Outlaw flying in the American west

August 15, 2013

Old Jules tells a great story here about cranking up the old Cessna and climbing high enough to watch the vast powers of the U.S. military run training operations in the New Mexico Desert.

Pilots, bless ’em, tend toward the ornery end of the scale.  That’s what you want if something breaks on your airplane.  You want a guy at the stick who says, “Dagnab it, let’s see how to get out of this one safely.”  (Shades of Flight.  A great movie, really — did you see it?)

This is the place to insert the heroics of pilots in various times of stress, Wally Stewart and his crew bringing their B-24 bomber back over the Mediterrannean and dropping it perfectly on the runway, where it fell apart from the bullet holes [See KUED resources here].  That brave American Airlines crew in the DC-10 over Detroit, Flight 96, who lost hydraulic control when the rear cargo door blew out, and after a string of blue talking, brought the plane down safely (one flight attendant died in the explosion). Those United Airlines pilots who brought the DC-10 Flight 232 down in Sioux City, Iowa, after the rear engine flew apart and destroyed all control of the tail and rudder.  That brave U.S. Airways crew that executed a perfect landing in the Hudson River with Flight 1549.

I think if you talk with pilots much, you get the idea that they like things a little on the edge.  They don’t develop those cool, steely nerves that save lives by having nothing go wrong, ever, or by not pushing their aircraft where the wonks at the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., say aircraft should not be pushed.  We hope they do all this pushing in flight simulators; but we also know better.

Cessnas, and just violating some of the rules, don’t deserve those accolades, really.  These stories tell how pilots might develop the skills the brave guys use later.  But they are stories, nevertheless, and they deserve to be told.  They may not save your life flying, but they’ll enrich your life, and help you get through the stuff here on the ground.

So go read Old Jules’s tale.

Then come back here; here are a couple of stories, true as I remember them (a couple of which really should be tracked down; the American west of the latter-half the of 20th century is full of these stories, and they need to be told).

I told Old Jules:

What’s outlaw in flying?

Two observations.

Years ago, while I was staffing the Senate, my brother, Jerry Jones, who spent a good deal of time in his last 20 years in Page, Arizona, called to ask me to check in on a Senate hearing on some FAA issue or other.  Turns out someone — National Park Service, perhaps? — was asking FAA to significantly tighten rules on flying around NPS stuff, including around Rainbow Bridge National Monument.  Apart from the usual issues of air traffic congestion and safety around conflicts between “fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft” (airplanes and helicopters) in and around the Grand Canyon, there were complaints about small plane pilots flying under Rainbow bridge.  The thing really is massive, and you could put the dome of the U.S. Capitol under it, so it’s about 500 feet high . . . what barnstorming pilot could resist?

A somewhat skeptical group of senators quizzed the FAA and Park Service guys on what the problem was, other than noise and hubbub to hikers (who had hiked a mile from the marina on Lake Powell).  About that time Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, shuffled into the hearing.  Goldwater was very protective of grand things to see in Arizona, like Rainbow Bridge, and he was also a pilot.

Barry Goldwater, U.S. Senator (AZ-R)

Barry Goldwater, U.S. Senator, R-Arizona. Wikipedia image.

At some point, one of the officials making a case to yank licenses from pilots who pulled the illegal stunt made a comment that questioned the sanity of any pilot who would do such a thing.  Goldwater sat upright.  You mean any pilot who would do such a thing is crazy? Goldwater asked.  Well, yes — and we don’t want crazy people flying airplanes, the official said.  How about such crazy people representing the people of Arizona and passing judgment on your proposals? Goldwater asked.  Then he said he didn’t want an answer to that, that he had some grave reservations about the proposal, and he left the hearing.

I later caught a conversation with the senator in a hallway, in which someone asked him directly if he’d ever flown under Rainbow Bridge, and he said something like, not enough times that the FAA needs to worry about it.

Brother Jerry started a public service effort in his Page days, Page Attacks Trash, a project to clean up litter in and around Page, on the Navajo Reservation, and in the Lake Powell National Recreation Area (NRA) and Rainbow Bridge NM.  It was a great clean-up effort, got the support of the Salt River Project (who operate the Navajo Generating Station in Page); it was big time.  Iron Eyes Cody, who did the famous anti-littering ad featuring the tear in the eye of an American Indian, sometimes dropped in to help out.

Jerry arranged for some television Public Service Announcements (PSAs) filmed in and around Lake Powell, to fight littering.  One of the spots was shot at Rainbow Bridge.  Jerry’s health had been failing for years, but he’d get his cane and make the hike, just to watch the proceedings and keep it all going well.  They finished the spot, broke sticks (as they used to say in the filming biz), and were walking back to the boats at the marina, Jerry and his cane far in the rear.  Just before the film crew rounded the bend, they heard a small airplane buzzing around and the tell-tale cut of the engine, to lose altitude, before roaring the engine to pass under the stone formation.  One of the cameramen had some footage left, and had the presence of mind to turn on the camera and film the thing.

Well, the Park Service and FAA were outraged to hear of the event.  They subpoenaed the film footage, and blew up every frame to see if they could get the tail number on the airplane.  To be honest, I don’t know how that turned out.  I do know that on my wall I have a large photograph of my late brother, two by two-and-a-half feet, waving to the cameraman, with Rainbow Bridge in the background.  That frame didn’t have any useful information, and the law gave him the photo.

The Rainbow Brigde National Monument

Rainbow Bridge National Monument; no, I wouldn’t try to fly a plane under it, either. You could, if you had to, but the authorities would probably track you down like a woodpecker and yank your license. Wikipedia image

Two:

The West Utah Desert remains desolate. On the border between Nevada and Utah, there ain’t much of nothin’. A few roads connect a few ranches, but there’s a good reason U.S. 50 and 6 out there is known as “the loneliest highway in the world.” Bandits might be regarded as welcome company out there sometimes.

Anyway, it was expensive to run copper wires out there, say, 50 miles, to an isolated ranch house, or a lone gas station, or some other building said to be a business. So mostly, AT&T didn’t do it. People who lived and worked out there just had to get along without phone service. Enter a guy named Art Silver Brothers (I think; my memory fades, too), who figured out that radiophone service worked okay. Give people a radiophone — a device which existed then, but which required several pounds of gear and a lot of juice, relatively — and they could dial up the “local” grocery store to check to be sure the milk was good this week, before driving 50 miles to get some dairy whitener for the coffee.

A photo from Beehive Telephone in 2012, showing their service area.

A photo from Beehive Telephone in 2012, showing a part of their service area in Utah, or Nevada, or both. The company still exists!  On their website, they say:  “

Art strung wires where he could, using REA-installed power poles, or fence poles, or whatever he could, and thin, light copper wiring. His Beehive Phone Company was one of the last truly independent phone operations in the U.S., serving a grossly underserved area with patchy service. He didn’t get rich doing it.  He was the company’s only employee most of the time.

Stringing copper over 50 miles for one phone, a company can have difficulty maintaining such lines. Art had a pilot’s license, and he learned he could spot downed lines and other trouble from the air . . . and it was just one step to landing his small airplane on the local road, fixing the problem, and taking off again.

Well, that got the ire of the FAA. They said he shouldn’t do that. They argued that he was impeding traffic an imposing dangers. He said he was keeping lifelines open for people in far-flung places, and it was not a problem for traffic on roads where there might be two vehicles a week passing by. FAA paid for traffic studies on a bunch of those roads; and they enlisted the FCC to try to shut down Silver’s operations.

Remember, part of the system was wired, and part was radio. Turns out that in those pre-cellular days, the radio frequencies Silver used were in the “emergency” spectrum — radio frequencies used by cops and firefighters in places where cops and firefighters existed. FCC took to taping the “phone conversations” of Art’s customers, and in yet another hearing in the Senate, charged that Art was abusing emergency frequencies. The star audio was a tape recording of a woman ordering a significant amount of liquor from a liquor store that served probably six counties in eastern Nevada. FCC argued that obviously was not an emergency, and it amounted to an abuse of spectrum, and it was enough of an abuse to shut down the phone company.

Art finally got his chance to explain. Someone quizzed him about that liquor order, and whether that was appropriate use of emergency radio spectrum.

Well, Art started, the woman making the liquor order was the owning madam of [a] western Nevada brothel, set way in the hell in the middle of nowhere. “And I gotta tell you, if you run a whore house, and you run out of whiskey, that’s an emergency.”

Those were good days to attend hearings in Washington. The Tea Party has ruined all that.

That’s my story; the true facts are probably better.

More:

Jerry Jones and Rainbow Bridge

A bad snapshot of the picture on my wall, Jerry Jones waving from the path in Rainbow Bridge National Monument, moments after a small aircraft flew under the Bridge.


What news organizations need to know about “no-fly” zones over disaster areas

April 4, 2013

Lots of chatter around the internet today on the discovery that the Federal Aviation Agency posted a notice making the area over the oil spill in Arkansas off limits to aircraft.

Some people claimed they were certain that it was because Exxon-Mobil paid to get a special favor; others wondered why the government would be complicit in such a deal. Several of the comments linked to aerial photos of the spill, and said ‘obviously’ Exxon Mobil doesn’t want photos of the severity  of the spill to get out.  Bill McKibben’s tweet alerted me to the controversy (take a look at that video, too).

Actually, it’s common procedure to make sport flying and other unnecessary flying over disasters, off limits — FAA has a special set of regulations for that.  Rescuers and disaster fighters, and relief workers,  don’t want sight-seers on visual flight rules posing hazards to flights necessary to work on disaster relief or clean up of a spill of a toxic or hazardous substance.

But this doesn’t mean that news organizations cannot fly — in fact, there is a special regulation to ALLOW news aircraft over the zone, for photography and other reports.

Here’s the notice at FAA’s website (I’m sure that link will be unworkable in a few weeks):

FAA notification, NOTAMs notice of Mayflower, Arkansas, temporary flight restrictions; screen grab April 3, 2013.

FAA notification, NOTAMs notice of Mayflower, Arkansas, temporary flight restrictions; screen grab April 3, 2013.

Most announcements of restrictions of any public activity by a federal agency contain a notice of from where the agency draws that authority; I didn’t include it in the screen grab, but FAA notes the authority flows from Title 14 CFR section 91.137(a)(2).  That’s the Code of Federal Regulations, the set of volumes that list all the regulations the federal government has.  This was also published in the Federal Register — and I suspect the NOTAMs is also published there — but CFR is the more permanent set of books for finding government rules.

In the interests of open government, of course the FAA makes these rules available online.  They are available at several sites.  Here’s the meat of the regulation:

Section 2. Temporary Flight Restrictions in the Vicinity of Disaster/Hazard Areas (14 CFR Section 91.137)

19-2-1. PURPOSE

This section prescribes guidelines and procedures regarding the management of aircraft operations in the vicinity of disaster/hazard areas in accordance with 14 CFR Section 91.137. TFRs issued under this section are for disaster/hazard situations that warrant regulatory measures to restrict flight operations for a specified amount of airspace, on a temporary basis, in order to provide protection of persons or property in the air or on the ground.

19-2-2. RATIONALE

TFRs in accordance with 14 CFR Section 91.137 are issued when necessary to:

a. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(1) – Protect persons and property on the surface or in the air from an existing or imminent hazard associated with an incident on the surface when the presence of low flying aircraft would magnify, alter, spread, or compound that hazard.

b. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(2) – Provide a safe environment for the operation of disaster relief aircraft.

c. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(3) – Prevent an unsafe congestion of sightseeing and other aircraft above an incident or event that may generate a high degree of public interest.

NOTE-
This provision applies only to disaster/hazard incidents of limited duration that would attract an unsafe congestion of sightseeing aircraft.

Specific  rules of restrictions, who in the FAA declares them, who can grant waivers, and to who the restrictions apply, get spelled out following that  part.

Notice that, generally, these restrictions apply only to flights below 1,000 feet.  A good camera in a television station’s helicopter can get a lot of great shots from 1,000 feet out (three football fields) — this is a distance often seen in the videos of police car chases.  So it’s not a complete ban.

Savvy news organizations will know how to get news photos using the specific exemption for news aircraft, with procedures spelled out so the FAA knows it’s a news gathering operation; I’ve put the critical clauses in red:

c. Section 91.137(a)(3). Restrictions issued in accordance with this section prohibit all aircraft from operating in the designated area unless at least one of the following conditions is met:

1. The operation is conducted directly to or from an airport within the area, or is necessitated by the impracticability of VFR flight above or around the area due to weather or terrain, and the operation is not conducted for the purpose of observing the incident or event. Notification must be given to the ATC facility that was specified in the NOTAM for coordination with the official in charge of the activity.

2. The aircraft is operating under an ATC approved IFR flight plan.

3. The aircraft is carrying incident or event personnel, or law enforcement officials.

4. The aircraft is carrying properly accredited news representatives and, prior to entering that area, a flight plan is filed with FSS or the ATC facility specified in the NOTAM. Flight plans must include aircraft identification, type, and color; radio frequencies to be used; proposed times of entry to and exit from the TFR area; the name of news media or organization and purpose of flight.

Well-run news organizations already know this; in an age when more and more news rooms operate on a shoe string, it may be that this information about how to cover disasters is not passed along in the newsroom, though.  So I’m reposting it here, so you’ll know, so news organizations now, so environmental reporters can get a copy of the regulations  to carry with them when they head out to cover spills, fires, floods, and other disasters.

I’m waiting, too.  It’s only a matter of time until somebody figures out a local kid has a good radio control helicopter, and it can carry a GoPro camera; or until a local news station invests in a news-gathering drone.  Here in Texas, we’ve already had one environmental disaster uncovered by a drone operated by a guy just checking on real estate.

If you see some footage of the disaster filmed on or after April 3, would you let us know, in comments?

And spread the word to any reporters you know.

More:

Amateur video of the spill:


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