One of the occupational hazards of being an aviation writer is that you sometimes run into pilots who want to show you what their airplane can do . . . right up to the ragged edge of the envelope. And they're almost always going to show you regardless of whether you want to go along for the ride or not. In fact, I'm tempted to say that not wanting to go along with it is a big draw for these guys. The end result can be terrifying. And while I wish I could say that I could spot these pilots a mile off, there are usually few clues to their predilections until you hear that most dreaded cockpit phrase, "Watch this."
I've survived these experiences, but I'd have preferred to have skipped them altogether. One time I was flying with a pilot friend in a buddy's 185 when we crested a ridge. He immediately and without prior notice stuffed the nose down and flew us down the near vertical ravine at breakneck speed, 100-foot pinion pines rising above us and blurring past on either side as I hung on and hoped for a happy outcome. When we emerged from the ravine to level flight, my friend asked, "Wasn't that fun?" Except for the part where I was convinced I was going to die, yeah, it was a hoot.
Another time a different aviation buddy, again without warning--this type is big on the "without warning" part--on departure in an old Navion and still about 500 feet agl, suddenly pitched the nose up and proceeded to roll the airplane in the saddle between two desert hills. He, also, was curious to know if it was fun for me. Truth be told, not so much.
Those are, sadly, not the worst experiences I've had with showoff pilots. I've been on a few extended play airborne renditions of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, and in each case I've asked out loud for my pilot companion to stop it, and in each case he declined. They were, it was clear, convinced that I was simply having too much fun to stop now.
It wasn't that these guys were bad pilots in the stick and rudder sense. Quite the opposite. In every case they were remarkable flyers, experienced, knowledgeable and skilled at making the airplane do what they wanted it to do.
All of them, to the best of my knowledge, are also still alive, so they’ve defied the odds in that regard. And their continued survival does jibe with their sense of themselves, that they will, you see, always be alive. They believe to their core that when they buzz that farmhouse or fly under those power lines, that they're going to be just fine. Which is why, I guess, they have little compunction about taking risks with other people's lives. After all, since nothing is ever going to happen, why bother worrying?
The accident statistics beg to differ. Not only might something happen. The chances of that deadly something happening while maneuvering at high speed and low level are hugely out of proportion to what we typically regard as normal flight.
Not that these pilots are stupid. Most would agree with the numbers, but it's just that the statistics don’t apply to them. It’s those other pilots, the ones who aren't as skilled, as sharp or as special as they are, who come to harm.
And I think they really believe it. Believe it right up until that last maneuver, when that paper-thin margin of error suddenly vanishes, and it's too late.
I wonder if in that last moment, as they're uttering or screaming what the NTSB unofficially refers to as "the magic word," if at that last moment before everything goes Tony Soprano black, if they finally reconsider their invulnerability and wish with their last wish that they'd thought it through a little sooner.
You know what? Probably not.