Jim Bacon is an enthusiastic advocate of ideas that might
improve prosperity and competitiveness, such as
telework and small airplanes.
Prosperity and competitiveness are good.
However, in advocating good ideas, one
must be sure that readers understand the
parameters of functional human settlement which
is the ultimate determinant of prosperity and
Mobility and access to life’s
essentials are two of these parameters.
The following notes were prompted by
Small Aircraft Revolution” column (October
18, 2004) featuring NASA’s Sid Siddiqi and the
future of small aircraft in the Commonwealth.
First, let me make it clear, I love small planes.
I have never been interested in piloting
them, just using them to do appropriate and
I was paid to get in a small airplane
when I was 17, and it has been hard to keep me
out of them ever since. For most flights, we choose small
airplanes over big airplanes unless “small”
means small seats. I have flown in and out of many of the
smallest airstrips in the Caribbean
and from small fields in Montana,
to spot fires, drop supplies, locate lost
climbers, get to remote places and to photograph
human settlement patterns.
matter how high-tech or
much federal gravy is poured on
not make a major impact on mobility for the
vast majority of citizens in the 21st
Flying, especially flying fast or flying safely in adverse
conditions, is expensive in economic, social and
physical terms. The
faster and/or more safe, the more expensive the
is a matter of physics, not politics or policy.
Technology can do little more than prolong the inevitable
triumph of physics over boosterism in a
democracy with a market economy.
Darth Vader could divert resources to
create new flight-based paradigms, but that does
not work in a democracy over the long term.
Do not misunderstand:
is an upside to improving small airplane access
for places like Roanoke,
However, the Virginia Airport Map has
runway diagrams for over 70 airports in the
Commonwealth. There are many more small
airfields that are not on most maps. This brings into focus the two
fundamental problems with a sugar-coated view of
small aircraft mobility:
Is the Plan?
What comprehensive, Commonwealth-wide plan for human
settlement pattern is NASA using to determine
the parameters for which urban agglomerations
should have public investment to improve air
a plan, the prime criteria may be the home of
the longest-serving congressperson or the
landing field closest to the home of the Speaker
of the House of Delegates' girlfriend.
Upgrading more than a few of the 70 plus
current airports would be pure pork, just as
“telework centers” for a few telecommuters
have become. Even
if each upgrade is not very expensive, this
public expenditure provides another incentive
for urban scatteration and thus higher total
government costs and less mobility.
Scattered airport upgrades also dilute
the critical mass necessary to achieve
functionality of settlement patterns or mobility
systems in any specific location.
How does the Danville Beta Community qualify for special
if Greater Danville comes up with a truly
comprehensive plan for the entire Danville
community -- an area including at the very least
Pittsylvania County, VA and Caswell County, NC.
This plan would have to include a binding
commitment not to scatter the housing and other
urban land uses attracted by great air service
and telecommunications across the Countryside. You can see where this is
The need for a comprehensive
Commonwealth-wide plan and a commitment by
Greater Danville to create a Balanced Community.
Just "giving" parts of “lesser Danville”
better air service and telework without creating
a functional context will only make things
worse. It is like providing road money without
obtaining a commitment to create transportable
human settlement patterns.
All public action should lead to more functional human settlement
patterns, not scatteration. That axiom of governance was identified
by The Friends of
Virginia’s Future in 1991.
The objective of creating Balanced Communities is alluded
to at the end of Jim’s column on
Mill Town," November 1, 2004), but it
needs to be on the front hook so no one misses
or misunderstands the importance of this
Shape of Richmond's Future," February
15, 2004, for an outline of the process to which
the Commonwealth and the citizens of the entire
Danville/Pittsylvania/Caswell area must commit
to the creation of a Balanced Community if they
are to be given federal or state funds.
Are small planes and telecommunications the answer?
may be part of an answer if, but only if a
community comes forward with a plan and that
plan is compatible with a Commonwealth-wide
a Balanced Community has to be something beyond
just a new college, new technology at the airport
and new fiber-optic connections to an industrial
park in the former tobacco fields.
The Commonwealth and Greater Danville
need to leverage tobacco money or other funds to
evolve functional human settlement patterns, not
just line some pockets with more green.
The same issues must be addressed in any
discussion of new universities, new fiber-optic
links or airport upgrades everywhere in the
it is just more Business As Usual.
It is not only the large New Urban Regions where there are
problems with dysfunctional human settlement
urban agglomerations run out of options sooner.
Small-scale agglomerations can continue to make
things worse for a long time before running out
of land to misuse. It will not improve
competitive advantage, prosperity or
competitiveness just to talk about attractive
masks the need for Fundamental Change.
It is very easy to mix up the role and importance of shared
vehicles with the role of private vehicles in
creating mobility and access on the ground and
in the air.
Start with the basics. As documented in The Shape of the
Future, most contemporary travel is a waste.
It gets citizens from where they are to
where they want or need to be.
More intelligent human settlement
patterns results in more people being where (or
much closer to where) they want or need to be a
larger percentage of the time.
Transport consumes limited resources.
The amount of time available in a day is
Time consumed in needless travel is a
cost of energy and the impact of excess travel
grow every year. (See
Spinning Wheels,” September 20, 2004.) In
this context, doing more of what we have been
doing (driving or flying) is not a solution.
Fundamental Change in human settlement
patterns opens a wide range of individual and
We examined the Private-Vehicle Mobility Myth as it relates
to ground transportation in “The
Myths That Blind Us,” October 20, 2003.
Most recently, we explored this myth in “Clueless,”
January 19, 2004, in “Self
Delusion and Fraud,” June 7, 2004, and in
“Dying Young in
Traffic,” November 1, 2004.
There is an airborne myth that is equally flawed.
We might call this the “Skycar Myth”
named after the “invention” of Paul
is a master of promoting his shiny red prototype
which has graced the pages of Futurist,
Wired, and Inc. in recent years. Robert
E. Fulton Jr. (1909-2004) built a low-tech
prototype (the Airphibian) in the late '40s, and
there are helicopter/paraglider/motorcycle
hybrids in the garages and shops of many
handypersons and inventors.
The idea of a flying car has attracted a plethora of
fiction writers, cartoonists and some great
minds including Buckminster Fuller and Frank
Lloyd Wright. As
noted in Chapter 18 of
The Shape of the Future, when
Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of Broadacre City
would not work because of automobile congestion,
he turned to individual helicopters.
All the flying cars are failures for the same reason that
Automobility is a failure –- the physics of
human settlement pattern.
If applied in large numbers, the vehicle plus the
space it occupies -- parking space, road
space/air space needed to make it operable -- disaggregates human
activity to the point of dysfunction.
For a look at the historic perspective on
the use of horses and automobiles to achieve
mobility and access (the same analogy applies to
aircraft), see End Note One in "Out
of Chaos," July 26, 2004.
The cumulative impact of disaggregation is also the core problem with
the idea of extensive use of small airplanes.
They result in three-dimensional
Is “flying” a solution to citizen mobility?
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, and elsewhere,
those at the very top of the economic food chain
already have airborne mobility.
The less-fortunate 99.9 percent of the
population does not.
What is the value of decreasing the
number of those without special privilege to
99.5 percent or even 98 percent?
As noted above, in the long run focusing
on mobility for the very rich is a nonstarter in
a democracy with a market economy.
The role of appropriate technology focuses attention on the
importance of a comprehensive set of transport
strategies to provide mobility and access for
is no legitimate reason to create another
special benefit for a few.
Does making a lot of little places safe
for Gulfstream Liberals square with the goal of
This initiative and others are based on the strategy of
using lower cost and well-connected rail systems
for much more of the traffic between urban
agglomerations -- especially those trips under
The Commonwealth needs to look to the
least expensive ways to increase mobility within
transportable settlement patterns.
Simple physics demands that be ground
transport for many access needs.
Aircraft have a role, but a limited one.
The First World is on the cusp of reevaluating the role of
all airplanes in mobility due to total cost per
seat mile, noise and atmospheric impact.
The demise of the Concord was the turning
are not enough passengers who value very fast travel
to pay for it out of their individual pockets.
Corporate and government aircraft use is
still expanding, but when the total costs are
accounted for and allocated to the individual
passenger, the real ticket price will be
The Scramjet, the Rocket Plane and pipe dreams of going
back to, much less beyond, the Moon may have
military and joy-ride-for-the-rich applications
but they are not the future of human mobility.
With the population growing, the
disparity between rich and poor widening and a
realistic allocation of the cost of flying which
is inevitable in a democracy, the
percentage of citizens with access to air travel
is in decline.
In the European Union, economists, as well as transport and
environmental professionals, are zeroing in on
the total cost of all aircraft operations.
Aircraft have been getting a free ride
because of a failure to calculate the impact of
aircraft on the atmosphere.
NASA’s Langley Research Center recently
released data confirming what environmentalists
in Europe have been saying for years:
“Airplanes have significant direct and
indirect negative impact on the Planet.”
If users of airplanes pay the price of impacts, the cost per seat mile
in large planes will be enormous.
It will not be that much less for small
planes if they are high-performance (i.e.,
If they do not get you there fast, why
not use a less costly alternative?
Many Europeans also know of the role that the current
administration is playing to support a
consortium of big U.S.A. carriers seeking to
block any attempt to allocate the real cost of
air travel. Not
one citizen in 100,000 in the United States even
knows this is an issue.
The lack of knowledge about issues like
this causes many on this side of the Atlantic to
wonder why Europeans dislike “Americans.”
What they really dislike is the actions
of the federal government in support of some U.S.
Yes, new technology and small planes will change the
dynamics of big airlines that fly big airplanes
between big airport hubs.
Airline economics since WW II have been
propped up by government subsidy.
The hub-and- spoke system exacerbates the
distortion of the subsidy- skewed
market even more because of labor costs.
It has flourished at the expense of
wasted passenger time for which airlines do not
have to pay.
Devil in the Details
A number of “details” regarding small-plane promotion
deserve careful attention:
What about security
checks and safety at small airports? Safety is important on the ground and in the air. Fast security operations on the ground at small airports
will be very expensive or very unsafe.
Minimal security screening sounds like an
invitation to terrorism.
It is cheaper to train pilots to crash small planes into
high image targets than it is to train them to
fly big planes. There
is less damage upon impact, but if they can
bring on a suitcase of the plastic explosives
which are now widely available via Iraq, Iran
and parts of the former Soviet Union, watch out.
do not think so.
Three weeks ago 13 people died in the crash of a
"commuter plane" flying from St. Louis
to Kirksville, MO. Do we need Uncle
Sugar to subsidize an airport in Kirksville? How
about Macon, Hannibal, Chillicothe, Trenton,
Moberly or other similar places in Northeastern
Would new safety technology at Danville have made a
difference in the 24 October Martinsville crash
of the Hendrick Motorsports aircraft?
According to published reports least 20
of the other private planes flying passengers to
the Martinsville Speedway did not try to land at
Martinsville/Blue Ridge Airport that day.
They diverted to Danville and landed
safely with the existing equipment.
Going to The
Homestead for dinner?
scenario of going to a late afternoon soccer
game and then flying to the Homestead for dinner
highlights the need to keep one’s perspective.
What Sissy needs after the game is a hot
shower, a bowl of homemade soup and time to do
her homework. Families
for whom flying to The Homestead at 7:00 PM
after a teen’s soccer game is an attractive
idea already have that option.
If they want to make it safer, they can
afford to pay for that too.
An alternative way to
get to a meeting in a large New Urban Region? Where
are the offices of
enterprises, institutions and agencies to
which one would go for a meeting? The vast
majority are in the core. (See “Where
the Jobs Are,” May 24, 2004.) There are
perhaps a dozen small airports outside the Clear
Edge around the National Capital Subregion that
now handle corporate jets.
They include Leesburg “Regional,”
Manassas “Regional,” Warrenton-Fauquier
“Regional,” Stafford “Regional” and
Culpeper “Regional” in Virginia.
They are all in places that take at least
an hour and a half to drive to the centroid at
the times someone would want to start a meeting.
One of the few small airports located at
a transit station is Greater Manassas, which has
early AM and late PM VRE trains only.
Do we need another
excuse to scatter jobs? The market says there is not much interest.
We recall reading of air-park
subdivisions in Popular Science in the
50s. There are not many more now than there were
then. Executive airports have attracted some
Westchester, Bucks, Hunt Valley and Leesburg. Concerning Leesburg, Arthur Godfrey’s
heir could fly his DC-3 into Leesburg
it turns out, Arthur’s heirs sold his Beacon
Hill retreat and it is being developed into
vast majority of the new owners both drive to
jobs inside the 20-mile radius from the center
of the Subregion.
There are eight mapped airports within 10
miles of Warrenton, 12 within 20 miles.
There are many more small, unmapped
same is true for a lot of small urban enclaves
in the Countryside.
On nice days the sky is full of small
planes -- some new and high tech, some
hand-built, and some old that cast engine oil
all over the landscape.
Does the community need a federal subsidy
to have more noise to compete with the
helicopters coming to the hospital and the
military choppers coming to the Army facilities?
Strategy for the Discussion of Innovations
that Impact Mobility
So, how should one deal with good ideas without obstructing
the larger picture?
There is a simple way to deal with the
complexities of mobility and settlement pattern
such as those raised by small planes or telework,
must always note the core issues:
With respect to small planes, like other mobility options,
every public action should create more
functional settlement patterns at the
community and the regional scales.
If support for small airplanes meets this
criteria, then a subsidy may be justified.
If not let the market control.
The public needs to conserve its
resources for those actions that create profound
beneficial economic, social and physical impact
for the community, not just a few private pilots
and fat cats at the top of the economic food
-- November 15, 2004