Politics And Your Right To Fly

By Bob Littlefield
(Because Bob Littlefield is a Scottsdale City Councilman, general aviation pilot and flight instructor, his observations and suggestions are as instructive in California as in Arizona. Ed.)
If you have been paying attention to the news in Arizona you know that the hottest aviation-related topic amongst the non-flying public in our area is complaints about aircraft noise and over flights. Phoenix Sky Harbor, Scottsdale, Chandler, Sedona and Payson airports have all had to battle complaints from residents who claim that aircraft using these airports create unacceptable levels of noise that disturb their lives. Luke AFB, Williams-Gateway Airport and Stellar Airpark are fighting to prevent nearby residential development that could eventually restrict their operations or even force their closure. And even in the sparsely populated rural areas near Prescott residents concerned about aircraft noise have delayed plans to build a satellite-training airport for Embry-Riddle. I have a unique perspective on this situation because I am not only an active General Aviation (GA) pilot and flight instructor but I am also a City Councilman in Scottsdale, which is home to both a busy general aviation airport and an active anti-aircraft-noise movement. Most GA pilots assume that there is little reason to care about the issue and that there is nothing that we can — or should — do about it. Dead wrong! GA pilots should definitely care about this issue, and there is much that we can — and should — do about it.

With our great flying weather central and southern Arizona have been popular for flight training since WWII. In fact, the Scottsdale FSDO conducts more practical tests than any other FSDO in the country (around 6000 annually)! And with Phoenix Sky Harbor being a hub for both Southwest and America West we have a tremendous amount of airliner traffic. Add the explosive growth in the area’s population and the result is more aircraft flying over more people than ever before. And many of those people do not like aircraft flying over their heads.

Some of the complainers are classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) types who move next to an airport and then complain about it. And we also hear complaints from people who just do not want aircraft flying over their heads even if that aircraft is high and quiet – they believe that the very presence of the aircraft is an aesthetic affront to their lifestyle and peace of mind.

Developer-friendly local governments in Arizona have compounded the problem by allowing residential development too near to airports and their flight paths. Worse, our state’s lax laws provide almost no punishment for developers and real estate agents who fail to disclose aircraft noise issues to potential homebuyers.

Why should GA pilots care about all of this? Because every one of these complainers, whether they be whining NIMBYs, poorly-informed homebuyers or just people who hate aircraft, has a vote in the political process that has a lot to say about whether or not you as a GA pilot will be able to fly freely and safely.

Pilots often fancy themselves as free-spirited individualists who are above the petty concerns of politics. But the truth is that we have the most government regulated and subsidized hobby (or profession) that exists in this country. On the federal level our ability to become and remain a pilot is subject to constant monitoring dictated by volumes of rules and regulations. And the facilities that we fly from are all either municipally owned and controlled or, in the few cases where they are privately owned, subject to the land use whims of local governments.

What this means to you is that, if local governments perceive that airports are politically unpopular with their voters then they will not be willing to expand aviation facilities or build new ones. They may even choose to try to close current facilities as in the case of Meigs Field. And some municipalities, in response to complaints from voters, are buying flight-tracking systems in order to monitor your movements in the air and turn you in to the FAA if they do not like what they see you do!

So, what should you as a GA pilot do about this problem? You can start by not flying in ways that legitimately annoy the non-flying public. Most GA pilots do not think about their impact on the non-flying public when they fly. And a few just don’t care and take the attitude of “I can fly as low as 500 feet if I want.” But indifference and arrogance hurt our cause by creating enemies of GA.

So be a good neighbor when you fly. During takeoff and landing, when you are at lower altitudes, pick flight paths that minimize flying over residential areas. When you have to fly over neighborhoods stay high until you really need to descend – it is safer anyway. And don’t practice maneuvers over people’s houses. It is unnecessary – even with the area’s growth there is plenty of empty space to use for flight training. And for people who do not understand aviation, an airplane doing S-turns or practicing emergency landings looks like a crash about to happen.

Next, GA pilots have to get involved in politics. While it is trendy to scorn politicians, the bottom line is that your ability to fly in the future depends on what we do. You should ask candidates for local office where they stand on aviation issues and then you should vote for (and otherwise support) candidates that are GA friendly. If your local government plans to approve development that threatens the future of an airport let your elected officials know in no uncertain terms that you oppose such development and that you will vote against politicians that allow it (you do vote, don’t you?).

And when the anti-airport folks attack your airport don’t just sit back and whine about it, fight back! Let your elected officials know that the airport is an asset to your community and that you will support those politicians who understand its value. When a threat emerges show up in force at all of the relevant meetings to counteract the opposition. Most important of all, don’t let the opponents of aviation win the media battle. Write letters to the editor and talk to reporters and editors to insure that they hear the truth and understand the issues involved.

Better yet, don’t wait for a threat to materialize. Get involved now to protect your right to fly in the future.

The author can be reached via email at bob@flightskills.com

Taken from the Sept/Oct 2003 Cal Pilots Newsletter.