Bucket fingers and “brilliant” aviation law

You know how some people just talk too much? Well, I write too much. I can go on for page, after page, after page, after…

And that’s a bad thing for a man living in the Twitter Universe, where reader attention spans grow shorter each month. I used to believe that if you wrote well, your reader would stick with you. Not true, apparently. One of my online editors can track how far through an article my readers go. “You lose most of them after the second page,” she told me about a piece I wrote that clicked through four “pages.”

Well, crap.

Of course, like most professional writers, I don’t think in terms of pages. I think in terms of word counts. This is probably because back in the day, we were all paid by the word. Literally. Your word count was your paycheck. That was largely replaced decades ago by pay-per-piece, with the length of pieces counted by their typewritten pages. But now, with our typewriters collecting dust, and our computers sporting a variety of type fonts, styles, sizes, and margins—word counts have returned as a handy universal way to measure the size of a written piece.


Image: Amazon

Personally, I’m perfectly happy writing 6,000 words. Most modern editors, on the other hand, want 800. Or even less. I think you can see my problem.

Anyway, today I decided to share something with you that fell on the cutting room floor, as it were, while I was trying to prune down a typically long piece I wrote to a size that readers might, you know, actually read. It was this month’s column for Questions from the Cockpit, at GA News, and it deals with the origin of aviation right-of-way rules. I’m not going to be a spoiler, you’ll just have to wait until the column hits the streets later this month to read all about that; but I didn’t have enough words to re-tell a wonderful Plane Tale I discovered from the earliest days of aviation. Setting the stage, you need to know that back before Federal regulation of civil aviation, some of the states tried to create laws regarding them new-fangled air-e-o-planes them pesky birdmen was buzzin’ around in.

Henry Woodhouse, in his 1920 Textbook of Aerial Laws, wrote that these attempts often ended badly, understatedly saying, “Most of the state laws proposed overlooked the fact that to enforce aerial laws requires a staff of experts, as well as an aerial police.” The lack of an aerial police force certainly didn’t stop the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, although, as you’ll soon see, the lack of experts turned out to be a serious stumbling block for the commonwealth’s law enforcement officers.

It happened in 1913, only a decade after Orville broke the laws of gravity over the sands of Kill Devil Hills, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed its Act to Regulate the Use of Aircraft. The Act set down procedures for aircraft registration, established right of way rules, set minimum altitudes for crossing over various sized communities and cities, created regulations about landing on highways and public parks (verboten except in an emergency), and required pilots to get a license from the Massachusetts Highway Commission.

Woodhouse tells us what happened next: “After the act went into effect an aviator applied for a license and was told that no provision had been made for a board of experts to conduct the necessary examination,” so he could not be given a license. Naturally, he flew without one. And naturally, was arrested for flying without a license—an action punishable under the Act by a fine of not less than $10 and not more than $500 ($258 x to $12,900 adjusted for inflation), along with a possible six months in the slammer.

Holy flying cow. That’s a harsher penalty than you’d get today!

Now, in the interest of keeping my word count down today, I’ll cut to the happy ending. Woodhouse tells us, “When it was explained that he had applied for the license but the Commonwealth was not prepared to give it to him, he was discharged.”

See? Sometimes there is justice when dealing with aviation bureaucrats. Well, at least once. Back in 1913…


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