The Law is an Ass

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot.”
 – Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist –

It would appear that a number of pilots would agree with Mr Bumble (perhaps not in as much as they are unhappy spouses of domineering wives – as Mr Bumble was), but feeling that some laws are applied contrary to common sense.

I find it interesting that the application of law should actually require lawyers, people schooled in law, who could stand in court and argue totally divergent points of view on how the same law should be applied. Often the stated law is interpreted on the intent of the law – clearly an indication that the law is poorly drafted.

Undergrad law students learn that the four principal purposes and functions of the law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. The law should be a guidepost for minimally acceptable behaviour in society.

So it should be simple to apply the law, but experience has shown that serial criminals could be absolved and innocent people could become victims of those laws, which should actually protect them. Sometimes the application of the law defies any common sense – perhaps one has to agree with Mr Bumble…

As pilots, we also have to deal with a plethora of laws. While subject to the laws of the land, we are also subject to the various laws as set out in the subdivisions of the Aviation Act. (I’m referring to the South African situation).

The Civil Aviation Technical Standards (CATS) and the Civil Aviation Regulations (CARS) with their many Parts apply in various stages to everything we do in, with and around our aircraft.

In effect, these aviation laws are an extension of the laws of the land and international law setting the guidelines for minimally acceptable behaviour in our society  – and aviation in particular. (We’re back to Law 101 now).

The aviation laws are clear – the interpretation of some laws are perhaps debatable – but the very basic aim is to ensure safety.

However, the laws of nature leave very little space for argument: Newton’s apple will eventually have to succumb to gravity.

Yet we hear daily of pilots defying the laws of nature: overloading aircraft, disregarding density altitudes, flying into adverse weather conditions – the list goes on and on…

Add to this the tendency to feel that “the law is an ass – it doesn’t apply to me, in fact it only applies to others…”.

Here it is instructive to note that in a study overseen by the FAA in an attempt to discover what would make a pilot “accident prone”, they found five common traits in pilots who were prone to having accidents:

  1.  Disdain toward rules.
  2.  High correlation between accidents in their flying records and safety violations in their driving records.
  3. Frequently falling into the personality category of “thrill and adventure seeking”.
  4. Impulsive rather than methodical and disciplined in information gathering and in the speed and selection of actions taken.
  5. Disregard for or under-utilization of outside sources of information, including copilots, flight attendants, flight service personnel, flight instructors and air traffic controllers.

The first trait is probably the most illuminating.

This week I encountered the argument that the skies should be free and that recreational pilots should be left to self-regulate.

I’m afraid that this argument only strengthens the FAA’s first trait of accident prone pilots (above).

The skies would only be “free” if you were the only aircraft around (disregarding your legal obligations to those on the ground and to society), but as soon as two aircraft share the same airspace, some rules need to be applied: Who has right of way, direction of circuits, see-and-avoid, etc.

Whether you regard the law as an ass – or not, please pay heed to what well known flight instructor Rod Machado has to say about aviation law:

“Rules, regulations and SOP’s are symbolic of aviation’s accumulated wisdom. Each one is a historical whisper of errors made, planes lost and limits challenged. Herein lie the posthumous tokens of aviation’s best lessons. They linguistically map out aviation’s hazardous territory. To operate beyond these areas is to thumb our noses at the gods of probability”.

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