Archive for February, 2010

Austin – A Brief Review

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Throughout the day I have seen a number of thoughtful comments to the perspective piece I posted this morning.

My day has been filled with discussions around what happened in Austin.  I note from the comments here that there are a wide range of views and I wanted to close this day off with just a few comments.

1.  You should know from the moment this story broke, our team at AOPA has been communicating with the media.  We provided background and perspective as the story was developing and as we were all learning the facts.

2.  A number of interviews have been conducted yesterday and today, including a live interview I did today on FOX NEWS and a second interview on CNN.  We found the coverage around these interviews to be fair.  We did these today as the media turned from covering a fast breaking news story to sorting out what it all means.

3.  While we were briefing the media from our Frederick headquarters, our Washington office immediately began briefing Members of Congress and their staff.  We want those who feel “something must be done” to understand that we are already very regulated and that the use of aircraft in commiting suicide in extremely rare.

4.  Now, with regard to the use of terms….suicide is what this was.   An individual took his own life using an aircraft.  Some of the comments on the AOPA NOW blog want to debate the use of terms.  Sorry, this is not productive.  I am not sure just where people want to go with the description of this unusual and isolated event, but we wanted to be clear just how we viewed this event and what we thought it should be called.

5.  As for those who assume this means more regulation, I do not that think this will be the case.  There are no regulations that would have prevented a person so determined to end his life in an aircraft from doing just that.  And, the point made in the posting this morning is that while suicide attempts number in the hundreds of thousands, the use of an aircraft in such acts is very rare…less than twice a year on average…I might add, this was something that news organizations found significant.

As the day ends, this story which involved a deeply troubled person and a tragedy that took two lives is being treated for what it is by most of the media organizations we have spoken with as well as officials in government. 

Our job was to make sure that AOPA members were well served through professional media relations efforts and government relations efforts.  I am pleased with the fine work that dozens of people did over the past 36 hours. 

As always, I appreciate the words of praise and carefully consider the constructive suggestions.  This was not the first and certainly not the last time careful consideration will be required during a difficult situation.  I do appreciate the feedback and the level of engagement from all who shared their thoughts during the course of the day.

Perspective on a suicide

Friday, February 19th, 2010

This week, the aviation community suddenly found itself at the center of the troubling issue of suicide in America. As tragic and dramatic as this one suicide in Austin proved to be, those who influence and make public policy have a responsibility to keep this event in perspective.

Each year, there are more than 30,000 suicides in America. Even more disturbing, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are 25 suicide attempts for every suicide death. The figures, and the human suffering they represent, are overwhelming.

But the fact is that pilots are a remarkably healthy group of individuals, both physically and psychologically. We have medical examinations on a regular basis. We report the medications we use and the ailments we have to certified medical examiners. The FAA even determines what medications are allowable for pilots to take.

Sadly there are exceptions to every rule, as the tragic events in Austin demonstrated. Even so, an examination of aircraft accidents over the past 20 years found fewer than two suicides per year involving aircraft. Compare that to the 750,000 annual suicide attempts, and it seems evident that the aviation community contributes little to this national problem.

Still, there is already speculation about what we must do to ensure that images like those we’ve seen from Austin are never seen again. As always, the aviation community remains committed to protecting the freedom to fly while maintaining the highest levels of safety and security. We believe strongly that any response to this terrible incident must be appropriate, reasonable, and effective.

Let’s make sure that any examination of public policy is thoughtful and any resulting proposals are well-considered. The response to this isolated event must recognize that America is home to 600,000 pilots who annually fly more than 26 million hours using general aviation and who daily make tremendous contributions to the nation using aircraft for business, humanitarian, commercial, charitable, and personal missions.

Springing the trap!

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

AOPA’s own SWAT team arrived in Northern California on Friday, getting out of Frederick before the anticipated record snows. AOPA–a SWAT team? In our case, SWAT stands for Sweepstakes Winner Announcement Team!

On Friday, I was conducting business in Nashville, and with a huge snowstorm threatening the Mid-Atlantic region, I didn’t even try to get back to Frederick for fear I wouldn’t be able to get out in time to spring our carefully laid trap on the unsuspecting winner of the 2009 AOPA Let’s Go Flying Sweepstakes.

Of course, people like to keep an eye on where AOPA’s airplanes are going, so I was careful not to arrive on the scene too soon and spoil the surprise. Instead of heading straight to California, I stopped in Denver overnight, flying to Sacramento on Saturday evening to review the final plans with AOPA SWAT members over dinner at the historic Frank Fats Restaurant.

On Sunday morning AOPA’s team gathered at the Yolo County Airport for a final status check before springing our trap.

We had persuaded a colleague of our winner to help out with a little friendly deception. Jimmy Rollinson, a well-known flyer and, like our winner, a FedEx pilot, said he wanted to look at property in the winner’s Alta Sierra fly-in community. And, to make sure our winner would be willing to give up part of his Super Bowl Sunday to help (not to mention to give us an excuse to bring a film crew to this quiet, private field), Rollinson said he’d be arriving in the famous Cessna 310–Songbird III from the TV series “Sky King”–an airplane owned by Paul and Valerie Erickson, who were also complicit in our plan.

Heading out with Songbird III to surprise our winner at Alta Vista Airport.

Heading out with Songbird III to surprise our winner at Alta Vista Airport.

Acting as producer, AOPA’s own Warren Morningstar arranged to bring in the film crew under the pretense of shooting some footage of the famous airplane against the beautiful backdrop of the Sierra Nevada range.

The plan was to have our winner join Rollinson on the tarmac to talk about the Sky King series in time for me to swoop in and land in our beautiful 2005 Cirrus SR22 GTS. A tough job, yes!  But, as they say, someone has to do it.

I was excited and honored to present the airplane to this year’s winner–Michael Graves. Graves, an 18-year member of AOPA who lives in a fly-in community and sometimes uses GA to commute to his professional flying job, was stunned and delighted.

I have to say this is the second time I have had the thrill of giving away an AOPA sweepstakes airplane to a deserving winner and they have been two of the best days of my life! I just love being part of the excitement and watching the reaction as the truth dawns on a winner’s face.

Winner Michael Graves shows off the keys to his Lets Go Flying Sweepstakes Cirrus.

Winner Michael Graves shows off the keys to his Lets Go Flying Sweepstakes Cirrus.

There’s a lot more to this story, and you can find all the details in our special edition of AOPA ePilot and on AOPA Online (, and of course we’ll be making that video footage available, too. But I couldn’t wait to share my own excitement and offer my first public congratulations to Michael Graves, as well as my thanks to all those who conspired to make the plan work, including our AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Meriellen Couppee and the folks at Davis Flight Support who got the SR22 ready for its closeup and helped us coordinate the many details that go into a surprise like this.

I am not sure just how much better this month can get. First, no aviation user fees in the President’s budget, and then I get the chance to return to my home state of California and give away our 2009 Sweepstakes airplane!

Now, I just need to figure out if I can get back into Frederick Municipal Airport with all the snow!