Do we consider questions on the motivation for flights on-topic?

Why is a Cessna C560 circling Washington DC during the protests?

Sure, the question has an answer, but it is still partial speculation being probably involved in law enforcement.

Personally, after some reflection, I find the question not suited for the site.
Is it only me?

• Hope you don't mind that I made the title more general. Rollback if a problem :) – Jamiec Jun 2 '20 at 9:50
• @Jamiec no, I don't mind at all. thank you! – Federico Jun 2 '20 at 9:55
• As the OP I just want to clarify that the question strictly-speaking wasn't about the purpose of the flight, it was whether there were other sources of information (FAA, ADS-B, something else) that help one identify the purpose of a flight. That said, the only posted answer (which has not been accepted) does address the purpose of the flight. – bcattle Jun 2 '20 at 17:39
• reminder to the downvoters: you're not saying that the question is on topic, you're saying that you don't want to talk about it. – Federico Jun 2 '20 at 18:31
• @bcattle If you're looking for sources of information about the aircraft, it would probably be good to title the question something other than, "Why is a Cessna C560 circling Washington DC during the protests?" That title sounds like you're asking about the mission rather than how to identify the aircraft. – reirab Jun 2 '20 at 20:47
• @bcattle: "it was whether there were other sources of information" -- thanks...that's an important clarification. That said, a question phrased with the word "any" is generally de facto too broad. A good question on SE will have a single, clearly correct answer. When a question could theoretically have numerous, completely different answers that nevertheless each arguably address the question, the question is too broad. Another way to look at it: someone other than the question author should be able to objectively identify which of many answers is the answer. – Peter Duniho Jun 2 '20 at 20:54

I think one of the tests for whether or not a question will require speculative answers is whether there is a reasonable possibility of an objective answer. I find that this question does offer the chance of objective answers.

I fly the CE-560. Lets say I flew for XYZ gov agency and could provide non-classified information that would answer that question. In that case there would be a valid question with a valid answer.

Alternately, lets suppose again that I flew for XYZ gov agency and could provide information that would answer that question except that it is classified. In this case the valid answer, though unsatisfactory, might be that this is a government flight with a classified purpose.

In either case I see the question as valid. This flight is an example of a number of operationally similar flights. See also similar flight profiles such as flight tests, aerial survey, other patrols (the question of SSI or being classified aside). A significant set of people have knowledge of these flights (any management with operational control over such flights, pilots, other crew members, possibly non-governmental line service personnel, etc).

This is a different case than if the question were along the lines of "I saw that this private CE-560 flew to to KPBI on 5-29-20. Why did this aircraft make that trip?" In this case the list of those who could reasonably be expected to answer that question is very small. The crew and passengers may be the only ones with an answer.

• "In this case the list of those who could reasonably be expected to answer that question is very small" -- how is this different from the "government flight with a classified purpose"? Surely the number of people who can with first-hand knowledge state that the flight is a) a government flight, and (especially) b) has a classified purpose, is still "very small". – Peter Duniho Jun 2 '20 at 17:03
• @PeterDuniho The list of people who can identify that the aircraft is at least to a large degree of certainty on a government mission is probably pretty large. On the other hand, the list of people with first-hand knowledge who would even be allowed to publicly confirm that its mission was classified is probably the empty set. – reirab Jun 2 '20 at 20:52
• @reirab: "is probably pretty large" -- I guess that depends on your definition of "pretty large". But I would argue that, at least compared to the number of people who might read the question, that number will still be relatively small. In any case, you'll note my comment has two parts to the qualification, the second part is already identified as carrying more weight than the first, and is in fact the part you explicitly state agreement with. – Peter Duniho Jun 2 '20 at 20:56

after some reflection, I find the question not suited for the site. Is it only me?

No, it's not only you. I also think that question, and questions like it, are not appropriate on the site.

However, I find the guidance on this site's help pages less-than-clear on the topic (sorry, pun not intended). From https://aviation.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask, we find:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face

I find it difficult to believe that the question was asked out of anything other than idle curiosity. I doubt that there is an actual problem the author of the question faced that led to the question.

Similarly, nothing on the https://aviation.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic page listed under examples of on-topic questions suggests to me that questions of the form "why was this airplane at this place at this time?" are on-topic.

On the other hand, examples given of off-topic questions focus primarily on the misuse of the site as a discussion forum, and/or for questions that are purely opinion-based, or more properly asked and answered on a different, more specific SE site. So nothing in those pages also clearly says this type of question is off-topic.

Additionally, there seems to be fair precedent for "plane-spotting" type questions here on the site. I don't personally think that they fit the "on-topic" mold, but given that they are tolerated, I think there's not much clear justification for prohibiting a particular "plane-spotting" question on the basis that it's unlikely to be answered. After all, where do you draw the line? How do you even determine where the question is relative to that line?

If the site is going to allow plane-spotting questions at all, I think it has to allow all plane-spotting questions, regardless of the likelihood of an answer. Because no matter how remote the chance of an authoritative answer might be, the possibility still exists. And I don't believe there's a good, objective way to decide the likelihood of an answer, nor what the right threshold of likelihood is for allowing such questions.

That said, I do think that any answer to such questions must be factual. The currently posted answer to that question is not, and should be down-voted, if not deleted altogether. It's purely speculative and provides no real insight as to the purpose or reason of the actual flight in question. It doesn't really answer the question, yet its presence may discourage others from making an attempt to answer the question in a factual way (e.g. do some research, such as that which the author of the question should have done themselves before posting, to learn the nature of the flight).

If we are going to believe or at least accept that such questions can be on-topic, then we should also at least be rigorous to reject answers to such questions that don't really answer the question.

• You are right that this question violates "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face", but so does every second question on Aviation since most of them are asked out of curiosity. We had a recent discussion on this on Meta, the short answer is that this sentence comes from StackOverflow and we cannot change it. – Bianfable Jun 4 '20 at 8:41
• @Bianfable: "so does every second question on Aviation" -- yes, true. I'm not sure that makes it right. Frankly, I'm sorely disappointed at the shockingly high number of poorly-researched, not-useful questions found on the site. And that taking into account that all Stack Exchange sites have a question-quality issue. The Aviation site routinely doesn't just tolerate, but actually up-votes a large number of questions that are answerable by an already-existing Wikipedia page or similar resource easily found with a web search. :( – Peter Duniho Jun 4 '20 at 8:44
• The aviation industry is so vast and interconnected that the nature of a theoretical problem faced by the asker may be several degrees of separation from an "actual problem," but of no less importance. I think that the pilot's general mandate to become familiar with all available information could be construed to involve so many theoreticals (How do ag aircraft typically operate around an airport? Why is ATC required to give this advisory? etc) that the professional or aspiring aviation industry member or observer may well have many questions that meet the spirit of "actual problem." – J Walters Jun 6 '20 at 22:30
• @JWalters: unless it's your position that the broadness of which you speak is actually the justification for the post in question, i.e. that the author is in fact a pilot seeking to meet that standard, I fail to see the relevance of your comment. In any case, whatever the justification, it behooves the author of a question to make the relevance of the question to the site clear. It should not be left to the rest of us to decide whether to give the benefit of the doubt or not. – Peter Duniho Jun 6 '20 at 23:52
• Yes, I am suggesting that one possible motivation for the question is the addition of knowledge to better understand the workings of the industry as a whole. The author need not be a pilot, mechanic, ATC, or CSR. The author here is obviously facing an actual problem in that the operator and nature of the flight are unknown. – J Walters Jun 8 '20 at 11:16
• What the author's motivation is for placing such a problem before him or herself is both unknown and fairly irrelevant. The author need not have a professional, need-to-know motivation for asking the question. See code golf, etc. The quest for knowledge is generally noble and largely what this site is about. The relevance of this question to this site is clear in that it is aviation related, an actual problem, and theoretically answerable. The only question I see that could possibly cast this in doubt is how answerable the question may actually be. – J Walters Jun 8 '20 at 11:16
• @JWalters: "See code golf, etc" -- sorry, your point, whatever it is, is being lost by the use of completely irrelevant examples. The Code Golf site has different requirements for questions than, for example, Stack Overflow or Aviation. Just because non-practical questions are supported and even encouraged there, in no way suggests they should be everywhere. Frankly, by the standard you appear to espouse, no question that even remotely invokes aviation would ever be on topic, which is a plainly ridiculous standard to follow. So plainly, that's all I have left to say on the question. – Peter Duniho Jun 8 '20 at 14:43
• Code golf, that exchange has the same requirement you invoked here (You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face). See: codegolf.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask. – J Walters Jun 9 '20 at 16:05
• Questions here should be aviation related, as I think we both agree. Not sure what I said that suggested otherwise, but I would be happy to correct that mistake. – J Walters Jun 9 '20 at 16:12