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Fear of flyers

Private pilot David Thomas wishes light aircraft could spread their wings this summer

Do people who follow adventurous and unusual leisure pursuits hold a greater responsibility to the public than people who engage in more everyday activities? The popular media clearly think so.

In January, the four occupants of an RAF Tornado and a Cessna light aircraft were killed when they collided over open countryside, not far from the Nottinghamshire village of Everton. The full facts will not emerge until the Air Accident Investigation Branch publishes its official report - a thorough and painstaking investigation that follows every fatal air accident in Britain and normally takes several months. But journalists reporting the accident needed no such caution. One newspaper claimed that the pilot of the RAF Tornado had sacrificed his own life to steer his stricken plane away from houses. Other television and press reports, some backed by unnamed 'aviation experts', decided that the pilot of the light aircraft was probably flying too low, should have known that the Tornado was present and, according to Sky News, which found some worried parents to interview, almost crashed on a local primary school.

No actual evidence was produced to support any of these claims. The aircraft were not flying in an area covered by air traffic control, so, unless he happened to be in radio contact with an RAF radar unit, the pilot of the Cessna would have had no way of knowing that the fast-flying Tornado was anywhere near. In open country, aircraft are not required to fly above any particular height - though they do have to keep 500 feet away from objects on the ground, and single engine aircraft like the Cessna are required to fly high enough above built-up areas to be able to glide clear in case of engine trouble. Contrary to popular belief, aeroplanes do not fall out of the sky if their engines fail - they merely turn into gliders. As for the school, it seems to have been a good quarter of a mile from the site where wreckage from the Cessna landed, and given that a light aircraft weighs considerably less than an average car, the risk of a catastrophe was minimal.

But an emphasis on the theoretical danger to people on the ground, as opposed to the actual deaths of flyers, has become an increasingly prominent feature of air accident reporting. The dangers are invariably exaggerated or distorted.

A woman killed in 1998 after being struck by a landing glider was described in several news reports as a rambler out for a walk. She was, in fact, with a group of people being taken for trial flights by a gliding club, and the accident happened on the club's airfield. In another light aircraft accident, also last year, the main comment of the reporter for BBC South East News was that 'it could have been so much worse', referring to what might conceivably have happened had the aircraft crashed on to a village rather than open fields. This particular accident could hardly have been 'so much worse' for those aboard the aircraft, who did lose their lives.

The implication of this kind of reporting is that the world would be a safer place for everybody else if people did not insist on taking to the sky. But the facts do not bear this view out.

The average risk of a fatal accident while flying a light aircraft lies somewhere between those for driving a car and riding a motorcycle. Yet in the past decade, the only serious injury to a passer-by was to a woman struck by a vintage Tiger Moth, flown by a commercial pilot and forced by engine failure to land on the seafront at Clacton. Britain has something like 30 000 active private pilots, so this does represent an extremely low level of risk. If 30 000 car drivers or even 30 000 cyclists managed to injure only one pedestrian in 10 years, it would represent an incredible breakthrough in road safety. There have been more injuries to passers-by from model aircraft and kites than from full-size aircraft.

All this could be dismissed as sloppy reporting, were it not for the underlying notion that the sky is no place for amateurs. This is in complete contrast to the usual portrayal of professional pilots, especially military pilots, as steely-nerved superheroes. The RAF pilot who fails to eject in order to steer his stricken aircraft away from houses appears so often in press reports that it is known in flying circles as the 'Douglas Bader syndrome'. This is not to say that military pilots are incapable of heroism, but merely that in the majority of cases the nature of air accidents makes such claims pure fantasy. Of course military pilots are extremely well trained - but they are required to undertake the kind of flying, like operating at high speed very close to the ground, that carries a far higher degree of risk than anything the average private pilot would contemplate.

The implication that private pilots are under-trained amateurs does not hold water, either. The qualifications for a basic private pilot's licence include a formal and well-established syllabus of flying training, written exams in subjects as diverse as meteorology and human performance, two separate flight tests, along with regular medical examinations conducted by specially qualified physicians. All of this goes far beyond anything required to operate a vehicle on the ground, where the risks of killing other people are only too real.

The sort of media reporting that private flying is subjected to, with its implied criticism of non-professional participants, will be familiar to anybody whose leisure pursuit includes a degree of risk. But the attitude that flying is dangerous and rather antisocial is increasingly reflected in public policy and regulations.

The wild exaggeration of the risks posed to the public helps to create an atmosphere of hostility, where an activity enjoyed by tens of thousands of mostly very ordinary people is being systematically and progressively curtailed. Later this year, new European regulations will force existing private pilots to undertake regular and costly retraining, which will make the training and examining of new pilots considerably more expensive. No real evidence has been offered to demonstrate that these tighter regulations will actually increase safety, but presumably if they reduce the number of pilots they will cut the number of accidents.

The dream of learning to fly is shared by very many people, but the opportunities to fulfil it are being steadily eroded. Every year a few more public airfields close down, and where many towns were once proud of their municipal aerodrome, today several counties are close to having no airfields at all, with restrictions on light aviation being written into their local plans. The main planning objection to private flying is usually based on noise. Aircraft can be noisy but no more so than chainsaws and lawnmowers, and most airfields have been very willing to adopt noise-abatement policies. So it is hard to escape the conclusion that much of the hostility to light aircraft noise is really based on fear of a perceived danger - if you can hear a light aircraft then you automatically fear that it might fall on your head.

This has led to policies, such as the latest planning guidelines proposed by South Cambridgeshire, that regard any airfield development as inconsistent with the rural environment. Since a typical small airfield is little more than a large grass meadow with a mowed strip for a runway and fewer buildings than even the poorest farm, it is hard to see how it could exist anywhere other than in the rural environment. Several airfields have been forced to close as restrictions on the number of take-offs in a day and hours of operation have made them financially unviable.

One might assume that this tightening of regulations is a response to an increase in flying. The truth is the exact opposite. Away from airline activities there are now fewer aircraft in the skies over Britain than at any time since the Second World War. More and more, the only places where people can learn to fly are a few large airfields and regional airports close to large cities. The inevitable result is that prices rise out of the reach of most people and, as flying becomes concentrated on a smaller number of sites, the increasing number of movements at the remaining airfields leads to calls for them to be curbed, too.

Few people will climb Everest or walk to the South Pole, but learning to fly is an extraordinary personal accomplishment that many people can and do achieve, and one which offers an extraordinary sense of personal freedom in an increasingly controlled world. Flying is also, by its very nature, an activity for grown-ups. The sky may not be particularly dangerous but it is very unforgiving of fools. Every pilot knows when they take to the sky that their actions and decisions, and theirs alone, will allow them and their passengers to return safely to Earth. But the idea of people taking on that sort of personal responsibility in their leisure pursuits is not one that sits comfortably in a culture which seeks to protect people from themselves.

Freelance journalist David Thomas can be contacted at ad295@dial.pipex.com

Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999



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