CBS Evening News ran a report by Sharyl Attkisson on Monday titled Tiny Airports Get Big Cut of Stimulus Cash. You can check it out at http://tinyurl.com/ltk3dr.
A half-researched and poorly-understood effort by an editorial team that doesn’t understand the subject matter that it’s covering. And doesn't seem to care. And, most disturbingly, it appears not to matter to these folks that the public is likely to take the reporting at face value despite the inaccuracies and innuendo. This is, after all, CBS News. I heard once that Walter Cronkite spent some time there. I could be wrong.
Ah, where to start? Seriously. I had a huge problem writing this piece because there’s such an assemblage of wrongness from which to start. So let’s dive in and cover a couple of the most glaring problems.
First, the most prominently-featured airport. CBS makes the place out to be a private country club for social gatherings where stowage of golf clubs and martini kits are the chief weight and balance considerations for departing aircraft. CBS refers to the Williamson Flying Club, the owner of the airport, as “a private social club for local pilots.” Does that conjure images of ascot-wearing local robber barons standing around their private airliners wondering what the poor are doing today?
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Williamson Sodus Airport is a rural airport located in New York about four nautical miles south of the Lake Ontario shore. It has a paved 3,800-foot runway (10 and 28) that’s 60 feet wide. It has two instrument approaches (RNAV 10 and RNAV 28) that permit IFR aircraft to approach down to 600 feet off the ground in instruments. And there’s a dimple in the Class E airspace just above it to permit aircraft to remain in controlled airspace for most of the approach.
It’s more than 20 miles from any other airport and it provides a valuable back door to transient aircraft that experience weather, fuel, mechanical, or other issues.
You can train there and earn your FAA airman certificates and ratings. You can land there for fuel (which is reasonably priced, according to 100LL.com) and probably get something to eat. You can shoot instrument approaches there. The senior members and the cadets (youth age 12-21) of the Williamson Composite Squadron of the US Civil Air Patrol are based in Williamson and occasionally meet at, and conducts operations from, the airport.
Maybe it’s the word “club.” The airport is privately owned by Williamson Flying Club, Inc. Maybe CBS is reading too much into the name with the word “club” in it. I might wonder about that, too, if I weren’t smart enough to do even the most basic additional research. Fortunately, I’m sufficiently smart. Or at least smarter than CBS News.
Williamson Flying Club, Inc. is a duly-chartered nonprofit corporation under the laws of the State of New York since May 22, 1956. It is limited by Section 201 of the state’s nonprofit corporation law to non-business, non-profit activities. The airport was a farm in 1957 when the club seeded the first 1,800-foot grass runway at the present site. And the club has, through its efforts, managed to preserve and build this great example of the American rural airport during the more than 50 years since then.
It’s not odd that the airport is privately owned. In fact, more than 1,000 public-use airports in the US are privately owned. That’s nearly one in five such airports.
Williamson-Sodus Airport is open to the public. I can go land there any time I like and so can any of the other hundreds of thousands of certificated pilots in the US, together with their friends, relatives, employees, patients, rescue subjects, clients, and others. According to AOPA, some 74 aircraft are based at the airport. (The club’s website identifies only four aircraft belonging to the club itself.) Aircraft conduct about 73 operations per day there. About 9% of the traffic is transient traffic from (and to) other places.
The fact of the matter is that there’s almost no way to know by looking at, landing at, or taking off from, the airport that it’s privately-owned. In fact, although I don’t have the actual agreements, Williamson Flying Club probably had to agree to legion FAA requirements in order to obtain the federal funds for the runway work. Requirements that keep the airport open to pilots like me and others if we want, or need, to land there. Requirements that keep the facility dedicated to serving the national air transportation system.
Williamson Flying Club is certainly more than “a private social club for local pilots.” It’s not, as CBS would have the soft-of-skull believe, a Great-Gatsby-esque country club where taxiing aircraft have to give way to polo ponies. And I’m pretty sure that croquet is rarely played there. Williamson Flying Club is a nonprofit organization that runs a vital airport.
CBS then leers at you while saying that the $400,000 project took five days to complete and leers even more when it asks how many unemployed workers were employed by the project. I’m not a paving contractor, but $400,000 doesn’t seem like a lot to surface most of a mile of 60-foot wide runway. You have to buy aggregate and tar and stuff, too. There are material costs. And does CBS need to be reminded that people who are already employed (say, by runway paving contractors) need ongoing work to, uh, stay employed? To keep them from becoming unemployed? Or that having a viable runway for the next 10 years will support the growth of the surrounding communities, to say nothing of those who spend and earn their money at the airport flying, training, receiving maintenance and other services?
CBS goes on to complain about grants to airports in Indiana and Alaska. I don’t know whether $800,000 is too much for an animal abatement program. I suppose we’d need a light twin to take a Canadian Goose in the windshield to find out. We seem pretty interested in abatement programs around New York these days, but only because it made national news.
With respect to Ouzinkie Airport in Alaska, the words “cheap shot” come to mind. Alaska is a remote place. The airport is on Kodiak Island, 20 miles off the shore of what is already a remote place. Ouzinkie, one of a relative few airports on Kodiak Island (yes, island - very important point here) is open to the public and hosts private and government activities, about 40% transient general aviation and 40% air taxi operations, according to the 2006 numbers (the most recent I could get my hands on). I suppose $15 million to build roads wouldn’t have been a problem (it happens all the time elsewhere and benefits even smaller communities). But I wouldn’t expect CBS to understand that airports are the roads of Alaska. If you can’t get on board with putting money into airports in Alaska, you might as well give up that 49th star on the flag and abandon Alaska altogether. I’m not ready to do that. I’m pretty sure that the Alaskans aren’t either.
Folks, Sharyl Attkisson, or whatever junior production assistant wrote the leering, innuendo-ridden story has probably long forgotten about it. She and they are no doubt off on the next quest to become Nancy Grace. Neither she nor they seem to care about the real underlying facts. Pilots and others who understand the facts are left to mop up and hope that a few of the folks who depend on CBS to tell the whole story see this piece and get the rest of the story here.
I know that the public thinks that pilots like Sully Sullenberger spring from the womb with exquisite pilot skills that don’t have to be learned at small airports like Williamson Sodus Airport. And that Alaska is all flat with four-lane divided highways that make flight unnecessary.
But we know better. And CBS should know better. I cry foul. And you should, too.