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Fri, May 13, 2005

Aero-Views: Shame On All Of You

No Heroes In ADIZ Incursion

By ANN Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

I wasn't flying Wednesday when the city of Washington went into a massive, hyperventilating panic over a light plane in the ADIZ; I was driving the highways, and I got to hear the blow-by-blow on the radio and in periodic phone calls with ANN's Pete Combs. Good grief, what a shameful episode. There's enough shame to go around. Indeed, there are no heroes in this tawdry tale of ADIZ incursion, but there's a whole gaggle of goats:

Shame On The Security Establishment

..in the first place, for being unable to distinguish between a real threat and a bogus one. The physics of the Cessna 150 make it an improbable terror weapon. Indeed, we have an incident to show us that a Cessna 150 is not much threat to the White House. In 1994, a suicidal nutball tried to kamikaze the steel-and-concrete-reinforced landmark, and left an unsightly black smear on the wall and a divot out of the lawn -- who are we looking out for with all this panic, the groundskeepers?

A Cessna 150 does not a warplane make. But steeped in the shibboleths of relativism and egalitarian ignorance, security managers prescribe the same frantic reaction, as if it were some kind of anti-Newtonian universe: "For every action, an identical and hyperbolic overreaction."

The mighty 150 has a gross weight of 1,500 to 1,600 lbs, or about half the weight of a compact car. Even a 172 is lighter gross than the empty weight of my 1965 mustang (~2,500), which is pretty light by new-car standards. I think a typical Camry or similar vehicle is about 3,800 lb. You just can't do a lot of damage with 2,000 lbs unless it's all explosives... I know a little about blowing things up, and served for 25 years alongside the guys with the equivalent of a PhD in blowing things up, the 12BS and 18C demo men of the Army Special Forces. If we can't figure out how to destroy a big, strong building with a Cessna 150, and we can't, it's a pretty safe bet that Osama or whoever can't do it either: he puts on his baggy pants one leg at a time.

Then, there's the whole question of, "what about the building?" The White House is no stranger to hard times, having been burnt to a shell by a British raiding party on August 25, 1814 (the only surviving fixture from before 1814 is a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington which was secured by a fleeing Dolly Madison). The West Wing burned again in 1929. Yet the building endures. The walls are made of the original stone, reinforced during a 1948-52 renovation with concrete and structural steel, and light GA aircraft are not going to move them. QED. Most other public buildings in Washington are equally robust -- compare the damage and death toll at the Pentagon to that in New York. Or take a good look at the J. Edger Hoover building sometime.

Shame On Our National Leaders

...for not facing the risk (if any?) like grown men. A lot of the current security nonsense has come about because of the physical and even moral cowardice of our current crop of national leaders. If we are "a nation of laws, not of men," why are some men so demanding of special protection?

Our Government is predicated on the idea that no man is divine or irreplaceable. Our Constitution has been frequently amended to ensure that suitable procedures are in place to ensure an orderly succcession and continuity of government.

Apart from the troubling moral issues raised by special privileges for the Washington elite, there are practical issues involved in hasty and ill-advised evacuations like the one we've just seen. I've looked at several airline incidents that rose to the level of accident only when the crew made a judgment call to order an evacuation, and passengers were injured in the evacuation.

Why injure people unnecessarily, when few people are likely to be injured in the extremely unlikely event the worst-case scenario comes to pass, but some people are likely to be injured in a needless evacuation?

Shame On The News Media

I was able to hear the audio from the White House Press Room, and boy howdy, it was a pitiful display. Screaming, and yelling, and blubbering and carrying on. A most unseemly display, but then the most fitting 19th Century word for concept that's defined by the 21st Century word "metrosexual" is probably "poltroon."

The every-man-for-himself-and-devil-take-the-hindmost stampede for the exits was unseemly, unsurprising, and, as noted above, unsafe. You are much safer staying in the building during the attack than bolting for the exit, where you might be trodden under by Helen Thomas or somebody.

I always figured most news people would be no earthly use in a crisis (real, or as in this case, imagined) and now I have my proof.

Shame On The Men In The Plane

You didn't think I was going to let these two clowns off, did you? I mean, I fly in Boston and I know about the ADIZ. My friends in Florida and California know about the ADIZ. According to a family member, the unlucky pilots knew about the ADIZ, but they blundered into it anyway.

Research in the human behavioral subset of "being lost" has shown that humans, when confused about location, will seldom if ever backtrack to the last known location and try again -- even though that method, logically, offers a good chance of success. Instead they will press on forward -- pretty much in whatever direction they happen to be pointing -- for good or for ill. The only antidote to this deeply ingrained behavior, since one can't grab his hippocampus and shake some sense into it, is to have a plan and conscious procedures for safe recovery to a known point when mislocated.

Many people will focus on the instructor, and as the more experienced pilot and authority figure, he's definitely where the buck stops. The FAA will probably recognize this with a certificate suspension or even revocation (since the violation wasn't willful, revocation would be out of line. But the security organs will want their pound of flesh). I hope the instructor subscribed to AOPAs Legal Services Plan.

But the student also deserves a share of the blame. By the time you're doing ambitious cross-countries, you need to have a baseline level of situational awareness. A student can't just ride on the instructor's ticket (even if that is how the FAA sees it, in legal terms). He holds a ticket inscribed not pilot student but student pilot -- the first is the adjective, the second the noun. Students shouldn't be constantly in their instructors' faces, but they should be willing to speak up. Many an airliner has come to grief because a doubting FO held his tongue. If there was ever a place to indulge in bumper sticker behavior, the cockpit is where you "Speak truth to power" and "Question Authority."

These two men had a very unpleasant day, and they have more hard times ahead. But they were lucky; they very nearly died. If the fighter pilots had been what the Air Force calls "fangs out", this whole story would be ten times worse. The 150 pilots will live to fly again -- and one hopes, to enjoy flight again.

One Organization Reacted Credibly

After all this ranting, I ought to close on a positive note -- and there is one to be found. Despite all the things that COULD have gone wrong, the air defense organization reacted with as much restraint as alacrity. If the military and DHS intercept crews hadn't been at the top of their game, if the controllers hadn't been alert, God alone knows what might have happened. These disciplined men and women are trapped in a bad system that's not of their making, but they still performed like a symphony orchestra with Beethoven Himself conducting.

FMI: www.dhs.gov, www.af.mil

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