Last week we held our first meeting with members of the local community. A couple of months ago Bob Stenevik, David Oliver and I attended a public meeting at the airport, where neighbors were expressing their concerns about the airport development plan. It was a noisy and raucous affair, reminded me of some stormy trade union meetings when I ran a coal mining museum back home in Scotland. (Here’s a piece of free advice: never pick a fight with a militant Scottish coal miner!)
But any concerns we had about the CAF’s community meeting were ill-founded. There was a healthy turn-out - I counted 62 people - and a respectful tone prevailed throughout. Our president Steve Brown kicked off with a 40 minute presentation where he covered the basics of what the CAF is, what we plan to do in Dallas, and our commitment to be the best neighbors that we can be. He also tried to answer some of the questions and concerns that had been brought to our attention ahead of time.
Steve was assisted by Brad Lang, who reviewed the activities of the Red Tail Squadron. As I've told many people since joining CAF, this unit is a microcosm of what we're trying to do with the whole National Airbase project. Yes the squadron flies an amazing airplane, but they go much, much deeper. They understand the message the airplane carries and, using first-class display techniques, create a powerful experience that inspires and educates. This has brought both fundraising success (over $2 million) and significant outreach impact - roughly 50,000 kids a year go through the traveling experience. I recently spent a day with the Squadron at a middle school in Virginia and will write an expanded blog about that soon.
Back to the public meeting, Steve and Brad's presentation was followed by about an hour of open question-and-answer. Some of the questions were ordinary and expected, others were quite "pointed", but at the end of the evening we felt it had been a good and productive exchange of information. There were a lot of appreciative comments afterwards. Even from my wife, who was in the audience. I received a mild ticking-off about all the things she learned in the meeting that I’d never told her.
I felt one of the best exchanges was on the subject of diversity in the CAF. This was a very fair question to ask. And to be honest, the issue of diversity is an embarrassment to the whole of aviation. The US pilot population is 94% male and 6% female; and ethnic diversity almost non-existent. The question is what are we doing about it? CAF is the third aviation organization I've worked for since moving to the USA and I can honestly say it's the most progressive, in terms of what the leadership is trying to do. Is there room for improvement? You bet. But is progress being made? I thought Brad Lang spoke very sincerely on the culture change he's seen in CAF over the past 17 years. As we made the decision to move to Dallas Executive, diversity was a very real part of the discussion. We talked about the opportunity to take a leadership role. For example, 37% of the population of Texas (and 42% of the population of Dallas) is Hispanic or Latino. One of the most exciting ideas we've got for the CAF national airbase is the opportunity to restore and fly a P-47 Thunderbolt in honor of the "Aztec Eagles", the only Mexican squadron to fly in World War II.
I noticed the "heat" in the room got turned up whenever the questions turned to the City and their plans for the runways. We certainly heard the frustration, but these are not questions CAF can answer. We'll be a tenant at the airport like many others, we're not running it. I hope this point did come through, and also that the airport in its current configuration is plenty adequate for CAF's needs.
I also felt some frustration that we were unable to share the full and exact terms of the economic development agreement CAF has made with City officials. We ask for everyone's understanding that we need to follow due process. Right now we're halfway through turning a "handshake" agreement into the leases and legal agreements that will be presented to the City Council for approval, and everything will be subject to public scrutiny at that time. But to reiterate a few points made at the meeting: (1) we expect to be a significant net contributor to both the culture and economy of the City of Dallas; (2) there is no "free ride" - the deal is constructed in such a way that CAF must deliver on its plans and promises before receiving a cent of public money; (3) the City support will account for about 20% of the overall capital project; (4) there are no provisions for financial support of ongoing operations; and (5) all buildings and improvements at the airport made by CAF will belong to the City.
There was some negative feedback about the high cost of airplane rides. We make them as affordable as we can, but as every CAF unit will affirm, World War II airplanes are not cheap to operate! I wouldn't overstate the importance of rides in our vision for the CAF museum attraction, my expectation is that something in the region of 2% of visitors will actually take a flight in a historic plane. For them, it's the ultimate living history experience, often the ride of a lifetime. For the rest, it's a chance to see and hear the airplane fly; and there will be PLENTY other things to do, including some cutting-edge uses of flight simulation. And don't forget that Steve Brown also talked about free airplane rides. I once ran a program called Young Eagles which since 1992 has given a free airplane ride to over 1.8 million kids. My wife and I have personally donated over 400 flights to this program, and it’s something we look forward to doing at Dallas Executive. I was very pleased to see that one of the first things the new airport manager (Darrell Phillips) did was organize a Young Eagles event that gave a free airplane ride to 80 local kids. CAF will actively support initiatives like this.
One of the questions was “why was the community not consulted before you made your announcement?” As Steve Brown explained, in an ideal world that would have happened, but we found ourselves on a very tight timeline, juggling three locations that were trying to attract the CAF. Also, the Dallas Morning News had published this clearly-worded editorial in September 2013. At the meeting where the final decision was made I showed this piece to the CAF Board and we discussed it. We were pleased to have the newspaper’s support, and figured that if there were major objections to the idea of CAF moving to Dallas Executive, we’d have heard them after such a public article.
Some questions during and after the meeting have related to safety, of aircraft operations and of air shows. I'll give my personal perspective. First, if we’re going to have airplanes and airports we have to accept, yes, they do sometimes crash and people die. In America this tends to range between 400 and 500 people per year, about the same number as die falling out of bed. My mother worries about me flying small planes. I tell her it’s more dangerous than driving a car, but less dangerous than riding a bicycle, motorcycle or horse (and I try not to tell lies to my mother.)
One thing worth mentioning about air safety in America is that the regulations are designed as a balance between the individual liberty of the pilot, and the protection of the unknowing person – passengers, homeowners, air show spectators and so on. Or put in more crude terms, the regulations give a pilot the freedom to risk their own neck, but wherever possible to avoid harm to anyone else.
As a Brit who moved to the USA, this is one of the finest concepts I’ve ever seen and a practical demonstration of freedom and liberty at work in America. It plays out in lots of different ways but perhaps most pertinent is in air shows. There are hundreds of air shows each year attracting 10 million plus spectators. And in any given year there will, unfortunately, be a handful of accidents. But it’s always the air show performer that gets hurt. It’s a verifiable fact that there hasn’t been a spectator fatality at an air show in the USA since 1951, when the rules were changed by a terrible tragedy in Colorado. [Note... some spectators were tragically killed watching an air race in Reno, NV in 2011. A casual observer may not see the distinction but there are huge operational and regulatory differences between air shows and air races.] Great care is taken at air shows to manage the positioning of aircraft and people. The aircraft fly within what’s called a “box” and this cannot extend over residential properties. So, for the demonstrations CAF intends to conduct at Dallas Executive the footprint of the “box” will be contained within the physical boundaries of the airport.
Does CAF have an unblemished safety record? No, its members have been flying since 1957 and there was a time in the early days when the safety record was actually quite poor. But does the modern CAF take safety incredibly seriously? Absolutely. It’s our moral responsibility and we know the future of the organization rests on our ability to fly safely and responsibly. In fact, my first personal exposure to CAF was a few years ago when I ran historic aircraft operations for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, WI. We’d experienced a couple of accidents and were overhauling our safety program. Where did we find the industry-leading model that we wanted to emulate? At the CAF. The thing that impressed us most was the organization’s commitment to a culture of safety. Since I joined the CAF staff it’s been reassuring to see and feel that culture at work every day.
Finally, I received an email after the public meeting that contained some skeptical thoughts about whether CAF can actually pull off its ambitious dreams of a world-class museum attraction. ("Magical thinking" was the phrase used, and it wasn't a compliment!) To this I also say "fair comment"....indeed if there were no skepticism I’d be worried. One of my great privileges in life has been to work with Burt Rutan, the most brilliant aviation innovator of the modern age. One of Burt's favorite sayings is that he gets truly interested in a project when about 50% of the people around him say "it can't be done" and the other 50% say "hmmm, maybe this is possible." This way of thinking led Burt to change the entire paradigm of the space industry... and “change the paradigm” is what we plan to do to the world of aviation museums. Personally I find it motivating and invigorating. Yes we're dreaming big, and we're taking on some risk... but aren’t those the things that move the human race forward?
We’re assembling a world class team and believe we have all the ingredients to succeed. And if we fail? Our worst case scenario is that the fundraising effort falls completely flat, in which case CAF will build a headquarters and modest museum on a budget of about $5 million. A more likely contingency (especially as the fundraising dollars are already starting to come in) is that we fail to hit the full $40 million fundraising target, in which case we’ll scale or phase our efforts accordingly. From where we sit today we are several years away from a decision like that. And remember what I wrote earlier, this is a low-to-no risk deal for the City – before we receive any financial incentives we must first deliver.
So that’s my take on the public meeting. I enjoyed it and look forward to more in the future, as we move through the project I want to get community input on the detailed design and operations of our facilities. Further comments and questions are welcome in the comments section below. We are firmly committed to being the best neighbors we can be.