The Moral Case for Transponders

On Tuesday May 28th, 1889, Johnstown Pennsylvania was bustling with activity. The town of over 30,000 laborers, immigrants and professionals went about their daily lives, many of whom worked in the Cambria Steel Works producing thousands of tons of steel that drove the American industrial revolution. The growing town had three newspapers, immigrants from all over Europe, including Germans, Poles, Jews, Hungarians, Czechs and many more. Their working conditions were brutal, working 12 hours plus per day, six to seven days a week and all for meager wages. However, compared to what most experienced in their old country, they were living the good life. Their meager wages allowed for what they felt was a respectable existence and for a better future for their children. Little did they know that their life was about to be turned upside down.

On this very day, a low pressure system developed over Nebraska and started to ominously move toward Western Pennsylvania. On the night of the 30th, the storm moved over Johnstown and dumped six to ten inches of rain over the course of 24 hours. The rain-soaked slopes of the Allegheny plateau drained rapidly into their respective streams, which became raging torrents. Rail lines, roads and telegraph poles washed away as the river banks swelled. However, a much direr situation loomed over Johnstown. The water in Lake Conemaugh was rising over an inch every ten minutes, putting unbearable pressure on its 72-foot-high dam. On May 31st, despite desperate efforts by the local groundskeepers to raise the dam’s level and plug its leaks, it burst.

Within minutes, the Conemaugh River roared with a 20ft high tidal wave that engulfed everything in its wake. The churning water crashed into Johnstown, ripping through main street and bulldozed everything in its path. Most of the town was leveled and over 2200 people died. Families torn apart, fragile livelihoods; all destroyed within seconds. In the aftermath, the whole world was riveted to the horrifying news, seeing the images of the destruction and following the recovery efforts. Everyone asked how could this have possibly happened?

The press quickly found that Lake Conemaugh and the dam were owned by the South Fork hunting and fishing club, frequented by notable industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon and many more. The dam was built as part of the Pennsylvania canal system, but later abandoned when the canal no longer became financially viable. The club bought the complex, which became a getaway for the wealthy, retreating from the hustle and bustle of Pittsburgh city life. While many warned the club and its wealthy patrons that the dam was unstable, they saw little reason to make structural improvements. Over the 21 years that they owned it, it frequently sprang leaks. The owners simply filled it more dirt and manure rather than make recommended changes. Every time an alarmist would complain, they would simply note that over the many years and storms where it managed to hold are clear evidence that nothing was wrong.  When it finally burst, they simply said no one could have seen it coming.  Little good did that do. 

Flash forward to the year 2016 and us gliderpilots are presiding over our very own South Fork Dam. Thanks to our proximity to New York City, we fly in the busiest airspace in the world and we are doing so without the use of readily available collision-avoidance equipment. The approach paths and airways that criss-cross over our heads carry hundreds of corporate and airliner traffic into a metropolis with over 20 million people. Most of us have had uncomfortably close encounters with this traffic, at times without noticing them until they just appear right before us. It’s just a matter of time until someone finally collides. And when this happens, it might as well be the South Fork Dam bursting. If a glider hits an airliner, it would undoubtedly kill hundreds of passengers and crew. Just like in Johnstown, many lives and livelihoods would be instantly and unjustifiably destroyed.

The blame and responsibility would be rightfully placed on the shoulders of those who were irresponsibly pursuing leisure and fun, while knowingly risking the lives of hundreds of people. Beyond the immediate disaster, the consequences for soaring and general aviation as a whole would be unbearable. Unlike the wealthy industrialists who managed to pay for the best legal counsel and have the whole ordeal considered “an act of god”, the glider club does not consist of those who own a half of this country’s wealth. While it is difficult to speculate the exact nature of the long-term consequences, lawsuits would follow and airspace regulations would likely become much more severe. It is quite improbable that gliders would ever fly again from Blairstown.

Some would point out that we are perfectly legal in operating the way we do. “It’s a see and avoid environment,” they purport. This is misguided. Just because we are allowed to operate close to airliners without collision avoidance equipment in no way morally justifies that we should continue doing so. The airliners and corporate traffic operate here because they are performing a public good whereas we are a group of guys having fun. True, we are not legally obliged to buy transponders, but neither were the members of South Fork Hunting and Fishing club legally bound to properly maintain their dam. Just like how you were disgusted at the negligence of the industrialists, the readers of CNN, FoxNews, NY Times and the NBC will be appalled that a glider pilot irresponsibly having fun caused a collision with an airliner and led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. They will make no distinction about the technicalities of the FARs and the paltry excuse that we didn’t have to use the same equipment expected of all other general aviation airplanes operating in this area.Others may ask why we must at all be concerned about such a low probability event. That we have been flying for 40 years out of Blairstown and nothing has happened so far. However, the South Fork dam lasted 21 years despite repeated warnings of its weak structural integrity. Just because a midair has not happened yet does not justify continued negligent behavior.

However, there is a solution to this problem. Indeed, it is for the club to equip its sailplanes with transponders and to encourage all privately owned gliders to do the same. In doing so, we will become visible to the incoming traffic and to approach control. To do so would require an investment of about $2000 into each transponder plus installation costs. While this is a major investment, purchasing transponders for all of our club gliders is well within the club’s reserves. Furthermore, since the resell value of each aircraft, a significant part of the cost is simply redirecting the equity of the club from money sitting in the bank to life-saving instruments in the air.

Beyond the dollars and cents, the investment is pale in comparison to the consequences if failing to do so leads to a catastrophe. I can guarantee that retrospectively, if a disaster were to occur, we all would have gladly paid the expense of equipping our aircraft with the appropriate equipment. We have the opportunity to become responsible participants in the busiest airspace in the world; let’s do so.