Of Airplanes, Fences, and National Security

Although I've written about aviation for over 20 years now, I rarely write about it on The Atlantic's site because Jim Fallows already does such an excellent job of covering the topic here. But I do want to add a few words to what Jim's already said (all of which I wholeheartedly agree with) in response to Jeffrey Goldberg's "Private Plane, Public Menace" dispatch piece that ran in this month's Atlantic.

After getting a ride in a friend's corporate jet, Goldberg concludes that privileged "general aviation" airplanes threaten national security because their passengers aren't subject to the same TSA security that airline passengers are, and he argues that we need to impose that kind of security at general aviation facilities and airports.

I disagree with Goldberg's position on a couple of different levels. First, his description of what constitutes "general aviation" is skewed. And second, attempts to impose TSA-type security at small airports are not only, as Jim said, "wrongheaded" -- akin to attacking a fly with a clumsy and ineffective sledgehammer -- but they are also destroying one of the most valuable resources that airports offer America.

To understand why I agree with Jim that TSA-style security measures are neither required in the world of general aviation, nor the best approach to what security risk does exist in that world, it helps to understand, first, what "general aviation" really is. From there, it's easier to understand why the risk is not what many people imagine, as well as what's wrong with taking a TSA approach to security for every airplane and every airport across America.

So, what is "general aviation"? The way Goldberg describes the world of non-airline flying: "'general' being a euphemism for 'private,'" and private, in Goldberg's eyes, being a euphemism for "toys of the spoiled rich" -- is not uncommon among non-pilots. It describes a segment of aviation that is very visible, and which surely does exist. But that segment is also a very small piece of the picture.

Corporate or individually-owned jets constitute only 4 percent of privately owned aircraft. (Another 3 percent are jet engine-powered propeller planes, akin to the smallest of commuter planes.) The overwhelming majority of private aircraft are less-expensive and less-powerful piston-engine airplanes, and a whopping 68 percent of all private airplanes are single-engine piston aircraft.

In addition, most of those piston-powered, single-engine airplanes are not the shiny new models pictured in the magazines. Almost 90 percent of general aviation aircraft are more than 20 years old. Every airplane has to go through a thorough mechanical inspection every year, and essential parts (like engines) are replaced at set times. So the age of most planes isn't a safety issue. But it is reflected in their cost and value.

A brand-new Cirrus might carry a price tag of a half a million dollars, but my first airplane -- a 1946 two-seat Cessna that I bought in 1986 for only $5,000, could still be bought today for under $15,000. And my current airplane, 1977 Grumman Cheetah, which has a larger piston engine and four seats, has a current market value of around $30,000. Or about the price of a new Saab sedan.

What's more, many of those piston-powered single engines aren't the performance machines people imagine them to be. To fly coast to coast in my own single-engine airplane, for example, takes -- west to east, when the winds are predominantly at my back -- 30 flight hours. Which generally equates to six days, given that I don't fly in bad weather and limit my "pilot-in-command" time to about six hours a day, because I don't have an autopilot. In other words, you could drive the distance in less time.

There are also pilots like Jim, who have faster airplanes and "instrument" pilot ratings that permit them to fly in bad weather, allowing them to get a lot more utility out of their airplanes. But only 15 percent of licensed pilots have a current instrument rating. For the rest of us, flying isn't something we do for utility's sake.

So why do pilots sacrifice and scrape together the money to fly, if not for a useful purpose? The reasons vary, of course. But for many, many pilots, it has to do with remembering something we all used to know, back when we were still young enough to believe that anything was possible and dreams could come true. "Three year olds," I once wrote in an essay on the subject, "may not know much about physics, investment banking, literature, or even the meaning of life, but they understand something very important about living.... [They understand] that life is in the ever-changing moment of the present, that joy is more important than possessions, and that dreams are the lifeblood of a heart and soul."

Unfortunately, as we grow older many of us find, or are told so many times that we start to believe it, that anything is not possible and dreams are for dreamers; irresponsible luxuries not related to putting food on the table. We live long enough to know the demons of disappointment and the restrictions of life's boundaries. Little by little, we lose that three-year-old belief in magic, dreams, and possibilities. And little by little, an important piece of our hearts dies.

Presented by

Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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