From a certain point of view, some amount of irrational optimism might be seen as useful for a pilot. After all, he expects to be suspended aloft, like a saint or a character in a martial arts film, by invisible forces. Certainly the earliest pilots were, for the most part, a daring, devil-may-care lot, for whom ordinary life was, as a poet wrote of a First World War airman, “a waste of breath/In balance with this life, this death.” But times have changed. The chief virtue of a pilot is no longer reckless courage; it is cautious good judgment.
By any measure, the young man’s decision to fly that night was a reckless one — wildly, rashly, irretrievably reckless. One senses in him — to the extent that one can sense anything through the prism of an NTSB accident report — a judgment buffeted between tempestuous impulses and the medicines that were supposed to regulate them. Can such a judgment fairly balance the urge to make a flight and the conditions that militate against it? Can it even be relied upon to see the need for balancing them? This novice pilot seems, once he made up his mind, not to have considered any alternative. The advice and warnings of his instructor, the admonitory notations in his logbook, might as well have been inscribed on a buried cuneiform tablet. They were not part of his mental world. It was not so much disregard of the regulations that doomed him; it was disregard of the sense of the regulations.
In fairness to the young pilot, it should be said that this kind of accident is not uncommon. It is by no means confined to amorous youths with ADHD and a student ticket. Licensed pilots with neither instrument training nor suitable equipment regularly take off in darkness, fog and rain, only to hit a tree or a hillside within a few miles of the airport. It is difficult to imagine what they were thinking. But perhaps there is some underlying sense of a glory in facing terrible odds. The grand gesture, ending badly, looks like folly to a modern eye. But, after all, if Leander had stayed home that night, we would never have heard of him.