AOPA Pilot Magazine - July 2013 - 22
President, AOPA Foundation
Saving an airport near you
will present a
at the 2013 AOPA
Aviation Summit in
Fort Worth, Texas,
22 | AOPA PILOT July 2013
MEDIA AND POLITICAL REALITY today are designed to
scare. Be afraid—be very afraid that something terrible
will happen to you or someone you know. The motive
is usually to sell something or to advance a position.
Ultimately, everything seems to come down to economics. Human ability to accurately judge risk is notoriously
inaccurate, especially when it relates to airplanes falling from the sky and smacking an innocent bystander.
One of the most common trumped-up excuses to
close an airport is the fear that an aircraft will crash
into a building nearby with resulting fatalities to people on the ground. That is also why there are—or should
be—runway safety zones around airports, because occasionally there is a miscue. Unfortunately, in way too
many cases, ignorance or greed has led to poor zoning practices and airports that have been in place for
decades are encroached upon.
On average, there are just slightly more than two
off-airport fatalities annually nationwide. This is where
someone not connected with the flight, and minding
their own business, gets whacked by an aircraft falling
on them. Sometimes it’s near an airport but sometimes
not. In the 10 years between 2002 and 2011 there were
22 off-airport fatalities.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
characterized 15,433 pedestrians as having been killed
between 2002 and 2011 by drivers who were legally
drunk (blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more) at
the time. For 2011, a single year, it is estimated that 2,661
innocent people were killed in alcohol-related accidents
in cars and another 710 who were not in the vehicle.
You are 700 times more likely to be run over by a
drunk driver, on average, while crossing a street (or
walking alongside one) than to be killed by falling aircraft or aircraft debris.
The National Weather Service records an average
of 54 lightning fatalities per year. Lightning is 25 times
more likely to zap you than falling aircraft. A study of
tree-related deaths by Ohio State University revealed
that, “Some 407 people in the United States were killed
by falling trees or limbs from 1995 to 2007—41 percent of
them in a thunderstorm and another 35 percent in high
winds alone.” The average is 31 per year.
Many people, once reality is explained, will concede
that the benefits outweigh the extremely small chance
of an aircraft-related fatality close to an airport. But
some will not. Human ability to rationalize a particular
fear—especially if it’s driven by other factors such as
noise irritation, pollution, or economic interests—is
inestimable. It’s reasonable to reduce risks by not playing golf when thunderstorms are nearby, just as it is
reasonable to have safety zones around airports. I live
under the downwind leg of the second busiest airport
in Maryland and have concluded the risk is acceptable.
I chose not to live off the end of a runway although the
zoning laws around here generally are pretty restrictive.
If you move close to a fault line, a volcano, tornado/hurricane-prone property, or an airport—which
in almost every case was there long before the neighborhood was established—it’s essential to understand
that the environment is not perfectly benign. In all such
cases the odds are strongly in your favor and it may be
decades—beyond a human lifespan, or ever—before
calamity strikes, but life has some risk.
Most pilots shun deliberate risk and in the majority
of cases, the accident is truly an accident. Unfortunately,
some incidents involve busted regulations. However,
humans misusing vehicles of all types are unfortunately
part of the price we pay for convenience, business, transportation, and recreation. DUI and operating a vehicle
while fatigued, texting, or otherwise distracted cause
dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent fatalities every day.
Death on the ground by falling aircraft pales in comparison. But that should not be an excuse, and within our
own ranks, peer pressure works.
As pilots, we enjoy the freedom of flight—but with
that comes tremendous responsibility, which relates
directly to operations near airports. Do not skimp on
engine maintenance and select proper fuel tanks with
fuel in them to avoid that sinking feeling. Weight and
balance limitations are there for your safety and those
of others—obey them. High surface winds in proximity
to thunderstorms, or not, can and do bring down aircraft. Approach minimums are just that; it’s all the usual
stuff you’ve heard too many times—and it’s all right on
Airports should not be closed because they pose an
unacceptable risk in a few people’s minds. They don’t.
Governments, zoning boards, and neighbors should be
educated to the realities of aviation safety, and noise
characteristics, even as we who love aircraft strive to
improve on that every day.