Fox News Follies

Editor's Note: The following is the complete text of an April 22, 2002 letter from Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, to Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News Channel.

Dear Mr. Ailes:

Little did I realize our paths would cross, even though I went off into a totally different field than television, where you and I met and worked for so long. Actually, I do recall you had substantial experience working with candidates as a political advisor, so we have almost swapped places. Sadly, however, this letter is to complain about a story that I and many of our 380,000 AOPA members think crossed the line beyond the fair and accurate reporting that I know you personally promote. The report surrounded the so-called "threat" of small general aviation aircraft to nuclear power plants.

Reporter Douglas Kennedy misrepresented the facts and misled the audience. He claimed he rented a small airplane and made multiple passes over the Indian Point nuclear power plant, lingering in the area for twenty minutes. "No one warned the pilot of anything," Kennedy said. "No one at the plant, in fact, did or said a single thing in regards to the plane."

That was false and Kennedy knew it.

Your staff misrepresented the nature of the story to the flight school. They said they wanted to rent an airplane to photograph escape routes near the plant. Based on that representation, the pilot of the aircraft telephoned the manager on duty at the New York Terminal Area Radar Control facility and obtained permission for the flight.

The aircraft departed Teterboro with an assigned, discrete transponder code, and under direction of air traffic control. It flew northbound past the plant at above 2,000 feet, continued north for about three miles, then flew west for several miles, then south until about four miles south of the plant, then turned back upriver and flew past the plant again. Once well past the plant, the pilot turned around and flew southbound past the plant for a third time. The video crew requested another pass, but the pilot declined because he had already told air traffic control that he had completed the photo run.

The federal government knew who was onboard the aircraft and knew what the purpose of the flight was. The federal government maintained constant radar vigilance on the aircraft and remained in communication with the pilot.

The flight school verified the identities of your crewmembers before the flight, including making copies of their photo IDs.

Should anyone have been concerned about this aircraft passing the Indian Point power plant? Of course not. The flight had been cleared and was being tracked, the crew and passengers were known, the purpose of the flight approved.

Kennedy's story also did not fairly represent the threat of a general aviation aircraft crashing into a nuclear facility. He cited a nuclear activist, with no identified engineering expertise, claiming that a small aircraft could damage a nuclear facility, and "damage to the spent fuel pool could lead to a massive release of radioactivity, which would then threaten the entire New York metropolitan area..."

Yet independent nuclear engineers have confirmed for us that even an airliner could not penetrate the containment vessel house the nuclear reactor. Spent fuel rods are kept in steel-lined concrete "swimming pool" designed to withstand an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale. Some thirty feet of water covers the fuel rods. Even if an aircraft were able to penetrate the building covering the storage pool, it couldn't get to the fuel rods. When impacted at aircraft speeds, water is harder than concrete. Pieces of the aircraft might sink down to the fuel rods, but it's extraordinarily unlikely that the fuel would be disturbed.

And Kennedy claimed that most nuclear plants "are near a major airport." He neglected to mention that all nuclear plants have been designed taking into account the plant's proximity to an airport; it's proximity to federal airways, and proximity to military aircraft training routes.

In sum, your staff misrepresented themselves and the facts to obtain a sensationalistic story that unfairly alarmed a trusting public. Our members had expected better from Fox News, and, frankly, you and I know well these facts spell poor journalism.

Sincerely,

Phil Boyer

Phil Boyer is president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

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