By Kathi Bliss
My boss will probably tell you that one of the most irksome professional habits I have is using either movie quotes or song lyrics for inspiration in much of the work that I do. He might find that annoying because so frequently, I draw from the same handful of movies, suggesting that I don’t have a terribly broad range of entertainment perspective.
Fact of the matter is, I draw from the movies I do, generally because they’re well-written, they contain interesting dialogue, and because for whatever reason, they’re relevant to what’s bouncing around in my head at any given point in time.
Which brings me to one of my most common sources, 1995’s “The American President,” with Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen. In the particular scene I’m thinking of, Douglas’s “President Andrew Shepherd” is arguing with his Chief of Staff, AJ MacInerney, in a brilliant performance by Sheen. The two are arguing about whether or not Shepherd should swing back against a political rival taking shots at his character.
MacInerney: You think you’re wrong?
Shepherd: I don’t think you win elections by telling 59 percent of the American people that they are. You fight the fights you can win.
MacInerney: YOU FIGHT THE FIGHTS THAT NEED FIGHTING.
That scene was playing in my head on Monday afternoon when I left a very long meeting to discuss the NTSB hearing last week. It was in my head because I’d jokingly told a friend, who has forgotten more about bureaucracy than I will ever know, that I was planning to “pick a fight with the FAA.” She told me, in the plain language I’d expect from a retired police officer, “I know you know what you’re doing, but watch your six.”
And then, as I started to dig through more than 400 pages of testimony and evidence, I thought about that more and more. As I came to discover that, back in 2007, the NTSB had asked the FAA to strengthen regulations that cover the ballooning industry, and the FAA had declined. I discovered that the NTSB had asked the FAA to enlist at least the same restrictions on touring balloons as they impose on touring helicopters… I discovered that touring balloon companies serve, on average, six customers to every one served by touring helicopters.
And I read this quote from the NTSB in that 2007 “White Paper” to the FAA:
“As perhaps a testament to FAA insensitivity to this segment of aviation, there is no FAA database depicting the number and whereabouts of commercial balloon tour operators. The most comprehensive listing appears to be in a website at www.blastvalve.com.”
The more I read, the more I realized that FAA oversight is absolutely necessary in this form of aviation. I read a line of testimony in those 400-odd pages, where an FAA representative admitted that the laws governing touring balloons haven’t been addressed “since the 1930’s.”
Back in August, I spent some time speaking to the survivors of the victims of this horrible crash, both passenger and pilot. No matter the outcome of the remainder of this investigation, I feel sympathy for all of them, and promised each when I spoke to them, that while I would do all I can do, professionally, to protect them and their families from any undue emotional harm, that I would continue to cover the story to its eventual end – which could be miles up the road.
And then on Tuesday morning, I got a telephone call.
The call was from the father of one of the victims, who wanted to make sure that he saw what I wrote on the hearings. I explained that I was still doing research, but of course I would drop a copy of this week’s Post-Register in the mail for him. He then said something to me that broke my heart, made me cry, and filled me with incredible pride and passion, all at the same time.
“Thank you, Ms. Bliss. Thank you for having shoulders strong enough to listen to all of this.”
Yep. You fight the fights that need fighting. This is a fight that needs fighting.
Professionally, I’ve already reached out to our State Representative, our two US Congressmen and our US Senators. This week, I intend to draft letters to all of them, as a citizen, and I hope that you will join me in doing so.
We in Caldwell County are a special breed. Everyone who had a hand on this nightmare, from our Justice of the Peace, to our first responders, our victims’ services and yes, even our media, have receive accolades for our handling of a tragedy that drew international headlines. I’m flattered to be a part of a team that worked so flawlessly and so seamlessly to handle something so absolutely “above our pay grade.” At a cellular level, I think that all of us did what we did because that’s what we do. But what I also know is that we do what we do because we are the community that we are – I know that in some other places, the folks who WEREN’T involved in a “boots on the ground” capacity would have just skated right past it.
But here in Caldwell County, we don’t skate past terrible things. We strap up our boots, dig in, and do whatever we can do to help. If we can’t help, at the very least, we can FEEL. And that’s what we did, after this horrible thing. We felt. We all did.
Here’s the part where I “pick the fight.”
I’m not going to jump on a “blame game” wagon and say that the FAA is responsible for this tragedy. I am going to suggest that their “stale complaint” policy, which allowed them to by-and-large ignore a complaint made against the pilot of that balloon, three years before the crash, was probably the wrong thing for them to do. I AM going to suggest that regulations that haven’t had a second look since the Wizard flew his balloon “over the rainbow” and into Oz may deserve some scrutiny.
And I am going to say with absolute conviction that it is our responsibility as a community, it is our duty as loving human beings, to stand up and fight the fight that needs fighting. It is too late to save the pilot and fifteen passengers that climbed on that balloon in Fentress on Saturday morning, July 30. But it’s not too late for us to do the right thing by the families that they left behind, or to bring pressure to bear on our representatives to see that families of future balloon passengers are protected – that future husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, don’t have to suffer the same fate in a remote cornfield, far from home and completely unaware that their next breath could be their last.
Every time you go up in an airplane, every time a tourist signs up for a helicopter tour, the FAA is aware of the pilot, that pilot’s medical, mental and chemical history; they’re aware of flight manifests, of flight plans, launch and landing locations, and of the inspection history and condition of the craft you’re riding in. You could climb in a balloon basket, and no one would ever know.
And your average 737 has a whole lot more safety features than your average wicker basket. Heck, your average six-passenger Cessna is probably safer than a 65 square foot wicker basket powered by 40 gallons of propane and 300,000 cubic feet of hot air. Yet pilots of the airplanes have to go through rigorous scrutiny before they’re deemed “flight-worthy.” Balloon pilots, basically, have to show up and self-report.
That’s not good enough. That’s nowhere near good enough.
The names and addresses of your Federal and State representatives are listed below. Do with that what you will. I know what I mean to do.
Senator John Cornyn (R)
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C., 20510
Senator Ted Cruz (R)
B40B Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C., 20510
US Representative, District 35 Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin)
201 Cannon House Office Building
Independence and 1st St., SE
Washington, D.C., 20515
US Representative, District 27 Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus)
2110 Rayburn HOB
Washington, D.C., 20515
Texas Senator, District 18 Senator Judith Zaffrini (D-Laredo)
PO Box 12068, Capitol Station
Austin, Texas, 78711
Texas Representative, District 17 Rep. John Cyrier
Room E2.802, Capitol Extension
PO Box 2910
Austin, Texas, 78768