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16 January 2008

Senator Barack Obama Involved in Aircraft Mishap on 12 January 2008

United States Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama was a passenger in a Gulfstream 2 aircraft that collided with another aircraft on the ground at Midway Airport in Chicago. Senator Obama, members of his campaign staff, and Secret Service agents had just flown in from Nevada, where he had been campaigning. The left wingtip of the Gulfstream hit the right wingtip of a parked and unoccupied Cessna 208 aircraft.The impact was so minor that no one on the plane noticed any damage until later.

While the incident caused no injuries and only minor aircraft damage, it does bring up a potential public policy issue. Specifically, the issue of what should be considered an acceptable air transportation risk for presidential candidates. A comparison can be made with the policy on Secret Service protection for presidential candidates. Prior to the assassination of the presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, there were no clear standards or legal requirements for physical security of presidential candidates. Security decisions were largely left up to local law enforcement and to the candidates' campaign staffs. After the assassination, the US Congress authorized protection of major presidential and vice presidential candidates and nominees.

The nature of the US presidential electoral process demands that candidates have to travel a great deal during the months leading up to the election. The candidates typically use a variety of air travel options, from scheduled commercial airliners to privately chartered aircraft. While there are risks with any type of air travel, the risks are higher for some kinds of flights. Senator Obama's aircraft was operating as a nonscheduled air carrier flight under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which are less strict than the Part 121 regulations for larger air carrier aircraft, and more strict than the Part 91 regulations for general aviation. Historically, the accident risk has been highest for Part 91 flight operations, significantly lower for Part 135 operations, and lower still for Part 121 operations. For example, in 2006 the NTSB estimated that the accident rate for general aviation flights was about four times greater than the Part 135 accident rate, and about 50 times greater than the rate for Part 121 air carrier flights.

The potential policy issue is whether exposure to air travel risks faced by presidential candidates should be limited by requiring that flights taken by candidates meet some minimum standard. A realistic limitation could take many forms, such as use of only approved aircraft operators or airlines, or perhaps requiring that candidates use government or military air transportation. The reasons for even considering such a a policy are the potentially negative political and social impacts of having a candidate seriously injured or killed during a campaign, especially from managable risks such as those associated with air travel.

Fortunately, Senator Obama was not injured in his aircraft mishap. However, given the risks that he and the other candidates will continue to face, it seems reasonable to consider some kind of risk reduction policy now, and by doing so perhaps preventing a catastrophic disruption to the political process.

Related Resources
Selected Fatal Events Involving US Political Figures
NTSB Accident Rate Estimates for 2006

1 comment:

  1. I was the pilot in command,(PIC)of the then campaigning and elder George Bush, #41 I think. This is when he was stomping through Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. I was the senior PIC in the 135 company the campaign staff chose or the Secret Service, (SS) chose. I don't know who picks the air carrier company for this kind of 135 flying. It took a long time for the SS to go through the background checks that were required of them to do. They did background checks on ALL of the crew members who were chosen to fly these campaign missions. Keep in mind that when missions such as these are decided to do, there is more then just ONE airplane involved. I mean don't forget that there must be the primary plane for the candidate to be on but then there also are aircraft for the large compliment of SS agents who accompany the candidate, another plane for the cadre of people who work with the candidate and at least two planes for the press who chase the candidate all over the country. This is all correographed before the initial takeoff. Think about it and then picture it in your mind. When the candidate gets onboard his plane, the press is there to film it, right? You see the candidate climbing the air stairs into the plane. Then you see the candidate's plane taxi out and take off. Then, you see the candidate's plane land at the next airport, don't you? Well, this is all planned out so you see the candidate taxi out and then land. To do this the candiate's plane does take off first and the press plane taxi's out second with the rest of the entourage. After the candidate's plane takes off, it makes a high climb to loose some time. That's right, loose time. As the lead plane, (candidate's)climb in order to accomplish loosing time to get the pictures of the candidate's plane while it lands ahead of the presses which took of after the candidate's, the way it works is while the lead plane climbs and looses time, the press plane stays low and passes up the candidate's plane, lands first and is ready to take pictures of the candidate's plane with him / her coming out of the airplane's door waving at everyone. Sounds a little complicated but it's not. But, there are many planes in the entourage. The media, SS, the candidate and then all the support people. There could be as many as 5 or so aircraft following the lead plane where the candidate is seated in comfort. I enjoyed it, but after many legs of doing this and constantly coordinating all this climbing and descending in a non-standard way with Air Traffic Control,(ATC) it just gets very routine.

    When the gaggle of aircraft get to the next airport, they are all parked in the same general area, very close to one another on the ramp. Because of this, bumping into one another during the enplaning and de-planing the aircraft it is very easy for these things to happen. This type of accident is refered to as, "hangar rash". It's a wonder this type of hangar rash never happened to me when I was doing this important flying. By the way, when you are flying candidates around the country such as this, ATC assigns different kinds of "Call Signs" to all the aircraft helping to distingush them from the standard air traffic. You also get priority handling when doing this. Nice job if you can get it, huh?