Wise Words From a Councilmen and Pilot

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By Bob Littlefield
Scottsdale City Councilman


General aviation should be poised to enjoy a Golden Age. Exciting new technologies are appearing almost every day. And with airline travel becoming less convenient and more humiliating, business travelers are turning to general aviation as never before. As a result airplane sales are up and the general aviation business is booming.

But general aviation’s financial takeoff could be aborted by a shortage of places to actually take off, because general aviation airports all around our country are under attack as never before. This disturbing trend threatens to ground the bright future of improved personal transportation offered by very light jets and technically advanced aircraft. And it also threatens your ability as a general aviation pilot 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 one of the most government-regulated hobbies or professions 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.

Most pilots recognize the problem at the federal level — that is why we join and support organizations such as AOPA and EAA to represent our interests with the FAA and other federal agencies. But few pilots seem to be aware of the impact that the policies of local governments have on their flying.

Local Restrictions

The bottom line is that, unless you are fortunate enough to own your own 40-acre property in the wilderness where you can build you own airstrip, you are dependent on some local government to provide or allow your airport. That makes local government very important to general aviation pilots because, without an airport to fly from at an affordable cost and minimal restrictions, your airplane is just a giant, expensive paperweight.

That is why anti-airport activists are a threat to general aviation: If local governments perceive that airports are politically unpopular with their voters they will be unwilling to expand aviation facilities or build new ones. They may attempt to impose curfews or otherwise restrict operations at their airports; or, as in the case of Meigs Field, even close them. And some municipalities, in response to complaints from anti-aviation voters, are buying flight-tracking systems in order to monitor and perhaps even restrict your movements in the air.

I have a unique perspective on this situation because I am not only an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor but I am also a city councilman in Scottsdale, Ariz., which is home to both a busy general aviation airport and an active anti-airport movement. I have spent much of my first three years in office fighting to protect Scottsdale Airport from a small but vocal group of residents who want to restrict or even close the airport. The lesson I have learned is that pilots and aircraft owners, like it or not, have no choice but to be deeply involved in local politics if we want to continue flying.

In central Arizona where I live our great flying weather has made our area popular for flight training since WWII. In fact, the Scottsdale Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) conducts more practical tests than any other FSDO in the country — around 6,000 annually! With Phoenix Sky Harbor airport being a hub for both Southwest and America West Airlines we also 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.


Unfortunately, many of these people do not like aircraft flying over their heads. Phoenix Sky Harbor and general aviation airports in the Arizona communities of Scottsdale, Chandler, Sedona and Payson are all battling complaints from residents who claim that aircraft using these airports disturb their lives and threaten their safety. 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 Aeronautical University. The story is much the same in many other areas of our country.

Some of the complainers are classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) types who move next to an airport and then complain about it. Many are 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 have compounded the problem by allowing residential development too near to airports and their flight paths. Worse, lax laws in many municipalities provide almost no punishment for developers and real estate agents who fail to disclose aircraft noise issues to potential homebuyers.

Unfortunately, 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 and has a lot to say about whether or not you as a general-aviation pilot will be able to fly freely and safely.

Start With Yourself

The first step in fighting this threat is to avoid flying in ways that legitimately annoy the non-flying public. Most general aviation 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 general aviation.

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 — for people who do not understand aviation, an airplane doing S-turns or practicing emergency landings looks like a crash about to happen.

But flying politely is not enough — general aviation pilots have to get involved in local politics. While it is trendy to scorn politicians, the bottom line is that your ability to fly in the future depends on what we politicians 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 general-aviation 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.

Make Your Voice Heard …

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. Newspaper, radio and TV people are usually clueless about general aviation, but they love a good controversy that sells papers or attracts viewers. If you do not take the time to educate them about the benefits of general aviation then they will only hear (and report) the drivel that they get from the anti-airport crowd. I know this from bitter personal experience!

Get your local business community involved in the fight. Generally these folks understand and appreciate the value of airports to the local economy and have an interest in protecting them. However, one segment of the business community — real estate developers — is often part of the problem. These folks often see the airport as a problem because it might lower the value of property (especially residential property) that they want to develop nearby. And they also see airport land as something that could make them a lot of money if it was used for some other purpose. Where you see a thriving aviation facility bringing money into the community, they see condos or a shopping center.

… With Multiple Voices

Taking all of these actions as an individual is important, but your efforts will be much more effective if you get organized — certainly your opponents will be! Encourage your local pilots’ groups to join the battle. At a minimum they can serve as conduits to get information out to the aviation community about what is going on. One note of warning: Make sure that you do not violate the laws in your area regarding the participation of groups in political activity.

Another aspect of government that can make life tough for general aviation pilots is good-old, everyday bureaucracy. High fees, complex rules and onerous security policies can make flying prohibitively expensive and procedurally difficult. As a public official I recognize that we have a duty to impose rules and policies that protect taxpayer assets and that meet the security challenges of the post-9/11 world. But the general aviation airports that we manage are a vital part of the national transportation system, so we also have a responsibility to promote the free flow of aviation activity by keeping our rules and policies reasonable.

To combat creeping bureaucracy you must also keep an eye on what is happening at your local airport. Few city councils and other local government bodies have members who are general-aviation literate, so they typically leave decisions about airport rules and policies to an airport commission made up of appointed citizen volunteers and to airport managers and their staff who are municipal employees. Get to know the members of your airport commission and your airport manager and his staff so you know what is going on. Watch the agendas of the airport commission meetings (usually posted in advance on the municipality’s Web site) and subscribe to any email or snail-mail lists related to the airport so that you know about potential problems in advance.

If you do see a problem on the horizon, take action immediately. Communicate your concerns to your airport commissioners and your airport manager. And again, organize your fellow airport users and local pilot’s groups to do the same.

I will be happy to share what I have learned in fighting these battles. You can contact me via email here.

Whether the threat is anti-airport activists or overzealous bureaucrats, the lesson that I have learned is that pilots and aircraft owners, like it or not, have no choice but to be involved in local politics if we want to continue flying. Don’t wait for a threat to materialize. Get involved now to protect your right to fly in the future.

About the Author …

Robert W. (Bob) Littlefield is a Gold Seal Flight Instructor with airplane and instrument ratings, an Aviation Safety Counselor and a former FAA-designated examiner. He is both a Cirrus Standardized Instructor and a Lancair Factory Authorized Flight Instructor and specializes in teaching pilots to fly Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA).

Bob is also a City Councilman in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he is the Chairman of Scottsdale’s Council Subcommittee on Regional Aviation Issues. Since he was elected in 2002 he has fought to protect and promote airports as a member of the Arizona Governor’s Advisory Council on Aviation and a member of the Maricopa County Association of Governments Regional Aviation System Plan Policy Committee.

Visit his Web site for more information.