Next… “The Bad” -- A Continuing Discourse On The Ills We’ve Seen… and Fought
Thoughts and Observations By ANN Editor-In-Chief, Jim Campbell
Preface: This missive is STILL long, it STILL rambles, it covers a lot of ground and it STILL takes its own sweet time getting to the point… but hopefully it will say (to you) what I want it to and convey the issues that I want to discuss. Just please bear with me, consider my words carefully and if anything we’ve ever done has had any lasting value to you, I hope you’ll help us stay on this amazing path – Jim Campbell, ANN E-I-C, CEO
I started this tome with a few words about the early life that led to me to this point… and God, what an adventure it has been.
Since then, I’ve done my best to drink it all in… and give back as aggressively as I could. Thousands of times, literally, I’ve answered calls, emails and requests for assistance… and done my best to answer them with solid and positive aid. Not always successful, I none-the-less do believe that my work as an aviation journalist, and my efforts with my old magazine, US Aviator, as well as my many books (especially the SportPlane Resource Guides, and my book on the FAA v Bob Hoover fiasco), and now, through the Aero-News Network, have made a significant difference to flyers all over the world and slowly, but surely, created a better path for a few aspects of aviation, here and there. I have appreciated the trust placed in me and always counseled those who asked our aid that there was no shame in asking for help, as an aviator, from another member of one’s aviation family… and as such, I think it’s time to take my own advice and seek
your aid, collectively, as friends, readers, associates and supporters of ANN so that we might not only continue our mission, but to partake in even greater efforts on your behalf.
I’ve told many of you that it was a great goodness to be someone that could be trusted when my brethren needed aid… and that there was no shame in asking for help… from a friend. So, shortly, I will take my own advice.
But first, let me review why this is so unfortunate but, ultimately, vital and necessary. You see, we're a little concerned about being one of the few entities willing to speak unpleasant truths that no one seems to want to hear... that is, until it is too late.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
What We’ve Lost… Ethically, Numerically, Spiritually
Through the years, we’ve documented all manner of shams, scams, crimes, frauds and wrongs that have been perpetrated on flyers… some were not so-serious… some were much more so… and some were outright deadly -- and God help us, in nearly every one, we wound up getting attacked for trying to stop it in one way or another.
Early in the game, I simply tried to correct a lot of the ‘Bravo-Sierra’ that I saw coming across my desk, first as a free-lance writer and later as the editor of some of the Air Progress/Sport Pilot group publications before starting my own. This was a tough process. The Air Progress management didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about what was right or wrong so long as they got paid for their ad dollars.
This made my life difficult… but since I turned in a LOT of pix and copy, and had quite a background and following, I was able to pull it off for quite a while before yet another ethical confrontation made it clear that it was time to set out on my own. It was the last in a series of many and I was preparing to leave for quite a while as I set about learning the business and preparing to do what I knew I had to do someday… be my own boss so that the only idiot I had to listen to would be me. But I had a good view to what battles lay ahead… after being somewhat underwhelmed with aircraft like the Wheeler Express (over-hyped, a rather loose stability and control profile, and a number of claims they couldn’t back up -- and after expressing those concerns, their marketing flak tried to get me fired) or the Prescott Pusher (great looking kit, thoroughly underwhelming airplane—and I said just that), I had little doubt that speaking the truth was likely to be
Later on, as the Publisher of a regional magazine that went national in short order (our 'Gulf Coast Aviator' became 'US Aviator'), I waded into some bizarre battles right off the mark. Even as GCA was getting started, we watched a once proud Ultralight company, Max-Air, get turned into a truly unsafe and disreputable operation when control of the company was turned over (via questionable means) to a Convicted Felon, Don Jones, who had once served time for the kidnap and attempted murder of an FBI Agent -- an event that was even turned into a two-part episode of "FBI's Untold Stories"). The new owner was known for being quite a con-man and he took little time in employing less than ethical conduct in the Ultralight business.
Planes were sold and not delivered, customers got cheated right and left, the product saw some serious manufacturing deficiencies, dangerous flight operations became almost common place and all manner of strange things occurred at the company… including illegal flight training and unlawful commercial ride operations at the factory and during the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In… a situation ignored by SnF management at the time. We reported on all this.
In short order, we got threatened, there was a mysterious break-in at our offices, and we spent a few uncomfortable years trying to keep people informed about the dangers of the operation while alternately testifying to what we saw in various federal proceedings. The operation eventually shut down…. But not until a lot of folks got defrauded, hurt and totally turned off to aviation… and as I was soon to find out, it was the beginning in a long line of solo fights where we got little to no support from the associations (with the exception of the USUA and John Ballantyne), none of the other publications gave a damn (too busy counting their ad dollars, I guess), and it was far from the first time that the dishonest crooks that we exposed decided to fight back by attempting to shoot the messenger… threats, character assassination, you name it.
The saddest part of that particular story was the fact that we saw dozens of people cheated, scared, hurt or otherwise turned off to aviation… probably for the rest of their lives. After dealing with the crooks at Max-Air, these people saw aviation and aviators as something that held too much risk for them… not to be trusted and something to be avoided if they valued their wallets, or their safety, or both.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.
It was a cycle we saw repeated over and over again. And not just with crooked or dangerous companies… we also witnessed 'over-the-top' belligerence and power-trips from members of the FAA and were often helpless to do much about it. We also watched one Fly-In, in particular (Sun n Fun), ignore our safety warnings, time and time again… only to see those warnings literally become real as the very accidents we predicted actually happened… people died, people got hurt, people got cheated… and I got assaulted and banned from the event for having the balls to tell Sun ‘n Fun's arrogant emperors that they had no clothes.
We went to bat, numerous times to fight the injustices we saw as companies like CGS (the old one owned by Chuck Slusarczyk… not the current folks… with whom we have no negative reports, that we’re aware of), Adventure Air, Revolution Helicopter and others either cheat customers or offer deficient products.
I am ever reminded of one man, in particular, who got screwed out of the thousands of dollars he paid for a CGS Hawk (George Conn… a truly sweet guy to know) and despite all manner of difficulties, he fought for years to either get his plane or his money… and never got much of either (even though the owner of CGS literally promised to repay the bucks, in a letter to EAA… but welshed on that deal).
George never got his CGS Hawk and his participation in aviation dwindled away thereafter… to one day, in my presence, cutting up his EAA membership card out of frustration with an industry that would take CGS ad dollars but not correct CGS misbehavior. While my efforts, over the years, are filled with a number of successes in which we were able to aid folks here and there with various problems with the FAA, aircraft companies, associations or other aviation entities, George is one guy we failed, above all else. He is my constant reminder that while our efforts have been mighty… that our results have been mixed. While George appreciated our efforts and considers us a friend… the fact that we failed George so miserably is one of the better but bitter life lessons that has shaped what I've done in the decades since this awful matter started. We’ve had many great victories… but not for George.
There have been other battles… some where we did some good… but in many cases (at least, in our opinion), not enough.
When a poorly designed amphib showed up on the market, known then as the Adventurer Amphib, run by a fellow who went by the name of ‘Happy Miles”, it did not take long to see that the aircraft had some serious design issues, that customers were having problems getting what they paid for, and that the overall manner and conduct of the company was getting more questionable by the day. Performance claims for the heavy, draggy airframe were simply unbelievable and as just a few aircraft finally got completed and airborne, it became obvious that the aircraft had even more shortcomings than we thought.
A fatality occurred in which one of these aircraft departed from Oshkosh after the Fly-In, and barely made it to Fond Du Lac, before the aircraft came apart, killing the pilot.
The resultant NTSB investigation was brutal and numerous design deficiencies were made known... weeks and months after we published our concerns over the very same issues. The NTSB report concluded that the airplane suffered the loss of the horizontal stabilizer, elevator, rudder, both wings, and a portion of the vertical stabilizer. Subsequent to the accident an examination of the structure revealed (among other things) insufficient material attaching the horizontal stabilizer to the vertical stabilizer. An examination of six other similar airplanes, under construction, found evidence of a lack of quality controls in manufacturing, technique, failure to follow published construction manuals and guidelines, and general oversight by the kit supplier/manufacturer. Discussions with one of the NTSB investigators in this accident revealed his wholly negative impression of the aircraft, as "one of the worst (kit aircraft) I've ever seen."
Of course, over the course of criticizing and complaining about the issues that concerned us (actually, scared us) about this company and this airplane, we once again were the recipients of threats, harassment, character assassination and the like. A hastily conjured lawsuit was filed against us… but as soon as we started the process of seeking discovery and the asking of questions that this company did NOT want to answer, the suit was dropped. The owner, Happy Miles (real name, John Anthony Mihaylo… who also had a “record”) eventually folded his tent and went on to other things… but the few airplanes that got completed, from the very few kits that were shipped in a form that offered enough parts to offer some semblance of completion, were involved in other accidents, some fatal, thereafter. Yeah, we had a hand in stopping it… but once again, the aero-associations were gutless, the industry didn’t want to hear “bad news” and all the while
people either died, got cheated and/or were turned out of the industry through disgust, distrust and utter fear.
The Mini-500 scandal was an amazing low-moment, possibly one of the lowest, in sport aviation history. A truly attractive kit helicopter prototype got floated around the aviation media, promising all kinds of neat freedoms and capabilities… and for a price that set helicopter geeks all over the globe drooling with anticipation.
But… if it sounds too go to be true, it usually is… and in this case, it was.
Dennis Fetters, a/k/a Mohammed Al Faris, set up company to produce the Mini-500, a look-alike helo kit that resembled the early Hughes 500. Over the course of a number of years, hundreds of Mini-500s were sold, a two-seater was built and “flown” (though high-altitude shots turned out to be poorly photo-shopped frauds), and early models looked promising. Even some of the early demo ships seemed to fly well under controlled conditions and with near-perfect maintenance and factory supervision of the test flights that were permitted as the machine went into production.
BUT… the production ships were not built nearly as well (or the same) as the demo birds, short-cuts were taken with materials and manufacturing, and in short order a truly vicious series of accidents, (a lot of them), began to prove that the machine had serious shortcomings.
Frames cracked, components failed, the machine was too heavy for its powerplant -- which had to run near 100% rated power to even fly. The machine exhibited some dangerous tendencies in a power-out scenario while a number of other problems came to light... and the accident rate sky-rocketed. We took an active role in trying to find solutions… even sponsoring safety meeting with NTSB attendance and support, and kept the pressure up to find ways to make the machine safe to fly. Over time, we documented nearly 100 accidents, nearly a dozen fatalities (more than that, since then) and quite a few falsehoods on the part of Fetters and his company, Revolution Helicopter. A number of people we knew (some were friends) were killed in the aircraft and over time, Fetters went out of business owing a lot of people a lot of money – all the while blaming everyone but himself. Experts far and wide condemned the machine as poorly manufactured and underpowered, while its manufacturer was
found to have pulled more than a few frauds trying to keep the house of cards intact.
The president of the International Experimental Helicopter Association, the late Bill Phillips, noted that, “In my opinion, Dennis Fetters is one of the biggest cons that’s ever hit the kit industry.” As we look back on the whole fiasco… countless people cheated of over a million dollars, too many lies told to be accurately counted, kits that did not perform as delivered, and a breathtaking accident rate, we find no reason to disagree with Bill’s assessment. When we became aware of the problems with Revolution, we turned away their attempts to advertise and would NOT take their money… but that didn’t stop the rest of the industry from doing so… long after the dangers became common knowledge… and you would not believe the flak we took over this matter as Fetters tried to rewrite history… even though everything we wrote was the truth.
Not everyone, though, was bamboozled by Fetters and his ilk... and we remain proud of the letter we received, uninvited, from the (then) head of the NTSB, (who was not exactly one of our fans due to critical comments we had made of their handling of a few issues over the years), in which he applauded our efforts and expressed his amazement at what Revolution had tried to pull off…
We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot.
And, of more recent note, is the David Riggs debacle… Principally known as the pilot of an L-39 that terrorized the Santa Monica pier via a high-speed, low-altitude buzz job that scared hundreds and posed a serious danger to the lives of all those nearby, David Riggs ultimately had his tickets pulled for a year and a criminal conviction and penalties entered against him (for which he has yet to complete his sentence). Since then, with his tickets restored, Riggs has continued a stunning litany of dangerous activities and efforts that have caused many to report him to the FAA and other Federal agencies, while the activities continued, inexplicably, unabated and unchallenged -- until just a few days ago.
Riggs, as you may recall, was also the guiding hand behind an effort to bring a convoluted and reportedly unsafe air racing program to the Camarillo Air Show, last August, 2011.
The race plan was never approved by the FAA, was found to be improperly prepared, as well as poorly researched, and many of the claims made by the race organizers (principally, Riggs) were found to be without foundation or verification. Despite some surprising name-calling and questionable statements by the Air Show organizers and Riggs, the race was not flown... and to this day Riggs and the show staff continue to try to point their fingers at the FAA. The record shows, however; that the FAA bent over backwards to give this race proposal (Ultimate Air Race Challenge -- UARC), every chance to meet the regs and that they, without doubt, failed to do so. Sadly; by the way, when Riggs first press release appeared about the UARC scam, ONLY ANN questioned it, looked into it, and debunked it. Others not only ran this crap verbatim… but we’ve seen NO ONE retract, correct or otherwise offer any follow-up to the false and misleading stories that are still published on their
websites… long after the UARC claims were proven false, misleading, and JUST PLAIN BS.
Over the course of several years, ANN has been made aware of numerous online video productions in which Riggs was documented conducting what appeared to be commercial operations in an L-39 Albatros single engine jet trainer and conducting operations that appeared, at first impression, to be outside the regs as well as occasionally showing what appeared to be unsafe actions and operations.
ANN reported this evidence and our concerns to the FAA on numerous occasions, and over several years, and is aware of several other pilots and concerned citizens (even FAA personnel), who did likewise. At no time has ANN ever received any evidence to support the possibility of a waiver or other alternate means of compliance that might make these allegedly illegal operations allowable under the FARs. It was an operation like this, conducted by Riggs, in which another L-39 went down and two people lost their lives.
Most recently, we have documented a faux warbird fighter adventures scam being conducted with experimental aircraft and without the requisite skills, waivers and expertise needed to conduct proper/safe operations. While Riggs is facing potential (and probable) revocation for an L-39 ride scam, there is far more to investigate, a great number of cons and even more dangerous activity to investigate… and he’s far from the only one who has been this dangerous or this crooked.
God only knows how many people he has cheated, scared, defrauded… and ultimately chased out of our industry. We fear that the number is significant.
Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity.
W. Clement Stone
Don’t get me wrong… we’ve had some amazing successes and are pleased to see that we’ve had a pivotal and lasting impact on the aviation world. Some of the most important fights we have undertaken included the Bob Hoover v FAA affair, the victimization of Robinson Helicopter, and most recently, the fact that FAA finally/belatedly went after David Riggs.
Years ago, we led an aggressive effort to restore legendary aviator Bob Hoover to his rightful place in the skies after some Feds decided he was too old to fly -- with no REAL evidence to support that charge.
If you've been anywhere near the aviation world for the last fifty years or so, it would be hard not to have heard about Bob Hoover, a man who can easily lay claim to the title "living legend." Hoover is to aviation what John Kennedy and/or Ronald Reagan was to politics... a beloved symbol of what the best is, in an industry where being good is a life or death situation. In the aviation hierarchy, this guy is pretty much at the top of the ladder.
After being victimized by some Feds looking for a high-profile scalp, Hoover was subjected to a multi-year fight to prove what the rest of aviation knew all along… that Bob still was one of the best flyers in the world. Dozens of stories, investigations, and a 400 page book/expose were undertaken by my crew and I to put a stop to one of the most grievous FAA “Hits” we’d ever seen. It took years, but ultimately, it all culminated in getting Bob flying as well as two of the greatest honors I’ve ever experienced (#1-Walking Bob out to his Twin Commander before the very first show he flew upon getting his privileges restored… and #2- The wonderful words he wrote on the cover of an issue of US Aviator magazine-the issue that announced his return to flight- that adorns my wall to this day – “To Jim Campbell, the greatest – without your support I would never have flown in our great country again.”)… which pales to the central issue
at hand… restoring Bob to flight status and making a wrong thing, right.
In another case, we watched Robinson helicopter come under heavy fire after the very first R-44 went down with fatal result. A few folks with an agenda and axe to grind tried to turn the accident into something sinister, despite the fact that there were some serious conflicts of interest among those who attempted to sway the NTSB investigative process (including a relative of the pilot… who allegedly demanded that Frank Robinson hand over part of the company to ‘settle’ legal claims that were being put forth by his attorney… who had a few problems of his own, including serious problems with the State Bar).
The story was complex, convoluted, and showed that Robinson was doing its best to build a safe product… while the investigations showed signs of being tainted, and even interfered with, by outside factors… some of whom were surprisingly close to the NTSB process itself. In the end, the article we did was given great credit for getting the story straight, showing the problems with the crash and its investigation… and even (possibly) saving Robinson Heli. We’re not sure the situation was that dire, but we were pleased to bring clarity to a confused and complex issue and to defend a solid and honest company that was truly doing its best to build a good product.
In addition to these higher profile stories, we were instrumental in giving aid to aviators in need, often for far simpler issues involving FAA harassment, companies that did not perform as advertised or promised or in attempting to help aviators seek and partake in the freedoms that aviation offers… We defended and went to the aid of pilots, businesses, airports, FBOs, maintenance shops, flight schools, you name it.
And we did it because we did not want to be like the rest of what we saw in the aviation press.
In most cases, aviation editorial has pretty much turned into a beauty contest… with the only real differentiation between writers and their stories being a matter of who could dress up the brochure copy in the most interesting way. It's been that way (mostly) for decades… and one has only to see the crap that got shoveled our way whenever we did critical editorial to see why there was little personal incentive to change the modus operandi of an industry in love with hype and BS. The few of us who tried to change this, paid a hell of a cost for it, and got little to no support for the effort (and in fact, is one of the reasons that Sun 'n Fun has VOICED as a reason for their ban of yours truly--is that SCREWED-UP or what?).
Regardless, we will continue to tell the critical stories – many of which are made more complicated by an FAA that doesn't work, an aviation system under constant attack by crooks (and not just David Riggs), of the cowardice of the rank and file 'alphabet groups' who are supposedly out there to protect our industry, and an aviation justice system that has become truly dysfunctional and is a danger to the flying public.
He is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.
One hopes that the next generation of sport and general aviation will promote a new generation of aviation journalism.
ANN will stay committed to such a proposition and we hope others will follow suit… but our hopes are dim.
But the issue we’re trying to bring home here is simply this… NOT exposing wrong-doing... NOT correcting dangerous situations… NOT giving flyers and potential flyers the knowledge they NEED to be safe and secure in their flying pursuits subjects them to the very kinds of dangers we noted above… and has resulted (we sincerely believe) in hundreds, even thousands of flyers and potential flyers leaving our ranks… and causing many others to be dissuaded from even trying.
We strongly believe the cumulative damage to have been catastrophic… hence the reason we have fought so aggressively to conduct the kind of editorial that exposes the hardships, frauds, and dangers that so many others -- be they (so-called) journalists, associations, industry pundits, what have you -- simply ignore, out of fear, or for profit or because they simply don’t give a damn.
Make no mistake… we give a damn. And we also believe that...
- YOU have the right to be told the truth…
- YOU have the right to not be cheated by unscrupulous vendors…
- YOU have the right to not be harmed by dangerous products…
- YOU have the right to enjoy and partake in aviation free of the worry that there are those that would do you harm through negligence, lack of professionalism, criminal intent or just plain ignorance…
- YOU have the right to believe in the inherent good of the aviation world and to fully informed when the occasional bad apple shows up…
- What YOU don't know can and will hurt you... no kidding.
- YOU have our promise that we’ll do OUR best to make sure that you get just that – not matter who tries to harass us for it or otherwise tries to intimidate us into silence.
Like I said… we give a damn.
Stay tuned… first, we started with the good -- and then got into the 'bad…' now we start talking about the ugly side of all this... (and we weren’t kidding) -- don’t miss it.
More to follow…