Sky Kings: The Tipping Point
Every pilot knows that flying is an intense mixture of uncommon rewards offset with exposure to risk. After all, while airplanes provide some of the greatest pleasures in our lifetimes, they do have to reach a lethal speed just to get airborne and then fly at thousands of feet above the ground. Balancing the risk/reward equation is something my wife and flying partner, Martha, and I have been thinking about ever since we had our airplane accident.
To understand how transformative this event was for us, let me go back in time. Flying had us hooked right from the start. As soon as the opportunity arose, we learned to fly together and enjoyed every minute of it. It didn’t take long before we started exploring the country in our airplane. The day after we got our certificates, we took off in our Cherokee 140 from our home field in Indianapolis on a flying trip that took us to Arkansas and Florida, and before we had our certificates for a week, we made our first international trip to Grand Bahama.
Instead of returning to Indianapolis from northern Florida, we turned left and went to California. We explored the length of the state, looking for a place we might want to move to. We ultimately settled on San Diego. We were having a grand time. Flying provided everything we loved — learning, seeing the world from above and exploring with unparalleled ability.
At that time, you had to have 200 hours of flight time to get an instrument rating, and at hour 201, we each went for our instrument check rides. At just under 300 hours, we had a checkout of less than a half-hour in the Piper Comanche we had just purchased and took off the next day from California to fly in one day to Indianapolis. The instrument ratings and the more capable Comanche expanded our ability to travel in our own airplane, and we took full advantage of it. We used our airplane for personal transportation and for our business, and we manufactured opportunities to fly every way we could imagine, even when flying on the airlines made far more sense.
But there was a problem. We were scaring everyone who cared about us and even some who had never met us before. People felt that we thought we were invulnerable and that we took too many risks. People were concerned that we were overconfident and overly optimistic. It worried people that we were in so much of a hurry and that we advanced too quickly to a higher performance aircraft. We were the kind of pilots who frightened people.
And those people were right. On that very first long trip, we had numerous close calls. On the way to Arkansas, we couldn’t find the grass strip we had chosen as a fuel stop because of a fresh covering of snow and got low on fuel looking for an alternate.
In northwest Florida, we got caught by low ceilings and visibilities and circled our destination airport in the mist multiple times before getting sufficiently lined up with a runway to be able to land. As VFR-only pilots in Louisiana, we climbed through a hole in a forming cloud layer, which resulted in getting trapped on top over an area of low ceilings and visibilities. We absolutely terrified the FSS operator when we called to find the nearest hole so we could get down and land.
On the way to Houston, we sorted our way through gathering cumulus clouds. By the time we reached the runway, we were so exhausted that just before touchdown we saw the wrong number painted on the runway in front of us but landed on it anyway. In Tucson, Arizona, we made our first-ever night landing after flying over the mountains in the dark.
The saga continued everywhere we went. When concerned pilots were courageous enough to confront us regarding our flying habits, we didn’t take it well. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, as we were preparing our Comanche for a night flight over the mountains to California in a snowstorm with snowflakes the size of dimes, a pilot kept questioning us about why we didn’t wait until morning. Our impatient reaction was that we knew what we were doing.
Maybe our impatient reaction wasn’t entirely our fault. Pilots and many flight instructors have not been trained to effectively counsel pilots who take unnecessary risks. There was an implication that we had no judgment and lacked good decision-making skills. We tended to resent that. After all, we owned our own business and were doing well. In our minds, we clearly had good judgment and decision-making skills.