Dueling 75-Year-Old Pilots: Now This Will Be an Interesting Test Case

I'm staying off the main financial/political news of the day for a while longer. The non-headline news of the weekend offers an interesting test case of how the wheels of regulatory justice turn.

As background: late last year a powerful politician, age 75 at the time and still an active pilot, got in trouble with aviation authorities. Check here for a summary of his tale and its moral. The politician, a U.S. Senator, had landed on an officially closed runway in Texas, "sky hopped" with his plane over a work crew that was on the runway doing repairs at the time, and provoked the airport manager to say, "I've got over 50 years flying, three tours of Vietnam, and I can assure you I have never seen such a reckless disregard for human life in my life." The Senator, for his part, erupted in rage at airport officials when he got out of his plane, saying, "What this hell is this? I was supposed to have unlimited airspace."

The Federal Aviation Administration considered his case and early this year decided to give him the mildest possible sanction: remedial training, but no "certificate action" that would have restricted his right to fly. The Senator is now sponsoring legislation to spare other pilots "ordeals" like his.

Last week, another 75-year old pilot also got in trouble with aviation authorities. This woman, Myrtle Rose, is a longtime pilot and airshow performer who last Wednesday was flying her 70-year-old Piper Cub J-3, as she does most days, from a tiny grass strip in the Chicago suburbs. Ms. Rose and her Piper Cub are shown below; a Google Earth shot of the Mill Rose Farm grass strip where her plane is based, near the suburb of South Barrington, is below that.


(AP photo of Ms. Rose; Google Earth screen shot by me)


Unfortunately for Myrtle Rose, last Wednesday was August 3, the day before President Obama's 50th birthday -- and he was back in Chicago for the festivities. (Such festivities as were possible in the middle of debt-ceiling/financial collapse.) As most modern pilots know, where the President of the United States goes, so too goes a giant no-fly zone known as a TFR (temporary flight restriction). A typical Presidential TFR is 30 miles in radius, covering an area of more than 2800 square miles, and is centered on wherever the president is.

Myrtle Rose hadn't kept up with the NOTAM, or Notice to Airmen, about the TFR. So on her normal flight in the Chicago suburbs she got within 30 miles of Obama's birthday location, and suddenly she found her little airplane surrounded by... F-16s! As an AP story recounts, she thought they were there to admire her "cute" antique airplane, so she took no action in response. She eventually cruised back to her home field at an airspeed roughly that of a car, and after landing found herself surrounded by police.

So we have two veteran pilots who broke the rules: One ignored the big, painted XXs on a runway threshold and the people in his path as he continued to land. The other did what she did every day, not realizing that this one day was different. She thereby broke a law but posed no conceivable threat to anyone, except perhaps to the fighter pilots who converged on her slow-moving plane.

In the Senator's case, the FAA took a "let's be reasonable" stance and decided that no punishment was warranted. Presumably that would be the outcome in Myrtle Rose's case as well, right? Since we all stand equal before the law? Let us watch and see.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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