Freedom to Fly

I took a friend for a flight up the VFR corridor over the Hudson River, which puts you at skyscraper height along the west side of Manhattan – in other words a trip certainly on the ten best list of things you can do with a small airplane. Her reaction was one of awe, of course, but she also asked the same thing most people ask when I take them on this same flight: “Is this legal?”

How strange it is that we here in America (the supposed home of the free) have become so accustomed to the government looming over us, watching us, and regulating us, that we now expect the government to be lurking whenever we exercise our freedom. We are always astonished whenever we find that something perfectly harmless and enjoyable is not prohibited by some obscure federal regulation. What’s happened to us?

Flying to me has always seemed like one of the most “American” things we can do. By that I don’t mean simply that Americans invented powered flight, or that we (for the time being) remain the country most open to it, nor of course that flying is just for Americans. By “American” I mean only that flying is a perfect expression of liberty, which (again, for the time being) is an American ideal. Another American ideal is self-reliance, of which flying is also a perfect example. In a airplane, who else is there to rely upon but ourselves? Like our ancestors on the plains (pun intended) we live by our own wits and abilities.

So let’s try to remember that as pilots we are not “given” freedom to fly our planes. Freedom is not something granted by governmental fiat. Freedom is not an entitlement. Freedom is not Obamacare nor a farm subsidy nor a food stamp. Freedom can’t be given; it can only be taken away. While I consent to limit my freedom to fly my airplane, to a sensible extent, we need to remain wary that the natural tendency of government is to limit and regulate freedom, particularly as government grows: freedom is what feeds the bureaucracy, which shits out regulation after regulation.

Still, the general public will support increased regulation of general aviation for the simple reason that it believes flying is dangerous, and because the weltanschauung of our age suggests we are more reliant on government than ourselves.

Yes, flying is dangerous, but (with apologies to Walter White) we are the danger. Pilots don’t die (usually) because their planes blow up or because Zeus knocks them from the sky with thunderbolts. Pilots die because they’re stupid or ill-prepared or in over their heads or just not paying attention – in other words, because pilots are human beings. Human nature, however, is rather hard to regulate out of existence.

Again, flying is a perfect example of American self-reliance, the flipside to which is: you’re on your own, buddy – no one’s there to wipe your ass for you. If you do stupid pilot tricks and crash, or if you fly into a mountain while you’re picking your nose, well, the gods of aviation say tough shit.

Yes, flying small planes is dangerous. But so is skateboarding, and bicycling, and crossing the street, and eating sushi, and driving on a New Jersey interstate. Frankly, I’d rather put my life in my own hands in my own plane, knowing all the risks, and preparing for them myself, than to put my life in the hands of some asshole on the freeway texting his girlfriend while he tries to pass me in the right lane . . .

Because flying is dangerous, we are always open to attacks like the recent one in the New York Times, calling from more regulation of general aviation. This article (written about American pilots by an English non-pilot) concludes that the FAA “should require all general aviation pilots to carry liability insurance,” so that the insurance industry can regulate us by proxy. The Times, of course, like our English and European friends, has a great fondness for government and a belief that enough taxes and bureaucracy can make the world a perfect place, so their kneejerk reaction to any social problem, real or perceived, is always the same: more regulation! They won’t be happy until we’re all driving padded electric cars back and forth to Whole Foods.

Americans have (had?) a different social contract than Europeans. Whereas they are more content to surrender liberty to their governments in exchange for social services, we Americans (for the nonce) retain our love of freedom and our historic distrust of kings. Flying reflects that. Even if I were willing to pay their $20 a gallon for avgas, would I ever be permitted to flying up the Thames or the Seine at a thousand feet? Could I circle the Eiffel Tower as I frequently circle the “Lady”? For that matter, could I ever just decide one morning to hop in my plane and fly seven hundred miles across the country without asking for bureaucratic approval?

Unlike the New York Times, I’m not sure I have an answer to the “danger” inherent in flying small planes. I am sure, however, that in a so-called free society we ought to be permitted to weigh the risk against the reward on our own, without the imprimatur of some guy behind a desk in Washington. Sometimes the risk will catch up to you, sure, but can anyone here say Babar S should not have been permitted to take his flight? He took a risk and died doing what he loved for good and valid reasons both private and public. And how beautiful and poetic that a Pakistani immigrant should help teach me (a native Texan whose family that settled this country) true American virtues.

Liberty of course is not simply doing whatever one wants without a care for others; my freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose. Laws do and should exist to limit our exercise of liberty to protect others when reasonably possible. There should be and are laws that protect me from that guy on the freeway, ineffective though they may be, just as there should be laws that limit how and when we fly our planes.

But even so I’m inclined to believe that, given that the greatest danger to a pilot is the pilot, and given that of all the people in the world the pilot himself has the strongest interest in his own well-being, general aviation – more so than most human activities – seems the most amenable to self-regulation. In the case of general aviation, self-regulation takes a form of cruel Darwinism: the fittest pilots will survive, while the unfit will crash and burn. And so mote it be.

The only fly in this ointment, however, is that unfit pilots sometimes take out unwitting passengers with them, or little girls walking on the beach with their fathers. These types of horror stories – which make the papers more regularly than the ordinary but far more numerous car crash on the freeway – are what fan public resentment against general aviation. And I for one can’t blame the public for their resentment in these cases. Freedom includes the right to kill yourself, but not others.

Since even today you can’t fly within a thousand miles of DC without a permission slip, I fully expected that after 9/11 the Hudson corridor would be shut down. I don’t know what lonely friend of GA in Washington fought to keep it open, but whoever it was deserves to be canonized or at least have a major airport named after him. Perhaps whoever it was understood that once the bad guys force us to give up our liberty in the interest of some airy-fairy notion of “safety and security” the bad guys win.

Someone should tell that the guy at LGA who wants to give me a body cavity search next time I’m forced to fly commercial.

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