Viewport: The Urge to Tinker
- By George C. Larson
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
The Federal Aviation Regulations represent the rule of law in the air. They govern all forms of flight, and like most regulations, they contain an equal measure of good advice and courtesies mixed with constraints on the occasional impulse (for example, buzzing your in-laws’ house). But a law or regulation can’t prevent a nasty outcome—not directly anyway. All it can do is stipulate a penalty after the fact. And the same holds true for the FARs: They have never directly prevented an accident, which, by definition, entails some regulation being violated. In truth, we rely on the human instinct for survival to provide a happy ending.
We’d better maintain some perspective on the relationship between regulation and desired outcome because from time to time the urge to freshen up the FARs becomes irresistible. That urge seems strong right now, as the Federal Aviation Administration is staring at huge changes in the world of aviation.
In some nations, the important role of air traffic management—Job One for our own FAA—has been privatized. Many advocate a similar approach here and elsewhere, despite strident opposition from many who use the system. If it comes, it will be the most significant change in the agency’s history.
Challenges arise in the marketplace as well. “Fractional” sales of corporate aircraft, in which a company buys, say, a one-fourth share of a business jet, have enabled many companies that could not otherwise afford it to own an airplane. But charter operators complain that the stricter rules governing charter flying increase their cost. They think the charter rules (Part 135) should also apply to fractionals. Members of the National Business Aviation Association recently voted their endorsement of such a change, perhaps in part because they fear a threat to the rules that govern non-revenue-earning flights (Part 91).
Airplane operators worry about wholesale changes in rules because they fear the revision process itself, which is usually lengthy. It can also lead to unpredictable results when various interest groups see themselves in conflict with each other. Regulations can emerge that may promise improved safety but with costs and complexity users are not willing to bear.
Realizing all this, fliers are finding ways to enhance human performance based on self-help. One example can be seen in aerobatic pilot Debbie Gary’s account of a formation flying school. The guiding principle is that if your own act is cleaned up, rule-makers won’t be so tempted to fine-tune it.
An experienced airline pilot once told me: “Flying involves being thousands of feet in the air, going hundreds of miles an hour. Of course it’s dangerous.” But thousands of us do it every day, and it’s remarkable how often everything turns out all right. That’s the single most dangerous thing about flying and the reason that a pilot’s experience may not be a perfect predictor of performance. While we can’t be perpetual novices, success heaped upon success eventually dulls the wariness that we are blessed with when we’re new at something. The history of accidents is filled with lapses by pilots deemed so capable that investigators are left shaking their heads. Still, it would be futile to look to the rules and regulations alone in the hope that we can perfect human nature.
—George C. Larson