­nity is a won­der­ful thing

It was scary. We were more than a mile from the short run­way, skim­ming the tree­tops in a Chi­nese-made So­cata Trinidad look-alike. We were so low we couldn’t even see the run­way. It took me a lit­tle while to fig­ure out what was go­ing on. This was the pi­lot’s idea of how to make a short­field ap­proach. His tech­nique was to get down low and drag it in.

A pi­lot’s first in­cli­na­tion on a short-field ap­proach is of­ten to drag it in like this. But the rec­om­mended method of mak­ing a steeper, sta­bi­lized ap­proach to a short field helps dis­si­pate speed in the flare and ac­tu­ally re­sults in a shorter land­ing. Plus, it has many other ad­van­tages. But it is coun­ter­in­tu­itive.

So why didn’t this pi­lot know bet­ter? Well, the pi­lot was at a dis­ad­van­tage. There is a com­plete lack of an avi­a­tion com­mu­nity around this re­mote pri­vate air­port on Hainan Is­land in China.

In China, ex­cept at the air­lines, pilots and in­struc­tors are scarce. So there’s no gen­eral avi­a­tion com­mu­nity — there is no “avi­a­tion vil­lage” to pass along and re­in­force good tech­nique. In such a vac­uum, there is a ten­dency for pilots to “go feral” and in­vent their own un­usual and in­ter­est­ing tech­niques.

The same thing can hap­pen in the United States when a pi­lot learns to fly in a re­mote area. Back when John and I were teach­ing ground schools in Alaska, we would of­ten have pilots come in from the bush to take our classes. Fre­quently, the only in­struc­tion they had re­ceived pre­vi­ously was a few take­offs and land­ings at the re­mote strip from the non­in­struc­tor who sold them the air­plane.

Even­tu­ally they would de­cide to fly into Fair­banks or An­chor­age — and that would get them into trou­ble. Con­se­quently, they would be re­quired to take our classes as part of an ac­cel­er­ated pro­gram to get safe and le­gal. In the process, they would not only learn from the classes, but also gain a lot from swap­ping sto­ries with other pilots. They be­gan to re­al­ize how much they didn’t know.

Early in avi­a­tion, there was al­ready a sense of to­geth­er­ness. Learn­ing pilots spent ev­ery spare mo­ment around the air­port and as­sem­bled in the evenings for manda­tory ground schools, where they learned to draw wind tri­an­gles on sec­tional charts. The re­sult was an avi­a­tion com­mu­nity with car­ing con­nec­tions and shared in­ter­ests that would last these pilots the rest of their lives.

This started an en­dur­ing tra­di­tion in avi­a­tion of shar­ing knowl­edge and look­ing out for one an­other. When John and I started learn­ing to fly jets, Harry Metz, a friend of ours who op­er­ated them, ob­served the tra­di­tion and went way out of his way to men­tor us. Decades later we still go to him for knowl­edge.

But there is rea­son to be­lieve that this tra­di­tion may be at risk. Peo­ple who use air­planes for travel spend far less time at the air­port. The very na­ture of fly­ing gen­eral avi­a­tion

air­planes is pri­vate, in­de­pen­dent travel. Peo­ple go to the air­port, get in their air­plane and go off on their own, barely talk­ing to any­one.

Plus, with the ad­vent of the In­ter­net, live class­rooms are of­ten sup­planted by on­line cour­ses, and re­la­tion­ships that might have de­vel­oped at the air­port are more likely to take place via so­cial me­dia, if at all. One prob­lem of so­cial me­dia is that you don’t have the same cues to es­tab­lish the el­e­ment of trust that you have when you are face to face. It is easy to be­come the fo­cus of some­one who wants to im­press but, in re­al­ity, has no idea what they are talk­ing about. Rather than a place to es­tab­lish a car­ing re­la­tion­ship, it can be some­place to be es­pe­cially care­ful about vet­ting any ad­vice.

This is par­tic­u­larly true be­cause the na­ture of the ad­vice that is most help­ful has evolved. In the ear­lier days of fly­ing, air­planes didn’t fly so far and fast. Pilots came to grief mostly from lack of knowl­edge or skill. In the more than 100 years we have been fly­ing, we have grad­u­ally be­gun to fly far­ther and faster. With more change oc­cur­ring on any flight, risk man­age­ment has be­come a greater con­cern.

Risk man­age­ment is a tougher sub­ject. It is easy to of­fend, or be of­fended, on the sub­ject. Ad­vice is best given in per­son, and with sen­si­tiv­ity. Still, as men­tors, we need to have the courage to care and have the tough con­ver­sa­tions with kind­ness. On the re­ceiv­ing end we need to ap­pre­ci­ate that the men­tor has our in­ter­est at heart, and to ac­cept, even wel­come, those con­ver­sa­tions when they are di­rected at us.

Since trust­wor­thy avi­a­tion com­mu­nity doesn’t come as easy as it used to, we now have to work harder at it. The FAA has seen this need and has or­ga­nized live sem­i­nars through the Wings pro­gram that have taught many thou­sands of pilots.

Some mod­ern-day air­plane man­u­fac­tur­ers have rec­og­nized the value of com­mu­nity and have strongly sup­ported it. As a re­sult, the Cir­rus Own­ers and Pilots As­so­ci­a­tion (COPA) was formed two years af­ter the first Cir­rus was de­liv­ered, and about 40 per­cent of Cir­rus pilots are mem­bers. COPA has taken ac­tive lead­er­ship in com­mu­nity-build­ing and safety train­ing. The 2014 Cir­rus fa­tal ac­ci­dent rate is one-eighth of what it was in 2003, and it’s about half the over­all GA fa­tal ac­ci­dent rate for per­sonal and busi­ness fly­ing.

The Eclipse Jet Own­ers and Pilots As­so­ci­a­tion (EJOPA), founded in 2006 when the first Eclipse jet was de­liv­ered, rep­re­sents 65 per­cent of the Eclipse jets ever built. At the 2016 an­nual con­ven­tion in Coeur d’alene, Idaho, there were 140 at­ten­dees. They rep­re­sented 47 air­craft — nearly 20 per­cent of the fleet — and came from 17 states plus Eng­land and Aus­tralia. They were in­tently fo­cused on learn­ing more about how to bet­ter main­tain and fly their Eclipse jets and man­age the risks of flight — in spite of the lure of the beau­ti­ful lake right out­side the win­dows. Of course, they had fun evening pro­grams, with lots of hangar-fly­ing and sto­ries, but sem­i­nar at­ten­dance stayed high and at­ten­tive for the whole con­ven­tion.

The bot­tom line is there has been only one fa­tal Eclipse jet ac­ci­dent. It was in South Africa and may have been due to pi­lot in­ca­pac­i­ta­tion.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the avi­a­tion com­mu­nity does not nec­es­sar­ily in­volve sem­i­nars. It could be go­ing to Sun ’n Fun, Air­ven­ture or AOPA fly­ins. The point is to get to­gether with other folks with shared in­ter­ests. We will in­evitably talk about im­por­tant avi­a­tion things that will make a dif­fer­ence.

The Amer­i­can Bo­nanza So­ci­ety re­cently held a Beechcraft In­struc­tor Crosstalk in which John and I par­tic­i­pated. In one ses­sion all 50 in­struc­tors took turns ex­press­ing their con­cerns. John and I got more out of lis­ten­ing to the other in­struc­tors than any­thing we had done in years.

Over time, we have come to learn that im­prov­ing risk man­age­ment truly takes an avi­a­tion vil­lage.

At­ten­dees flew nearly 50 Eclipse jets to the an­nual own­ers meet­ing last year in Coeur d'alene, Idaho.

At the Eclipse own­ers meet­ing, 140 peo­ple gathered to learn more about their jets.

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