Useless aviation. Now, there’s a term you seldom hear. It popped up in an e-mail that was addressed to me last week. The writer, a longtime pilot himself, was explaining that because I’ve chronicled various battles with off-airport individuals, he thought it was important that I understand that as you get older and can no longer fly, you lose patience with those involved in “useless” aviation—those who make noise and aren’t accomplishing anything. In this particular case, he was talking about an aerobatic judge’s school and the flying attached to it, which he considered “useless.”
His note touched off two thought patterns. First, I obviously took offense at the thought that one kind of aviation was judged as being more worthy than the other. My second thought was that maybe he had something.
A good percentage of the offensive part of the note came from the simple fact that there are no kinds of aviation that should be judged as being “useless.” It’s obvious, however, that in many social circles, that’s not true. The majority of folks outside the aviation community would instantly judge the kind of flying that many of us do as being useless. This is especially true when compared to the airlines or corporate jets. In fact, even when put against a background of Bonanzas and other go-places airplanes, most grassroots aviating is extremely hard to justify.
Sometimes, complainers subliminally understand the importance of corporate jets that are coming and going. The less rabid of the complainers may even give a begrudging nod to Bonanzas and light twins, probably because those airplanes are viewed as “real” transportation. The tiny bug-smashers that most of us fly, however, aren’t as easy to either explain or defend, largely because we often fly them for nothing more than pure, unadulterated fun.
Folks that fly grassroots airplanes don’t even try to rationalize what they’re doing because, when you’re roaring along in a midget biplane that cavorts around like a water bug, you aren’t fooling anyone. After all, all you’re doing is converting hydrocarbons to fun and noise, right? Aha, there’s the problem! Somehow, three-dimensional fun has gotten a bad name amongst too many segments of society. Why is that?
Why is it that entire recreational industries, like boating, are socially acceptable, but many parts of aviation aren’t? Part of that may have to do with the “population magnet” effect with which airports seem cursed—if you build it, they will come. For years, a little airport enjoys life in the country until developers move in, and even though they disclose that there’s an airport in the neighborhood, many of the new neighbors seem both surprised and indignant. What? An airport in our neighborhood? Let’s shut that sucker down.
Why don’t they pick on boats, motorcycles, sports cars or any of the other illogical modes of transportation that run on the same combination of fun and adrenaline as airplanes do? It’s probably because boats don’t do every bit of their high-performance rock-and-rolling in front of the same audience every time. They spread it out, up and down the shoreline. Ditto on the motorcycles and sports cars. They spread the irritation around. Airplanes don’t have that option.
The problem here is the concept of the word “airport.” It’s two words, right? Air and port—that says it all. The runway is the port through which every airplane must pass. So, we piss off the same people over and over again. Even if there was only one takeoff every two hours, that’s still around five per day, 35 per week or 150 per month. Most people just shrug their shoulders and ignore us. A few, however, eventually get a “how dare they make noise in my backyard” kind of attitude. The less commercial the airplane looks, the more likely they’ll complain. Of course, lots of folks still complain about places like LAX and JFK, so there’s no getting around everyone.
It’s really disturbing, however, when a pilot, such as the e-mail writer, points at another part of aviation and says, “That’s useless.” When one of our own has crossed over to the dark side, it’s time that we look around and closely analyze why other pilots have become our enemies. It can’t all be their fault, and there are more of them than there are of us grassroots types, so they can actually hurt us, if they chose to.
Maybe we’d better see if we can clean up our own act. Maybe we can change our patterns a little and spread the noise around. Maybe we could do our touch-and-goes at several different airports. Maybe we can identify where complainers live and avoid their houses altogether. Maybe we can be more considerate to others in the pattern and on the ramp. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, some of these things actually is our own fault.
Still, if we could just make my airplane pass for a 757, perhaps they’ll leave me alone.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.