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Bottle Cap Challenge Brouhaha

After an aviation writer dressed down the participants of a popular Internet challenge, the blowback was swift.

Ah, the joy of counseling safety to others.

Those of you who are parents know how hard it can be to find a balance between protecting your kids from danger and letting them learn how to assess and deal with risk. Whether it’s the trip down to the corner store or trying to catch big air on their BMXs, there’s keeping them safe and there’s letting them live. Of course, where you come down on this depends on what your kids are like and what the nature of the danger is. And once they’ve flown the nest, let’s face it, they’ll be making those calls on their own. That doesn’t mean their hijinks along the way won’t result in hopefully far less severe forms of the cracked skulls our grandparents warned us about, but it does mean they’ll get the chance to figure things out on their own, where real learning takes place.

But what does this have to do with flying? Everything.

As you might know, the world of backcountry flying has been in a snit this past week after a writer at quarterly aviation and full-time online magazine Flying, where I worked for many years, penned a piece entitled Social Media’s ‘Bottle Cap Challenge’ A Dangerous Game.

If you haven’t heard of it, the idea of the challenge is to arrange on the runway near the centerline a row of two-liter bottles of soda, their caps screwed off but still in place. The object is for the pilot to take off and come back around, using one of the plane’s tires to knock off the bottle caps without knocking over the bottles. I’ve never done it, but it sounds hard. Strike that. It sounds impossible. And if you were to succeed at doing it, then you’re a hell of a pilot, at least when it comes to telling how high above terra firma your tires are. That skill, I should hasten to add, is a critical one for pilots who frequently get their kicks way off Route 66, where short fields and big obstacles make precision touchdowns a critical safety skill.

The piece was written by Meg Godlewski, a staff writer for Flying and a high-time CFI. Godlewski has covered light GA and safety of flight subjects for years. And in this case, her piece highlighted the risks of the challenge, one of which was the danger, as she saw it, of foreign object damage, or FOD, to aircraft operations in general, and counseled against doing it. As is often the case with uninvited safety counseling, the reception on the part of the counseled was less than gracious. In fact, many members of social media backcountry aviation groups were up in arms, and their comments about the story and its author were less than kind. 

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Much of the response focused on why Meg was wrong in worrying about the challenge, which is fair. Others, however, turned it into personal attacks, which isn’t kind. Still others mocked the author’s concerns about FOD. Someone even created a mean-spirited hashtag. Some of it, sadly, focused on the author’s being a woman, which is deplorable. Even leaders in the backcountry community joined in. It wasn’t pretty. 

Seeing the blowback, Flying wasted no time with pushing out a rebuttal to its own article in a piece, written by Josh Richling, who works as a crew chief for the National STOL series and writes for Flying covering STOL events, Richling lauded the Bottle Cap Challenge, saying that it was a great event, one that epitomizes the joy of flying and has, through its massive social media impact, shown how much fun flying can be. It was a bit too much treacle for my tastes, but I mostly agreed with the author’s opinion.

One central issue in the hubbub over Godlewski’s story that is so obvious to those involved but they don’t think to mention is the outlaw culture of backcountry flying. Aviation is a heavily regulated pastime, and it doesn’t make sense to rub the Feds’ face in its ride-free-or-die ethic, but it’s there. I’m tempted to say it’s the single theme of the popular High Sierra Fly-In. These are people living by their own rules. Safety is a critical concern, but it’s tempered with the knowledge that living their kinds of flying lives accepts elevated levels of risk as part of the deal. 

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The whole affair has highlighted the same interpersonal dilemma that I mentioned earlier—when to counsel caution and when not to just let it go. Here, the choice was clear. There was a group of grown people, really smart and talented people, I might add, with certificates in their wallet doing something that, all things considered, carries with it limited risk, done at slow speed, in landing configuration and close to the ground.

In this case at least, the answer is easy. Let the kids play.

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