Aerial Photography: A Valuable Tool for Environmental Assessment

The power of aerial images was first discovered with the earliest forms of manned flight, such as with surveillance balloons launched at Civil War battle sites. Since, we have seen the means of obtaining aerial images evolve, from balloon, to aircraft, to satellite, and most recently to tiny drones. But, we are also seeing a trend where the state, represented here by FAA as the agency intended to regulate all aviation issues, is in fact impeding the right to take aerial images.

The images we can collect offer huge benefits, such as the efficient identification of environmental damages, or even just the assessment of land use patterns. One artist who has focused on this is Mishka Henner. Born in 1976 in Brussels, Belgium and currently based in Manchester, England, Mr. Henner has done considerable work with satellite images, sometimes doing color enhancements and other edits to create images that encourage public understanding and discussion.

For example, a recent article at EcoWatch focuses on fracking.

20141215scp.. Surreal Aerial Photos re fracking impacts, EcoWatch 12-15-14 article

(click on the image to view the article)

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner pic, San-Andres-Oil-Field-Texas

San Andres oil field, Hockley County, Texas. Photo credit: Mishka Henner

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner closeup pic, San-Andres-Oil-Field-Texas

San Andres oil field, Hockley County, Texas (detail). Photo credit: Mishka Henner

Another recent article at EcoWatch focuses on confined animal feedlots, common in many rural areas of the United States.

20141215scp.. Stunning Aerial Photos re factory fams, EcoWatch 11-28-14 article

(click on the image to view the article)

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner pic, Feedyard in Randall County TX

Randall County Feedyard, Texas. Photo credit: Mishka Henner

Oddly, the trends have been against the right of individual citizens to use aerial imagery. For example, FAA has been aggressively threatening fines and sanctions against any individuals who might use drones for even trivial, hobby-like jobs. And, too, we are watching larger interests (such as ag corporations, police agencies, and energy companies) play their legislators to produce laws that make it illegal to photograph their activities, even when these same larger interests are clearly breaking the laws of the land.

Here is an excerpt from an article about Ag-Gag laws, Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms:

…Industrial farming, especially of animals, tends to be hidden from public view — and under so-called ag-gag laws, that secrecy could become law.

The laws, so far enacted by Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri, make it illegal to take undercover photos or videos on farms. Some proposed ag-gag laws would also cover zoos and puppy mills, and would officially label anyone who breaks them as a terrorist.

How might images like Henner’s be affected by ag-gag laws? It’s not clear, said Matthew Liebman, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal advocacy group. Texas has no such law, so Henner’s images are safe. In states that do, they could be protected by legal recognition of satellite-level altitudes as public space. Under some proposed laws, though, gathering any imagery without farmer consent is a crime. Taking a snapshot of a feedlot from a window seat in a commercial jetliner would technically be illegal.

Public opinion may be turning against ag-gag laws. Of 11 proposed in state legislatures this year, each was either defeated or tabled until the next legislative session. Utah’s law is being challenged as unconstitutional. “Something’s wrong in the Land of the Free when the act of looking is itself being condemned and punished,” said Henner.

As things stand now, other countries such as China are way ahead of the U.S. For example, a June 2014 Bloomberg article, China Catches Industrial Polluters With Drone Missions, notes how the state there is catching  environmental crimes, commonly by steelmakers.

See also:

A Rare Victory for an Aviation Security Whistleblower?

On the same day that Republicans scored nationwide victories and control of the Senate, the Supreme Court heard the case of whistleblower Robert MacLean. We will have to wait for their official legal decision, but the NY Times article, USA Today article, and other news reports indicate the Justices leaned strongly in favor of Mr. MacLean, in what may be a rare victory for Whistleblowers.

But, here’s something to think about. There is a saying, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” It has been nearly nine years since TSA retaliated against Mr. MacLean. He spoke up about an aviation safety issue way back in mid-2003, while employed at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). TSA fired him in early 2006. He then went to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), but they did all they could to pretend his case was not within MSPB jurisdiction. [NOTE: this is standard operating procedure at this miserably failed federal agency; MSPB does almost nothing to protect merit principles.] MSPB issued their initial decision in August 2008, rejecting MacLean’s appeal. So, MacLean went to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where a panel of judges quickly determined MSPB should properly hear the Appeal. Mr. MacLean then went to the full MSPB (in DC), where he was again rejected in June 2009.

Another round with MSPB then followed. Same pattern: an Appeal to the regional MSPB, a nearly-automatic rejection, and a Petition for Review to the full MSPB. This was during 2010 and 2011. It produced the same predictable tone-deaf MSPB outcome: MSPB sustained the TSA firing. So, MacLean appealed higher, this time to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where a panel of three Judges ruled unanimously for MacLean. In a concurring decision, Judge Evan Wallach wrote: “Mr. MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public.” [see the analysis, by POGO]

Common sense should have led the leadership at TSA to clean up their act, but they did not. Instead, they doubled down. It seems that bureaucrats have plenty of resources (spend all the time and money you want) and nothing to lose (who cares about accountability). So, TSA filed an appeal, this time to the Supreme Court. TSA has its own team of lawyers, but on matters like this, the ‘lawyering’ is handed off to a higher office. The Deputy Solicitor General tasked with defending TSA stupidity, Ian Gershengorn, was thus given the crummy job of arguing on behalf of, well, TSA’s vindictive stupidity. It made for an easy day for nine Supreme Court Justices. One comment by Justice Sonya Sotomayor: “The facts are very much in your favor.”

In time, we will learn if Mr. Gershengorn’s weeks of preparation will prove to be just one more example of pointless government waste by an arrogant and out-of-control federal agency; yet another Publicly-funded ordeal … just like the abusive retaliation TSA and MSPB continue to deal out to MacLean. This has been going on for nearly nine years now. What a colossal waste….

We Need a Change

Maybe the new Congress will start taking their work seriously, and start making federal agencies like TSA clean up their act. If the new Congress does, well, good for them. And, if they don’t, they deserve to be voted out in the next election.

When employees in any profession, be it aviation, food safety, nuclear energy, or whatever, put their job on the line to speak up about a safety or fraud issue within a federal agency, they should not become targets for agency retaliation. And we, as the public who pays for and is allegedly ‘served’ by these agencies, should expect high levels of agency performance (and transparency), to know that our money is not being wasted and our personal safety is not being endangered.

And, FAA is a Ripe Target for A Very Close Look by the New Congress

In the past decade, FAA brutally destroyed the careers of some of its bravest employees, who responsibly blew the whistle about fraud and safety issues. Many were fired in the same timeframe as Mr. MacLean, and many others were fired later, especially in the 2008-2009 presidential transition period. These people were wronged, but even worse, FAA and MSPB have done NOTHING to make these people whole. Here is a short list, of just a few: Gabe Bruno. Ed Jeszka. Jeff Lewis. Peter Nesbitt. David Pardo. Glen Siwarski. Anne Whiteman. Rich Wyeroski.

…And, who knows how many others….

Back in 1981, President Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers when their union, PATCO, ordered a strike. The wheels of political change moved slowly, but eventually thousands were hired back. In the early to mid-1990’s, many in their forties and even fifties were rehired, given new jobs at FAA ATC facilities. It has been done; it should be done again, but this time for a far smaller number of far more deserving employees.

Just because FAA and MSPB are broken, does not mean the Public cannot expect these federal agencies to get it right, at least some of the time. These FAA Whistleblowers are all good people, and they deserve to be appreciated. Their careers should not have been arbitrarily destroyed, nor should they have been re-victimized by a broken MSPB, just because they each bravely spoke up to serve the Public.

Maybe, just maybe, this new Congress will put the right pressure on FAA to clean up their act and make these inspectors, controllers, and other FAA Whistleblowers whole.

Here are a few comments submitted to the 11/4/2014 New York Times article by Adam Liptak:
If the court rules the way that it seems they might, i.e., to once again whack the bureaucratic hands of power, maybe, finally, people will wake up to the undue power that we have handed to this unelected and unaccountable fourth branch of government. Far too much legislation is passed that simply hands the keys of power to these people, will bills chock full of “the Secretary shall create rules…” type of language. The Code of Federal Regulations is an enormous monstrosity, growing like a cancer. Congress in particular needs to wake up and stop writing overly complex bills and allowing the permanent bureaucracy to bolster and protect its own turf by promulgating thousands of new pages of rules each and every year.
How wonderful. Our tax money being wasted on a shameful prosecution of a whistleblower who alerted the public to an issue that — who else but – homeland security and TSA themselves have argued was dangerous. The point of the government prosecution is obviously to terrorize anyone who might consider ethical obligations to the citizens of the US as more important than loyalty to a provincial subset of secret “security” bureaucrats.
He acted per his conscience to protect our national security. Give this man everything he is asking for. Then give him a medal. This is exactly the type of person I want working for the government.

The John Woods Whistleblower Case

20140909.. John Woods pic from AlJazeera article
At 32-minutes into Broken Dreams: The Boeing 787, the cameras reveal Starkville, Mississippi and then focus in on the story of Whistleblower John Woods. An expert in the manufacturing of composites for aviation, Mr. Woods spoke up for safety at the South Carolina Boeing plant … and he was soon fired. Click on the YouTube display below, and the video will start at the point in the video where Mr. Woods’ story begins.

Mr. Woods was employed in the private sector, but his story is entirely representative of what happens to FAA air traffic controllers, inspectors, and others who similarly speak up for safety. The fact that he is an older employee with many decades of experience is also notable; often, when FAA retaliates against their own employees, they do so to pressure them into early retirements. The pattern is this:

  1. Employee responsibly speaks up about a safety issue.
  2. The Employer is threatened, and retaliates, eventually firing employee.
  3. Employee files a Whistleblower case to higher authorities, such as to FAA’s Office of Audit & Evaluation (Clay Foushee, manager).
  4. After a lengthy delay, the higher authority concludes nothing can be substantiated and drops the case.

In the end, and often after years of delay, all the Whistleblower case processing gives the Agency or company exactly what they want and need: a cleansing of those ‘problem employees’ who have the audacity to speak up for safety. And the dismissed employees? They are each left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered life.

New Investigative Report on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Li-ion Battery Fires

20130117.. Burnt Li-ion Battery B787

An NTSB picture of a charred Li-ion battery, January 2013.

In early 2013, FAA was forced to ground the entire U.S. Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet, after two serious incidents in which Li-ion batteries had caught fire. Many aviation safety professionals were very impressed with the transparency and safety advocacy subsequently shown by NTSB and NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. At the same time, much of FAA’s response smacked of being a loyal waterboy for damage control efforts by Boeing and other corporations in the aviation world.

20140910.. Li-ion Battery becomes a torch

The battery design is extremely volatile. When shot during testing, it quickly became a veritable blow-torch.

FAA’s grounding of the Dreamliner went on for more than three months, and ended on 4/27/2013. In the months since, a few minor incidents have made the news, but more notably there has been a concerted effort by Boeing marketers (with assistance from FAA) to both re-shine the Dreamliner’s image AND micromanage the coverage of all incidents. Eventually, Ms. Hersman resigned her NTSB post and moved on, and Boeing stock has made more than a complete recovery. So, we wait and we hope.

If we are lucky, and if the re-configured marketing efforts were not just hype, we will not see a repeat battery fire or other problem. We will not dread the news when a  Dreamliner filled with passengers has a major failure, out over an ocean and two hours from land.

We hope.

A detailed 48-minute investigative report has been posted on YouTube. Will Jordan and an Al Jazeera team of reporters spent more than a year investigating. They talked with Whistleblowers, management, outsource ‘partners’, union officials, workers, and former DoT Inspector General Mary Schiavo, but they did not talk to any FAA officials. Clay Foushee (AAE-1), as head of the office that is supposed to protect aviation Whistleblowers, would have been an extremely appropriate interview … and his name appears on a memo at around 37-minutes. But, no FAA interviews or, if they did, perhaps the answers were empty and got edited out?

Here are a few quotes and time-marks from this excellent analysis of an FAA/Boeing work culture that appears to have drifted sharply, from safety to earnings reports.

4:50 “We have a contract with Boeing, so we can’t tell any comments to you.”
7:25 “After my building burned down, after that they realized, very emphatically, the danger of this chemistry.”
9:40 “When it comes to building airplanes, the FAA delegates oversight almost completely to the aircraft manufacturers .”
10:35 “I don’t think it’s a sufficient fix. Even inside that steel box, with all of its fortification, all the elements are still there for fire.”
13:50 “…it was almost as if, at times you thought Boeing executives believed, well maybe they could sit in Chicago and have other companies do things, and they would just rake in the money somehow by putting it all together and putting a Boeing sticker on it at the end.”
16:46 “More than any other single event, it was the big lie, and it was a statement that the Boeing Company is now all about the big lie.”
21:10 “They changed basic engineering principles to meet schedule. We all protested.”
24:15 “It’s been eating me alive to know what I know, and to have no avenue, no venue to say anything.”
32:00 The John Woods Whistleblower story (5-minutes)
35:20 “…He turned to the FAA, filing a Whistleblower complaint. The document alleged seven serious violations in the South Carolina plant.” Former DoT-IG Schiavo: “I’ve gotten to the page where they reach their conclusions and the discussion and what they found was that all the allegations, all but one of them they could not substantiate, and the one that they could substantiate, they asked Boeing to fix it, Boeing said ‘OK, we fixed it’, and then they close the investigation. And that’s pretty much how they all go, I mean I’ve seen this so many times.”
37:00 “…It shouldn’t be this hard to do the right thing.”
38:30 “One day you’re regulating the airline, and the next day you’re working for it. You can’t possibly be tough on the industry that you’re regulating, because you’ll never get that plum job after you leave. The regulators at the FAA will rarely cross Boeing.. They simply won’t.”
42:30 Interview with a Boeing VP (and GM of the 787 Program) (2-minutes in, the interview was stopped by Boeing’s Communications Director, and he asked that the cameras be turned off)

Here are links to the Posts related to this issue:

see also:


FAA’s Culture of Unaccountability (PIX11 Investigative Series, by Mario Diaz)

This looks like a solid news investigation, and something sorely needed to bring accountability to FAA. Reporter Mario Diaz conducted a four month investigation which has now aired as a series of news stories at PIX11 TV (New York). He found fifteen cases where air traffic controllers were found partially responsible for fatal air crashes, yet the controllers were never held accountable … and some returned to work in just days. He also notes that FAA paid out more than $100 Million to settle the fifteen identified cases, in which 54 people died.

Mr. Diaz reported a lack of cooperation from many aviation officials who declined interview requests during the initial investigation. This included the controllers’ union (NATCA), the main pilots’ union (ALPA), Senator Jay Rockefeller (who chairs the senate committee that oversees transportation), Representative Frank LoBiondo (Chair of the House Subcommittee on Aviation), and most significantly the FAA. Those who did speak (and thus appear more devoted to real transparency) included: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (NJ), U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (NY), and Representative John Mica (FL).

After Part One aired on April 28th, both FAA and Rep. LoBiondo provided brief responses. FAA’s response was incredible, in that the agency declared FAA’s dedication to ‘safety’ while ignoring their own failed safety record, as evidenced by this investigative series. FAA added a declaration that they investigate “…every accident and incident that occurs in the system to determine whether it could pursue further improvements to continue to enhance aviation safety.” This is patently false, as evidenced by the concealment of the 7/25/2010 controller error at Camarillo, CA, which FAA continues to pretend did not happen.

FAA’s statement went even further, citing ‘Due Process’ concerns in defense of their failure to take accountable action against rogue controllers. Those who are aware of FAA’s terrible history of retaliation against Whistleblowers will find this especially galling because, in nearly all Whistleblower cases, FAA has done everything in their power — including lying repeatedly — to obstruct Due Process. So, there is a disturbing double-standard: destroy the Whistleblowers, while supporting those who participate within the corrupt culture. Want to see an example? See the extensively documented Lewis-FAA WB Case, related to the TV set pictured below.

As one aviation attorney said in the PIX11 news series, “…this is the government’s stonewalling … what amounts to incompetent behavior that can, does, and has resulted in death.”

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20140428.. Mario Diaz article, FAA ATCS still employed after deadly crashes4/28/14, Part One:
Reporter Mario Diaz presents his extensive investigation into the lack of accountability by FAA and air traffic controllers. He identifies cases where FAA air traffic controllers were found to have contributed to fatal air crashes, yet are still working in FAA’s control towers and en route radar facilities. In two examples, fatal accidents in both Texas and Florida, all pilots and passengers were killed after the controllers knowingly failed to advise pilots of lines of severe weather. Comments are mostly by controllers, and are ‘unappreciative’ of Diaz’ report.

20140429.. Mario Diaz article, HEMS accident, Andrews AFB4/29/14, Part Two:
The sole survivor of a 2008 medevac helicopter crash is interviewed, and is surprised to hear that the controller who refused to provide an ASR approach is still working. She had heard the controller was fired. That controller was assigned to work the tower at Andrews AFB, but FAA had failed to train her to conduct ASR approaches. NTSB found significant FAA failures at two towers as well as at the Potomac TRACON radar facility. A former FAA attorney noted this criticism: “The NTSB categorized the FAA’s actions in this case as casual and sloppy. I’d say it was casual and sloppy at its best.”

20140430.. Mario Diaz article, FAA probe soon by Maloney4/30/14, Part Three:
Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York found FAA’s response was unacceptable, and vowed to send FAA a letter, demanding answers.
Congressman John Mica, former Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, as well as the former Chairman of the House Aviation Sub-Committee, suggests that controllers are being improperly shielded. “This pendulum has swung I think too far in the direction of protecting people who should be held accountable and should be dismissed.” The article also discusses the failure of the ATSAP program, which is effectively burying safety information into a black hole (and thus protecting FAA personnel — and FAA — from accountability)

20140505.. Mario Diaz article, Maloney letter to Huerta5/5/14, Part Four:
U.S. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney discusses the reason he has sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. The letter presents his concerns and asks specific questions, including “What transparency measures exist when the FAA investigates an accident?” The letter was also copied to Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Maloney sits on that same committee, which oversees FAA.

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caused a near-midair collision in March 1989

Same Culture of Unaccountability, but two decades earlier. This is the TV set in an Oregon tower cab that caused a near-midair collision and led one FAA air traffic controller to become a Whistleblower. When he spoke up, he became a target of retaliation by FAA officials. [click on image to read more]

Another Tragic Airshow Fatality

20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, impact & ribbon

The groundcrew was holding a ribbon to be cut by the inverted biplane, but the biplane contacted the runway. The prop appears to be spinning in this image. The white smoke is part of the show.

Yesterday, at the Thunder over Solano Airshow, a 77-year-old pilot was killed during the finale of his performance. Flying a Boeing Stearman biplane, Eddie Andreini intended to invert, then pass low over the runway, and cut a ribbon held across the runway by standing personnel. 20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, fire, waiting for ARFFNews reports indicate he had aborted two attempts and then, on the fatal third attempt, he impacted the ground while inverted.
20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, 2012 pilot pic

Mr. Andreini was an accomplished pilot based in Half Moon Bay, CA. He had thirty years of air show performance experience.  According to Colonel David Mott, with the 60th Operations Group at Travis Air Force Base, winds were 10 to 15 knots, gusty at times. Tens of thousands stood in the sun and watched the tragedy unfold. Many were shocked and silenced; some became upset later in what was perceived to be a very slow rescue response. For example, one citizen with a digital camera took shots indicating two-and-a-half minutes passed before the first fire extinguisher arrived, and five-minutes total passed before actual rescue crews arrived.

Airshow fatalities are becoming far too regular. Last year, it happened at the airshow in Dayton, OH. In fact, it was the same scenario. An inverted biplane, but with a pilot and a harnessed wing-walker. Both died in a fiery crash. That airshow crash was a déjà vu moment for me. It reminded me of the fatality I saw in 1997, while working at a control tower near Denver. And, it crystallized in my small mind: I do not like airshows.

Aviation as a Measure of Humanity’s Progress

When you look at the engineering and the speed and the power, Aviation is potentially a true high mark for human achievement. A point of pride. 20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, crowd picTo think we dreamt this up, created it, developed it, and refined it into a system that has so much potential to serve so many people. To make the world a better place for our grandchildren. And, yet, we continue to scar this incredible accomplishment — and reaffirm our collective stupidity — by misusing aircraft to entertain the crowds with feats such as low-altitude inverted flight. When tragedy then happens, thousands are exposed to how badly aviation can fail. Why has this not changed?

The very agency with the unquestioned authority to stop this is the FAA. Airshows have a rigorous permit process, wherein the maneuvers are clearly defined by the applicant, then signed-off by FAA officials. If a pilot flies inverted to cut a ribbon at ground level, that maneuver was approved by FAA. But here’s where it gets to be disturbing. This agency will chase a hobbyist with a 3-pound drone and slap him with a quasi-legal action, and threaten the same against thousands of other RC hobbyists. Communities are paralyzed to address noise complaints, or have no choice but to reject building plans, because cities and counties all routinely defer to this agency to call all the shots. FAA Whistleblowers — and their families — see their life and liberty arbitrarily destroyed because this agency will not tolerate those within who question authority or who speak up about waste, fraud and abuse. This agency expends an extraordinary stock of resources to hide controller errors, block the release of safety information, obstruct Congress’ FOIA laws, delay responsive and responsible actions, hound its Whistleblowers, and otherwise impede citizen participation.

If ANYTHING happens in U.S. aviation, the vast majority of us wants (and needs) to believe that FAA is on top of it, and no system failures can or will repeat. Even in the latest example, at Thunder over Solano, all the news stories refer to FAA and other safety agencies, as if they deserve great respect. And, yet, this agency continues to fail: FAA only has to say ‘No’, to put a stop to fatal, too-low-to-be-inverted airshow flying. Why has this not changed?

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

The aviation Whistleblowers. They speak up about maintenance and design failures. They reveal the ATC errors FAA aggressively conceals. They question the practices that cause fatal accidents.

These men and women should be heroes and yet, amazingly, they are more often banished by their employer. They put their jobs – and the welfare of their families – on the line, simply because they choose the road less traveled.

“…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

– the closing stanza of ‘The Road Not Taken’, a poem by Robert Frost, November 1916

At FAA, and at all agencies, Whistleblowers are being destroyed by vindictive, self-serving rogue managers. The existing Whistleblower protection laws give the larger Public the illusion that there is real support for Whistleblowers, but in fact these laws enable further Whistleblower retaliation. The rogue managers are never held accountable; these laws continue to fail.

This world increasingly needs ‘a few good Whistleblowers’. Support is needed from Congress, and from people who care enough to demand safety, efficiency, and a just system. A change is long overdue. Please join us and advocate for laws that ensure real Whistleblower support.

MLK’s Dream … Not Yet Fulfilled

April 4, 1968.

Forty-six years ago today, a great man was assassinated. He was killed because he saw injustice and he had the audacity to speak up.

He is best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the March on Washington, in 1963. He sought to make things right. His actions threatened the status quo, which had retaliated against him in many ways, eventually in the finality of his death by a sniper.

Shot dead.
In the heart of America.

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In the Spring of 1968, I suddenly became a paperboy, delivering the ‘Seattle Times’ in the Montlake area. Our next door neighbors were a large Catholic family, and Paul, a couple years older than me, had a paper route. I was his eager assistant, and he paid me with a bottle of Fanta or other 10¢ snacks from the vending machines at Larry’s gas station, where the route began at Boyer and 23rd. Paul used some of his paper route earnings to take up skiing, but then he broke his leg. So, given that I knew the route very well, I filled in for a few months. At 8-yrs-old, I thought I must be one of the richest kids in Seattle, because I was earning around $60 each month for 40-50 hours of work. Every day, the bunch of us paper boys would meet at the paper shack next to the Enco gas station, where regular ‘leaded’ gas was selling for around 20¢ per gallon. A high school kid ran the paper shack and would issue us our bundles of papers. I acquired the habit of reading the news while folding my papers. Of course, the dominant news of that era was the peaking American involvement in Vietnam. I saw the pictures. I read the articles. I actually paid attention to the news each day: the war, the protests, the  assassination(s), the corrupt political opacity, and all the other parts of that big mess. There, for all of us kids to absorb. …And we did.

Despite the news, the world seemed like a fresh and wonderful place at the time. But then, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, followed by the assassination of Robert Kennedy that summer. When I turned eleven in May 1970, the excitement of my birthday was dimmed by the horror of that day’s biggest news story: Four Dead in Ohio, gunned down by our own National Guard.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Shot dead.
In the heart of America.

Forgive me, please, if these events perhaps tempered me to become too sober, too serious, even four decades later.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. was a rare man, yet he was also one of many. Not just for having been assassinated, but also for having spoken up, for having acted responsibly about the things he saw. He was a dissident voice, in the same way that Whistleblowers are a dissident voice. What made this man heroic was his resolute focus and irrepressible drive. He knew what was right, and he gave his heart and soul to spreading the word, speaking to make things right. Just as true Whistleblowers do.

Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream. He did not just call for racial harmony and justice; he also called for “…the crooked places to be made straight.” He prayed that, someday, the forces of hate and greed and power-lust would diminish, and the waters would part, revealing a land where all can prosper. All of his words live on, as a dream, though clearly not yet fulfilled.

We Whistleblowers also have a dream. That, someday, agencies like the FAA will shed their corrupt habits of opacity, deception and concealment and let the glorious and transparent light shine in. That, someday, our grandchildren may live in the great land this could have been, where truth and honesty and accountability are a proud and sustaining heritage. Someday.

We all have a dream. Thank you, MLK Jr., for fighting for yours.

We Need more ‘Accountability Journalism’ …

…and less of the prevailing ‘Access Journalism’.

An article by Robert Jensen analyzes a book written about how our journalists failed to cover the financial crisis. Mr. Jensen is a professor at the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. He covered the book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, as written by Dean Starkman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and current editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

There is a lot to think about in this piece, and much of it overlaps with how (and why) FAA continues to fail. Here’s an excerpt, with a few minor changes (highlights, color) by aiREFORM…

…the core mission of journalism is built around the Great Story “that holds power to account and explains complex problems to a mass audience, connects one segment of society to another.” This kind of journalism, he (Starkman) writes, “is also the one reliable, indispensable barometer for the health of the news, the great bullshit detector.”

Holding power to account and detecting bullshit are certainly admirable goals, and Starkman correctly points out that journalists who practice what he calls “access journalism” are unlikely to achieve them. Access journalists, as the label suggests, play the insider game and cultivate access to powerful sources. At best, access journalism can give ordinary people a glimpse of what happens behind closed doors, but on terms set by those who close the doors.

Starkman makes the case for the necessity of “accountability journalism” in the muckraking mode that is confrontational and accusatory, and that “provokes the enmity of the rich and powerful as a matter of course.” The access and accountability schools, he writes, “represent radically [emphasis added] different understandings of what journalism is [emphasis in the text] and whom it should serve.”

The book’s thesis, simply put, is that the news media’s poor performance during the financial crisis can be explained by the prominence of Access Journalism and the lack of hard-hitting Accountability Journalism. Here’s Starkman’s summary of these two styles:

Access Reporting tends to talk to elites. Accountability Reporting tends to talk to dissidents.
Access writes about specialized topics for a niche audience. Accountability writes about general topics for a mass audience.
Access tends to transmit
orthodox views.
Accountability tends to transmit heterodox views.
Access reporting is functional. Accountability Reporting is moralistic.
In business news, Access Reporting focuses on investor interests. In business news, Accountability Reporting focuses on the public interest.

Height-Velocity diagram for Bell 206

Throughout the country, there are many commercial helicopter operators who contract out their services, then employ pilots who are eager to build hours flying the contracted missions. But, these pilots are so eager that they tend not to challenge their boss when they are asked to fly what are clearly unsafe missions. A pair of common examples will follow, but first look at this diagram.

In this graphic example, Bell has published operating parameters for their model Bell 206, a very common helicopter. This ‘Height-Velocity Diagram’ shows which combinations of speed and altitude are considered safe, and which are considered dangerous. Essentially, the hatch-marked portions show that the helicopter needs to be operated low, over ‘smooth, level, firm’ ground, or it can be operated higher with added speed. In general, operating a helicopter at speeds under 40 mph and over 20 feet above the ground is deemed hazardous. Hover operations (with little or no airspeed), even as high as 400+ feet, are to be avoided.

Here in my corner of the country, in the Pacific Northwest, people have died flying small helicopters doing low-altitude contract flying. One typical operation is the slinging of bundles of Christmas trees from the field to staging areas, in the late Fall. The helicopters zip back and forth, rarely going higher than 100-feet altitude. Another typical operation is to ‘air-dry’ cherry trees in early Summer, flying low to blow off the morning dew, so the hand-picking crews can get to work.

As the diagram shows (and this is a typical helicopter diagram), the manufacturers clearly declare that it is unsafe to use their helicopters at altitude/speed combinations as are needed for these two common commercially contracted operations. To emphasize this point, I have added some colored marks:

  • The green dots illustrate operations considered safe: hovering at ten feet or less, and slightly higher only if some speed is added.
  • The blue rectangles illustrate safe operations at 10mph speeds at and below 10 feet AGL. These also illustrate safe operations at a 50mph speed, but only in the altitude range of 10-feet to 43-feet above the flat, firm unobstructed surface.
  • The red squares illustrate the unsafe flight conditions when slinging bundles of Christmas Trees. One square shows a combination of 10mph & 110-feet altitude; the other square shows a combination of 20mph and 65-feet altitude.
  • The orange squares illustrate the unsafe flight conditions when drying cherries with a helicopter. The left square depicts a 10mph & 15-feet altitude combination; the right square depicts a 30mph & 20-feet altitude combination.

Not depicted are the hundreds of sustained hover operations related to powerline construction and maintenance. Helicopters are hired to hover for long periods of time, positioning materials, equipment and personnel, typically at altitudes from just above the powerline to a few hundred feet total elevation. The vast majority of reported (and NTSB-investigated) contract helicopter accidents are for exactly this unsafe scenario.

There have been many fatal accidents investigated by NTSB. Despite this long history, it appears that FAA has done nothing to clamp down on these unsafe commercial helicopter operations. In the meantime, FAA continues to propose fines against airlines (few of which are ever collected), delay the safe development of drone systems, and obstruct the rights of impacted airport neighbors and truth-speaking Whistleblower employees … all while the helicopter death toll goes on.