Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"See, I Told You So"

I hate to say "I told you so" in any circumstance -- it sounds so snotty and know-it-all, and God knows an Aries is never those things.

But... I told you so. The tragedy of the Blue Angels crash in South Carolina this weekend was not just a matter of statistical probability, but of common sense.

The small California city I lived in for umpteen years has three annual entertainment attractions: A very large four-day rodeo, a national Steinbeck center, and an air show every October which always draws military jet exhibition teams... the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds, etc.

Over the years, the Blue Angels especially became part of the city's mystique. Those who participated in the organization and work of actually managing and presenting the show (which proceeds fund local charities) were sometimes given the opportunity to meet one or more Angels at private cocktail parties, and local news reporters were taken for the ride of their lives as part of the pre-show publicity. The Blue Angels were charming, professional, hunky favorites around town, and more than one local beauty was said to wear the "A" of action, not disgrace.

Not everyone was thrilled with their aerial performance, however, particularly me, and some of us were very vocal about the potential danger. The airport sits at the edge of town, but not OUT of town, and most of the exhibition flying took part OVER town -- in fact, over the most expensive neighborhoods of the southern area - which also includes the county's largest hospital.

We who lived in that area had only to stand in our back yards (with earplugs and our hands over our ears) to be able to watch about 90% of the show. The planes flew so low over us we could see the pilots' shiny white teeth. A great viewpoint, sure -- but terrifying as the speed and derring-do of the planes were smack over our heads and roofs.

The danger wasn't imagined, as we saw this last weekend. As everyone who has seen them has realized -- there isn't much space between the planes on those tight maneuvers. If I remember the commentary correctly, sometimes it's a matter of inches. Their elevation may be higher than it looks, but I swear I've seen the trees duck out of the way. The speed isn't exactly that of an old biplane, either, and the threat of a disaster is real.

I worked my way up the administrative food chain with my safety objections and was laughed at with every phone call and given sarcastic, "how dumb can you be, lady" replies to my letters. I was reminded by every respondent that the proceeds of the event go to worthy charities, and it was implied that I was a mean-spirited, neurotic crank. I persisted, however, until I moved from the area; I simply didn't (and still don't) understand why the potential disaster wasn't worth at least a cautionary second look.

What I found even more terrifying was the display during the Navy's Fleet Week in San Francisco, where the Blue Angels perform directly over the city and the S. F. bay, including a few stunts around the Golden Gate Bridge. I had a terrified bird's eye view for their show in 1999 from the top of the hospital in which my husband was a patient -- the same hospital in Pacific Heights that was used as a sighting landmark for the Angels' routine. Had an in-flight accident occurred during one of those performances, the devastation would have been, well, devastating.

Of course they perform all over the United States and there have been very few accidents -- all in training, as I remember, until this last weekend. Of course they are fabulously trained professionals - the best of the best of the best -- I know all that. Their excellence and precision and charisma are used by the Navy as one of their most powerful public relations and recruitment tools and always make a strong statement for military might. But... at what potential danger and cost?

I'm not a pilot nor any kind of aviation specialist and certainly don't know what the criteria are for site selection or the logistics of the setups for their various routines. It always seemed ironic to me, though, that instead of using for the routine setups the 100 mile-long agricultural valley, which was available immediately to the south of the airport and city, they chose to maneuver directly OVER the city.

It seems alarming, stupid and irresponsible to put the lives and property of residents in real danger with every high-speed, low-altitude pass. It makes me furious that the show's promoters -- which include city officials -- take an ostrich-like stance for the sake of thrills and charity revenue. While some I talked to in my annual campaign acknowledged a potential risk, each person implied that it was worth the "minimal risk" to have the Angels and others perform. They are certainly the biggest draw to air show attendance. Well, groovy. Let those who actually attend the air show AT THE AIRPORT assume the risk, and don't put the entire city at risk. While that particular air show is held primarily on the weekends, the teams arrive a few days earlier for show promotion and practice -- and guess where they practice. Schools in their path are in session, a large portion of the city's commercial district is in their path, a huge hospital and medical complex and a large residential area are in their path -- are at risk -- and no one from the city or the air show ever asked ME (or anyone else) to assume that risk.

I really think it's time that the public and public officials question the wisdom of these performances -- particularly the jet teams who necessarily use incredible speeds and low altitudes and require a vast area to maneuver. Accidents do tragically happen, and it's not only the pilots themselves who face potential loss of life and property -- it's everyone below.

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