The next and biggest threat to GA (part 1)

August 20th, 2013 by John Petersen

I’m a pilot.  I flew aircraft carrier-based airplanes in Vietnam and spent many years building my own airplane.  But my day job is that of a professional futurist.  I’ve written three books, worked with governments about how to anticipate surprises, designed national surprise anticipation systems, etc.  I track trends, early indicators and weak signals and develop scenarios about what those inputs might mean

In the mid-2000s I saw the beginning of what is blossoming into a significant threat to flying in the U.S.  During a high-level planning meeting with representatives of DOD the White House, DHS and others who were considering how to set up the airspace around Washington, DC to eliminate the likelihood of another 9/11.  I was the self-appointed representative for general aviation in the room.

It was illuminating.  The arrogance and ignorance about GA of the group that would affect so many private pilots was rather amazing.  Their position essentially was, “We don’t care what the implications are to pilots – or the economy, for that matter – we are the government and we’ll decide.”

Since then I have watched and chronicled how our government, in the name of “fighting terrorism”, has systematically eliminated our ability to do things that common sense tells us are protected by the Constitution. (See this, this, and this, three articles from The Austin Chronicle by Michael Ventura that catalog the effective negation of most of the major amendments to the Constitution.)  What this means, by the way, is that under the present rules of operation, government agencies like DHS and CBP believe that they can stop and search anyone, anytime for any reason that they want, which why they are sending heavily armed and SWATed-up teams into train and bus stations and highways to randomly stop and search individuals with clearly no probable cause.

The systematic intrusion into tracking in real time and collecting every bit of information on all communications and commercial transactions is ubiquitous and comprehensive in terms that the vast majority of citizens do not understand.  For example, the NSA data center that is being built south of Salt Lake City is literally designed to hold 100 years’ worth of all of the transactions, movements and communications of the complete lives of all Americans, organized in such a way that at will, an analyst can chronologically array a complete lifetime of a selected individual – where they went, what they said, what they purchased and what they read and watched.

This trend has grown very rapidly at an unprecedented rate and there has been a clear attempt to widen the information capturing net to encompass every area of each of our lives.

That brings us to GA.

At a time when individuals, automobiles and trucks, ships and every other form of transportation are being tracked, one mode of transportation stands out as not being within the surveillance net: VFR flying, especially without a VFR flight plan.  In ways that are significantly not the same with other modes of transportation, an aircraft squawking 1200 says nothing about where it came from, where it is going and who and what is onboard.  It is hard to believe, in light of the extraordinary, broad based trends that dominate every other area of our lives that the government will not try to remedy that.

(My next posting will address this trend and what we can do about it.)

John Petersen

John L. Petersen is a futurist, strategist, and pilot. He is a former aircraft carrier based naval aviator, aircraft builder, and author of three books. He founded The Arlington Institute, edits and publishes the free e-newsletter FUTUREdition, and is the chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Greg Johnson

    I’ve always marvelled at the legal system’s willingness to debate our freedoms of expression. It seems to be the free press’s most conservative moment. I consider VFR flying to be one of my most cherished expressions of freedom and continue a tireless work to share it with others. The most common question I get is “who do you have to tell if you are going to fly somewhere?” . I always tell them ” the same people you report to when you go somewhere in your automobile. You know, flying is safer than driving.”

  • Chuck Leathers

    Everyone who did not see this coming right after 9/11, please raise your hand. Everyone was so ready to give the government free reign to “keep us safe” the most Americans clamored for Congress to take freedoms away. At this point, the United States of America has locked itself up in what amounts to a jail cell for protective custody. Meanwhile the terrorists we so fear roam the world freely. So who really won this fight?
    Compare the cost of 9/11 in terms of lives and equipment against the time we waste in line boarding an airline flight or entering government buildings or stadiums, the cost of two wars (one of them totally unnecessary), and the freedom of movement and privacy we have given up.
    Is perfect safety really worth all this? Most Americans will say yes, just keep us safe. Between government’s likely ban on personal flight and the advent of unmanned systems making pilots obsolete, General Aviation is toast. I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

    • Don

      Don’t give up by saying your going enjoy it while you can. We must not let our freedoms be taken away so easily. It is the people who run this country not the elected government officials who think they run the country. When enough of us have had enough of the bureaucracy we can put a stop to it. It is the next generation we must protect now from the freedom stealing bureaucrats in Washington.

      • Chuck Leathers

        I’d agree with you if it was the government doing this to us, but it’s not. We’re doing it to ourselves by insisting on being guaranteed perfect safety. We demanded to be “kept safe” after 9/11 and the Bush administration gladly obliged by consolidating the whole intelligence community and its data into one huge entity thus removing the unplanned but effective firewalls that existed between competing agencies.
        Unfortunately, the apparatus is so well entrenched now it probably can’t be dismantled and the soccer moms would revolt if you tried.
        The next generation needs to protect itself and that begins with getting over being shielded from birth against anything bad happening. The post-war generations have brought us to the point where our society feels entitled to safety at all costs. Kids are born with helmets, pads and trust funds now. Is it any wonder that they stay home and live in a virtual world instead of going out and actually learning to fly, for instance?
        The world is not Disneyland and there is no e-ticket admission to life. Our freedoms are gone until we stop demanding that they be taken away to “keep us safe”. I’m not holding my breath.

  • Don Arnold

    I still don’t get the airspace thing. Here in Vt, some were advocating a zone around our nuclear plant. What would it have accomplished? I agree, if you have a battery of Patriots on site, the zone would tell you who to shoot at. Without a credible physical deterrent, what does a restriction actually do? For that matter, an armed fighter watched an airplane hit the Pentagon. Much more thought concerning actual scenarios is needed.

  • James Carlson

    We’re already there. Mode S (on which ADS-B is essentially based) includes a unique identifier code for each transponder. You might set your 12-bit squawk to 1200 when flying, but a Mode S transponder will include 24 bonus bits that are a serial number identifying *you* when interrogated with ATCRBS “mode S all call.”

  • Keith Wood

    When I was a kid in the 1960s, we were told that the difference between the US and the USSR was “freedom.” They said that the poor serfs in the Soviet Union had to get permission from the government to travel, that “block watchers” spied on their neighbors and reported to their leaders, and that everything they had was rationed.

    Today, the government decides who is and is not permitted to get on a Greyhound bus or drive a car, they have a domestic spying program which Kruschev couldn’t even have DREAMED of, and they tell you what you may and may not own, eat, drink, and how much water your toilet is permitted to use.

    Every government office displays the American flag — what do they think it STANDS FOR???