How should GA best respond to environmental activists?

PUBLISHED: 11:36 10 July 2020

How should GA best respond to environmental activists?

How should GA best respond to environmental activists?

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Environmental activists are seeking to shame air travellers and attacking business aviation. GA may soon be in their sights | Words: Tim Cooper

I’m very sorry to report that I am going to sell Monty. She is my much prized Laverda Montjuic motorcycle; a bright orange, rip-snorting, 500cc twin cylinder production racer, named after the street racing circuit where she made her name.

Montjuics, banned by the EEC in 1982 for exceeding the then-new noise limits, have no inlet or outlet silencing: they sound like Armageddon on steroids. A single seat bike, the Montjuic’s only purpose is to go really fast on smooth A-roads. I adore her.

Taking Alan Cassidy in Better Aerobatics only slightly out of context, ‘It has no purpose other than personal fulfilment. It is selfish and pointless. It is also inspiring and addictive’.

My Monty makes me happy. Or so she would were it not for some intractable problems: speeding is no longer socially acceptable; nor are noisy motorcycles; the south of England’s speed camera infested roads are crowded, seemingly with the myopic, so it’s difficult, dangerous, and certainly illegal to use Monty as the Good Lord intended.

It’s not all gloom though. I live south of Goodwood where, less than half a mile from my house, I can use a similarly single-mindedly-designed machine to perform just as intended by the maker.

I can watch the needle sweep contemptuously around the dial until I’m doing 150mph or more; I can make body-slammingly tight turns; I can whizz hither and thither at top speed-without fear of the myopic; and I can do all this without worrying about the rozzers.

Woohoo! Totally selfish? Yes! Totally addictive? Yup! Totally inspiring? You betcha!

You guessed it. The half a mile is up in the sky and it’s in our Zlin 326 that I can do all this, as can any one of us fortunate enough to have access to an aeroplane.

The Laverda MontjuicThe Laverda Montjuic

So why mention the bike? Because not all that long ago I could have used my bike quite close to her full performance on the open road without causing very much upset.

Fast forward a decade or three and you’ll find that I am the same (a little older and slower, perhaps), the bike is the same, the tarmac is the same-perhaps better-but society changed its attitudes to fast, noisy bikes.

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What Is General Aviation?

UK Department of Transport definition of GA - 2018: “The GA sector covers all kinds of non-scheduled civil aviation. It includes, amongst other things, business jets, aerial photography, pilot training, emergency service flights and air displays as well as private flying.

“The aircraft involved include single and multiengine fixed wing aeroplanes, helicopters, gliders, balloons, microlights, paragliders and model aircraft.

“GA activity falls into two main types - commercial aviation, predominantly represented by business aviation and non-commercial activity, predominantly covering sport, recreational and personal transport aviation. The GA community is a diverse group and different sections within it may have differing, sometimes conflicting, priorities.”

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Unsilenced Zlin 326Unsilenced Zlin 326

The change came about through a process of evaluation of the risks to society, a debate and then general agreement and acceptance of the truth of those risks and then, inexorably, legislation that outlawed the old behaviour.

New norms and new mores. The old behaviour becomes socially unacceptable. Remember smoking? Yup. Same story.

Despite any personal views that we may hold about climate change, when Theresa May - Mrs Sensible, if nothing else - made the Climate Change Act her legacy legislation, committing Britain to carbon neutrality by 2050, it was the signal that we just have to accept that curbing greenhouse emissions is now mainstream.

What’s this got to do with us flying small aircraft, you ask? I won’t misquote Martin Niemöller, but if I simply say that first they came for the fast and noisy motorcycles then you will get the idea.

We now live at a time when flight-shaming is a thing. In Sweden, where flygskam started, commercial flights have decreased by up to eight per cent in a very short time.

It’s not just commercial flying that is under attack. Since the autumn of 2019 the executive jet part of General Aviation (GA) has come under a sustained assault from environmentalists. GA is what we do, and so we should be concerned about this.

Readers of this, Mr Whiteman’s organ, will have carefully studied his Preflight’ editorial in the March edition in which he set out a statistical, science-based defence of GA.

A simple, clear, unarguable defence it is too: move along and leave us alone ‘cos we dun nuffink wrong, guv. Our Editor explains how all our global GA activities, from bizjets through to powered parachutes, are responsible for just 0.016% of global CO2, emission.

Unsilenced Zlin 326Unsilenced Zlin 326

Indeed, in a report by the Dutch government-funded TNO research organisation in 2017, Emissions Of Air Pollutants From Civil Aviation in the Netherlands, emissions from the avgas which we mostly use barely register in the various graphics at all-do take a look.

You might think that environmentalists who were considering flight-shaming our bit of GA would back off and direct their ire at juicier targets when provided with conclusive evidence of how small a part we are of the whole emissions picture.

If that is what you hope then let me quote a chilling Facebook post by Extinction Rebellion who during last November closed down Geneva’s GA terminal: ‘We have blocked the private jet terminal to defend the principle of climate and social justice. This means of transport is completely absurd’.

XR’s Geneva spokesman, Micaël Metry, went on to say, ‘We want to denounce this completely absurd means of transport since a private jet emits twenty times more CO2 per passenger than a conventional airplane’.

XR isn’t alone: a report in late 2019, Jet, set, go by air travel pressure group, Fellow Travellers, said We contend that fossil fuelled private jets represent the nadir of carbon inequality and their persistent use in the context of the escalating climate crisis can no longer be justified, particularly in light of the social effects of these flights’.

The ‘principle of climate and social justice’, ‘the social effects of these flights’, ‘the nadir of carbon inequality’.

Am I alone in finding these phrases unsettling? When principles, especially tendentious political principles, creep into the argument the facts head for the woods.

The Fellow Travellers comprehend this all too well when they explain that a ban on private jets from Britain’s airports in five years’ time, ‘[would serve] as an effective climate emergency “symbolic policy”: a policy with a tangible impact that also raises the political profile of climate action’.

Hefty silencers fitted to a Zlin 526Hefty silencers fitted to a Zlin 526

I worry, then, about relying exclusively on a statistical defence to protect ourselves in an argument that has such strong political and emotional dimensions.

The emotional is a key facet of an argument that aims to scare people into agreement.

Before working up our defence-as we definitely can-let’s consider whether we actually are at risk of becoming a ‘symbolic’ target of XR, Friends Of The Earth, the Green Party, Fellow Travellers, or any other group looking for an easy eco-target.

Who are ‘we’? I am going to assume that most of us who read Pilot magazine do not own private jets nor ride around in them a great deal (though I know a few who do), I am going to make the reasonable assumption that most of us are interested in, and fly in smallish machines with reciprocating engines up front.

Most of our GA activities are either non-commercial or training flights. In which case, why worry about flight shaming because we account for an almost immeasurably small percentage of the 0.016% GA emissions? We are innocuous by any measure.

A quick google shows that while the eco-activist cross-hairs have been lined up unwaveringly for months on GA private jets we, in our small aircraft, have so far slipped under the radar.

So far, so good. But are we a bunch of rich, privileged, ‘ecocidal maniacs, with a reckless disregard for our fragile planet, and might the eco- sniper rifle swivel sharply, the cross-hairs settling on us next?

(The analogy is not mistaken. The XRs of today are very sophisticated and choose their targets carefully using activist focus groups.)

Don’t even try to answer the question yourself. Try, instead, to think like XR’s Micaël Metry. Is it, he might ask, absurd and socially unjust to drive to an airfield, start up a noisy engine, fly for an hour, land at another airfield and eat a bacon sandwich before returning to the starting point?

The pilot in question is probably a middle-aged white man, with money enough to fly privately. He is probably sitting behind a gas-guzzling, six litre engine that has no emission controls of any sort, and he may be on his own or he may have one passenger.

Our pilot might eschew the bacon sandwich and may instead fly around and around pointlessly, spewing out CO2, and he will create lots of noise drawing attention to his privileged position.

The pilot may also be a member of the tiny and exclusive group who still burn leaded fuel. Well, what’s the answer? I think the sainted M. Metry might not be impressed with our pilot. Not one little bit. No sir.

Is this a fair representation of the average flight in a light aircraft? Yes, it is. Fewer than ten per cent of flights involve an overnight away from base.

If you fly behind a four-stroke Rotax engine then you are a little less culpable, but the principle is the same, old, rich, white man. And leaded fuel? Really! Phased out for ordinary people at the start of the century, we persist in using it.

In the USA Friends of The Earth are locked in an endless battle with the FAA to ban it. The FAA can’t ban it, according to the Agency, because despite considerable efforts, no satisfactory substitute fuel has been developed.

So we continue emitting lead, albeit in small quantities. Even private jets don’t do that. This is all a bit grim, isn’t it?

Hefty silencers fitted to a Zlin 526Hefty silencers fitted to a Zlin 526

If you believe, as an increasing number do, that we must reduce greenhouse gas emission to net zero in under five years then perhaps you might want to stop reading this right now and sell or scrap your aircraft.

On the other hand, if you think that we are not maniacal planet-murderers, and that we have a right to defend our private flying, and that the political process of which we are a part should consist of debating, lobbying, petitioning, protesting and voting-all of which XR rejects as having failed-then let’s set about creating a defence.

Better still, an advocacy. Let us start with some statistics. From CAA datasets we discover that we own approximately 9,157 powered aircraft weighing up to 5,700kg and which currently have valid Certificates of Airworthiness or Permits to Fly.

These range from powerful twins down the smallest microlight, according to CAA data. Approximately one in every 3,000 Britons holds a private flying licence of one sort or another-that is between 20,000 and 30,000 pilots with current medicals (the variance is because one person can hold more than one type of licence).

To this we can add an unknown proportion of the nearly 19,000 professional licence holders who fly our kind of aircraft. We are not very many, but we are a significant number.

According to the Department for Transport’s Aviation 2050: The Future of UK Aviation, UK GA as a whole contributes more than £1bn to the economy and employs about 10,000 people directly and 30,000 indirectly.

This is good for us. The same document is positive about our environmental impact and says, The environmental impacts of aviation come primarily from the commercial sector in terms of noise, mileage and fuel consumption, and the government’s policy proposals on noise and air quality... apply only to larger commercial airports and airlines.

However, the GA sector also has a responsibility to follow and promote good practice in terms of their environmental impacts.’ Good, then, and exactly as our Editor maintains.

Fuji expert Maurice Colson and 'Madam' with latest acquisitionFuji expert Maurice Colson and 'Madam' with latest acquisition

There may be as many as 1,100 ‘formal flying sites’ which are in effect small nature reserves, so that’s good news for us as well as all the flora and fauna.

One massive factor in our favour is we do not have paying customers-we are invulnerable to a boycott, unlike the private jet sector of GA. Excellent news.

Noise, on the other hand is a really serious issue for us. I was astounded recently when motor racing friends who live nearby complained about the noise made by the Boultbee Spitfires in the summer-this from people who compete in historic formula racers, not known for purring silently.

The CAA recognises this problem and their 2012 document, Noise Considerations at GA Aerodromes, rehearses the issues. The CAA says that complaints about noise from GA aircraft account for fifty per cent of all their noise complaints.

Circuits, aerobatics, glider tows, parachute drops, and piston helicopters generate the most complaints. Noise is an issue, possibly the issue, that could well unite radical eco-warriors with middle England against our recreation. So this is seriously not good for us.

So, what is our advocacy?

First, like everyone else in UK, we have the right to enjoy ourselves. Our 9,000 or so aircraft are not all that different from the 180,000 power boats and jet-skis in the UK, nor indeed the 117,000 roadworthy forty-plus years old historic vehicles on our roads, the vast majority both of which exist purely to give pleasure to their owners.

A frivolous pleasure? Yes, indeed, but how many pleasures are not frivolous? We must be confident, not diffident when asserting our right to enjoy our pursuit. We have nothing of which to be ashamed.

Addressing a noise issue with a silencerAddressing a noise issue with a silencer

Second, the science and the statistics. We are not significant greenhouse gas emitters especially within the aviation sector, and we can easily and cheaply become carbon neutral (or at least claim to-there’s a lot of snake oil being sold out there).

Carbon offsets cost about £1 per hour flying behind a typical 360 cu inch engine, based on one litre of avgas emitting 2.3 kg of CO; and carbon offset costing about £11.50 per ton according to Carbon Earth.

That’s £50 extra on a fifty-hour service. Can we afford this? I think we can. In fact, can we afford not to? Third, we provide pilots for commercial aviation so we have an important educational function.

Fourth, noise-we must somehow take action. The Germans and Swiss already have, and their circuits are amazingly quiet. This is an issue we must face up to and debate.

Our own Fuji came with a silencer and doesn’t seem to be any the less powerful for that. Our Zlin could have one; its major drawback is that it is as ugly as sin. Should we do something about noise? Yes, I know this is a can full of worms.

So what am I going to do when I sell my Montjuic? Madam and I are in discussion about a Yak-50. I intend to use the money I get from selling Monty to go towards my share.

There’s still time before we are banned out of existence, and before then I intend to find out what it’s like to aim the nose upwards at 4,000 feet a minute, gleefully slipping those surly bonds.

It will be pointless, selfish, addictive and inspiring. And that’s just fine.

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