In a bygone time, I was a professional pilot, flying corporate and charter aircraft. At my home airport on the central coast of California, there was a senior pilot – I’ll call him Jim – who flew a six passenger jet for a locally based company. Jim had logged over 20,000 hours of flight time and was a mentor for many younger pilots, myself included. I have been thinking recently about a conversation I once heard him have with a rather inexperienced pilot, about our airport’s instrument approach.
For those who don’t know, an instrument approach allows planes to land in bad weather. It’s a skill that requires special training and licensing, and a thorough understanding of the published procedure for each runway at each airport. The procedures are developed, tested and documented by the FAA.
The procedure that Jim was being asked about is called a Localizer approach. It uses a radio signal to align the plane perfectly with the runway but doesn’t provide electronic guidance vertically. Most of this particular procedure took place over the ocean but once on final approach, the pilot must monitor the instruments to know when they have crossed the shoreline and can descend to the “minimum descent altitude” (MDA), which in this case was 460’ above the ground. If the runway doesn’t come into sight after a predetermined amount of time, the landing is aborted and the “missed approach procedure” is flown.
All of this is a long preamble to the question that Jim was asked by the young pilot, which was, “How much below MDA can you really go on the localizer approach?” To which Jim promptly replied, “If you go one foot below 460’, you’re gonna die.”
Now, I knew that Jim’s answer wasn’t strictly correct, and that there had been many a foggy night when his jet made it back to the field when other planes would have missed the approach. But because he knew that his advice would be respected and followed by less experienced pilots, he would never suggest deviating from the published procedure from the experts at the FAA.
The COVID parallel
Whether deserved or not, our elected officials speak with the voice of authority. Their words are heard and their examples followed. They are responsible for choosing the best advice to give for the well being of their community. In times as uncertain as these, they should be delivering the clearest, simplest recommendations for people to follow, based on expert opinion. And the message from the experts – epidemiologists and public health departments – has been remarkably consistent for the last several months: Maintain social distancing, wash your hands and WEAR A MASK.
These things are true whatever your opinion about the role of government or your political party preference. They are true regardless of which businesses are open, how many people are allowed to sit inside at a restaurant or whether our kids are in school.
Yet the message we get from most public officials is that all of this is optional. You get to choose which of these guidelines to follow and, who knows, maybe everything will turn out just fine. They make it sound like there is no expert opinion because the experts say things that they don’t want to repeat.
So how about this for a good, clear message, across the board from public officials: The best things you can do to protect yourself and your community from a potentially deadly disease is to wear a mask, stay socially distant and wash your hands frequently. Period, end of statement.
Sure, you’re unlikely to die from COVID-19 because you don’t wear a mask, just as you’re unlikely to crash if you sneak down to 300’ on the localizer approach. But those in positions of authority should be promoting the safest approach, not the riskiest.