GA's defence of the pilots who strayed into Washington's airspace is way off beam. It's time for some serious security-oriented training

The US general aviation community has been busy defending itself, and attacking flawed reporting by the mass media, in the wake of last week's incursion into the sensitive airspace over Washington DC by a Cessna 150, causing evacuations of the White House and Congress.

Industry groups led by the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) leapt into action to defend GA against renewed accusations it is a security risk, pointing out that the two-seat Cessna weighs less than a small car and could inflict little damage.

This argument misses the point by a mile. From a security viewpoint even an aircraft as small as a Cessna 150 could scatter radioactive material or spray biological agents over the seat of US government.

Poor flight planning is blamed for the unintentional incursion. But it is inconceivable that any US general aviation pilot, particularly one living in the crowded north east, could be unaware of the sensitivity of airspace around the capital. And it is hard to believe an aircraft can take off, or continue its cross-country flight, with a failed radio, a claim the errant pilot reportedly advanced in his defence.

It is time for GA to get professional. AOPA and the other industry groups who lobby the White House and Congress to protect and promote freedoms that GA users enjoy should now divert some of their resources to a concerted campaign to provide security awareness training for all pilots. And it should be conducted face-to-face, not just broadcast over the internet to an unconfirmed audience. There can be no excuse for poor flight planning. Security-oriented training should be mandatory, and should be backed by the threat of losing the right to fly.

This is not draconian. In the public's eye general aviation encompasses everything from an ultralight to a global-range business jet. There is more than just freedoms of weekend fliers at stake here. The entire industry could be strangled by security regulations unless it steps up to the challenge of creating a more professional pilot credo.

Ditch the political baggage

The political baggage pinned on the US Army's fixed-wing transport ambitions is starting to outgrow the programme's relatively small payload requirement. Already, the year-old Future Cargo Aircraft (FCA) programme is viewed as a litmus test on two hot-button issues: the "Buy America" debate and the division of roles and missions between the army and the US Air Force.

So far, FCA has dodged a protectionist backlash in Congress, perhaps for staying under the radar of the "Buy American" crowd and because there appears to be no purely US aircraft that meets the army's requirement. The army also seems to have won the first turf battle with the USAF, securing approval to buy the first 33 aircraft out of more than 125 required. Continuing this trend is soon to become more problematic, judging from the industry buzz heard at the Army Aviation Association of America's annual convention in Orlando last week.

Buy American proponents may well tolerate the sale of either an Italian or Spanish transport – such as the Alenia C-27J or EADS Casa C-295 or CN-235 – when each is partnered with a major US manufacturer. After all, replacing the army's British-made Shorts C-23 with another foreign designed aircraft perhaps assembled on US soil seems to be a fairly benign concept. But whispers that a US prime contractor such as Boeing may seek to partner with either Chinese or Russian manufacturers to enter the FCA competition will surely provoke a protectionist response.

At the same time, the USAF may allow the army to buy a fixed-wing transport strictly as a small-payload utility replacement, but that could be the limit. The army still wants to buy perhaps 100 more aircraft.

Industry rivals on FCA are excited about rumoured army plans to buy special mission variants now monopolised by the USAF, such as mini-gunships and electronic warfare and maritime surveillance packages. FCA helpfully comes along as the US political and military establishment needs to come to grips with the allowable limits of both global competition in the defence market and the army's growing need for its own fixed-wing fleet. That's quite a heavy load for a tactical airlifter.

Source: Flight International