YouTube, Top Gun, and aviation culture

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YouTube, Top Gun, and aviation culture

Is YouTube good or bad for general aviation? That seems to be a popular hangar flying debate these days, especially since a number of high profile pilots have found themselves in hot water with the FAA over the last month. The answer to this question may be more important for the future of GA than you think.

Any pilot with a smartphone knows the stories, so I won’t bore you with the details. To recap: Trevor Jacob recorded himself jumping out of a Taylorcraft that suffered a mysterious “engine failure;” Red Bull tried to one-up the former Olympic snowboarder with the made-for-Hulu “Plane Swap” but failed when one of the airplanes crashed; and well-known YouTuber Trent Palmer is fighting a certificate suspension after flying low over a friend’s house in Nevada (that he contends was a go-around).

Each of these events differs in important ways, but all three fit the same narrative: a government agency desperately trying to get control of a fast-moving cultural trend, and mostly failing.

YouTube’s warped incentives

Plane swapPlane swap

Crazy stunts get attention, which is the most valuable commodity online.

Now before we launch into a good old fashioned “bash the feds” rant, let’s acknowledge a few uncomfortable facts. First, the FAA is not automatically the villain. Jacob got his certificate yanked and deserved it: crashing an airplane for views is the very definition of “careless and reckless,” and it jeopardizes the activity we all love. The Red Bull pilots did a little more planning but still don’t deserve much sympathy. They asked for permission, got denied, then went ahead with their stunt anyway. As Paul Bertorelli wrote recently, “If we agree to basic training and licensing requirements, we also agree to a rules framework which we accept in exchange for avoiding utter chaos.” The Red Bull stunt brazenly ignored that framework.

The Palmer case is more complicated, a “he said/she said” situation that was either a perfectly safe inspection pass on an unfamiliar landing strip or a reckless buzz job. If you believe Palmer, the FAA is criticizing exactly the procedure they recommend pilots perform when landing at an unfamiliar strip. At the very least, the agency seems to have wasted an inordinate amount of time on a very minor event (that happened in 2019). Why all the attention? Only the folks at 800 Independence Avenue know for sure, but my guess is they are trying to make an example of an internet famous pilot in order to crack down on what they see as increasingly dangerous stunts.

Here again, an uncomfortable fact to admit before we get too fired up: there are indeed some incredibly stupid pilot tricks online, and they seem to be increasingly common. The incentives created by the hyper-competitive “attention economy” are rarely aligned with safety. Boring flights that end with a perfect landing might get a few thousand views, while jumping out of an airplane will get millions. Some YouTubers, frustrated after years of fighting the algorithm, decide you can be righteous or you can be rich—but not both.

Think they’re wrong? Jacob’s video has over 2.5 million views. And it’s not just him: dozens of other channels have chimed in with their own videos providing reactions and commentary on the original (a genre popularized by YouTube). It’s a vicious circle, where outrage feeds outrage.

This is not a new trend. Since newspapers were invented 400 years ago, content creators have chased subscribers with lurid stories and hare-brained publicity stunts. What has changed recently is the scale. Herbert Simon famously said “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” and what a wealth of information we live with in 2022. Every day, over 700,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, thousands of times more than the entire TV industry created 50 years ago. Even if 99.99% of those videos aren’t about aviation, that means there are still 70 hours of new flying videos to watch. Every. Single. Day.

The result? We are all incredibly poor when it comes to attention.

Don’t reward bad behavior

Certainly not all YouTube pilots fall into this extreme flying trap; there are many who consistently put out excellent videos (including Palmer, who is a first rate drone pilot in addition to flying his Kitfox). I’ve worked with a number of them over the years, from Steve Thorne at Flight Chops to Chris Palmer at Angle of Attack to JP Schulze at The Candourist, and I’m continually impressed by how much planning and effort goes into each video. For every minute of fun flying, there are hours of grueling work behind the scenes to make it look easy, and the best creators are fanatical about safety.

Trevor Jacob jumpTrevor Jacob jump

Videos like this have an impact on the rest of the industry.

This makes it all the more frustrating when a few bad actors draw the FAA’s attention—which is exactly what’s happening right now. To be clear, it’s not Trent Palmer’s fault that Trevor Jacob jumped out of a perfectly good airplane (indeed, the low pass happened years before these latest stunts), but those kinds of viral videos have knock-on effects that impact the good guys. The FAA is not known for discretion or keeping up with technology—only recently did they remove questions about celestial navigation from knowledge tests—so expecting them to be thoughtful about social media is naive. The baby will get thrown out with the bath water in an attempt to solve the problem.

Where does that leave us? I’m not suggesting aviation enthusiasts quit YouTube. Rather, we should reward good behavior by supporting those creators who play by the rules (subscribe, support their Patreon, buy their merch, etc.) and either call out or ignore the idiots who ruin it for the rest of us. That’s harder than it sounds. Because there are no gatekeepers online, consumers have to work hard to find quality content. As David Perrell has observed, “Information abundance, like all markets of abundance, is bad for the average person but great for a small number of people.” That means YouTube has more high quality aviation content than any medium in history, but it is still dwarfed by the tsunami of junk. If you’re not actively seeking the good stuff, you will be served up the bad stuff forever.

In addition to being consumers of aviation video, many pilots these days are also creators, and we might take a moment to think about how we fly and film. There’s great value in recording a flight lesson or sharing a great cross country trip with family and friends—our flight school at Sporty’s has done it for years and we consistently hear how meaningful those videos are. But you need to be thoughtful about how you use cameras: plan what you’re going to record ahead of time so you don’t get lured into spur-of-the-moment decisions, bring a co-pilot along so someone is always in charge of flying, and if you’re not sure whether you should post a video, you probably shouldn’t.

Most importantly, focus on the authentic experience of being a pilot, not chasing subscribers or trying to be an influencer (a vague and slippery term if ever there were one). The move from sharing your passion to monetizing yourself often leads to the worst decisions. Also remember to go out and fly with the cameras off once in a while. It’s a healthy way to detox.

Is Top Gun still on top?

One of the best aviation videos on YouTube right now involves daredevil flying, but of a decidedly different sort. The trailer for Top Gun: Maverick, a follow-up to the 1986 blockbuster, is packed with thrilling aerial dogfights and has over 37 million views. Take that, Red Bull.

When I was an aspiring pilot many years ago, there were no YouTube rabbit holes to fall into, no clickbait headlines to grab attention. But there was Top Gun, which raked in over $430 million at the box office—still one of the top 100 movies of all time when adjusted for inflation. It also boosted Navy recruitment rates by 500% and generally made flying look cool. I know it made me want to be a pilot. Baby Boomers had Sky King; I had Maverick.

Top Gun MaverickTop Gun Maverick

Can Tom Cruise compete with YouTube?

Top Gun succeeded in the era of mass culture, something that ceased to exist about 15 years ago. In 1986, if you wanted to see a movie about flying, it was Top Gun. Everyone saw the same story and the same actors, and you had to go sit in a theater with other people to do it. Sure, you’d occasionally see knock-offs like Iron Eagle (sorry Chappy), but that hardly compares to the rich pickings on YouTube today. Major movies were cultural events, a point of connection that millions of Americans could talk about.

One other key distinction between big budget Hollywood movies and YouTube vlogs is often overlooked: films like Top Gun are fiction. Sure, it feels real, but there is no serious attempt to make it “reality” like Trevor Jacob or the Red Bull pilots. That has important implications for safety and the impact on viewers. I can make a low pass over a river like I saw on YouTube, but I really can’t dogfight a Russian MiG in my Cessna.

Can Top Gun: Maverick recapture the magic? The film studios are certainly trying, bringing back Tom Cruise, a big soundtrack (Lady GaGa this time, not Kenny Loggins), plus an even bigger marketing budget. I expect it to do quite well, but there’s no way it will have the same cultural impact as the original. Movie theater attendance was trending steadily down even before the pandemic, with revenue only holding steady due to higher ticket prices. Movies just don’t have the same reach, especially worldwide, as social media does.

I’ll certainly go see the movie and revel in the “just realistic enough” flying scenes. I’m sure I’ll see plenty of other pilots there, too. But for most young people in 2022, YouTube will do far more to inspire them to be a pilot than any Hollywood movie. I know for my kids and their friends, entertainment means YouTube, with TikTok (1 billion users) or even Microsoft Flight Simulator (1 million copies sold within two weeks of launch) also coming in far ahead of movies.

Older pilots may sigh when hearing that, but I think it’s actually great news. While the general aviation industry cannot and should not control what gets posted on YouTube—that’s the whole point—overall the platform has provided a huge boost for GA. Everyday pilots have shared the freedom and joy of light airplanes with a wider audience than ever before. As important, the best videos are often focused on the fun parts of flying, typically in 60-year old airplanes or two-seat taildraggers instead of brand new jets. That makes it much more relatable and is a major part of Trent Palmer’s appeal—it’s all about having fun, not finding a more efficient way to travel. And unlike Top Gun, which had a 36-year break between releases, new aviation videos come out every day on YouTube.

Pilots should all work to keep YouTube filled with inspiring flying videos, not publicity stunts. We should support the FAA when they go after bad actors, and let them know when they go too far (I’m not to worried about this part). And unfortunately, we should assume that whatever we do in an airplane will probably be recorded somewhere—ask Trent Palmer or Martha Lunken about it. Aviation culture is up to us now, not Hollywood. Fly like the world is watching.

Coming from an aviation family, John grew up in the back of small airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. Ever since, he has been hooked on anything with wings and regularly flies a Citabria, a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44 helicopter. He is an ATP and also holds ratings for multiengine, seaplanes, gliders, and helicopters. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of Air Facts, John is a Vice President at Sporty’s Pilot Shop, responsible for new product development and marketing.
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