Aftermath: Carelessness

Sometimes a camera really does steal your soul.

Aftermath Artwork
Accident analysis that goes behind and beyond the NTSB report.Flying

Selfies, in case you have recently emerged from solitary confinement, are those self portraits, preferably set in interesting or unusual surroundings or amid a clump of friends, that one takes with a cellphone camera, sometimes holding it on the end of a selfie stick to gain a wider field of view. They have spawned a great many cartoons, generally satirizing the implicit valuation of the solipsistic photographer’s face above the Grand Canyon or Mona Lisa. There have also been deaths and injuries, often of exotic kinds: falling into volcanoes, getting electrocuted or swept out to sea, or holding a gun in one hand and the camera in the other and getting the triggers mixed up. Falls from precarious places and encounters with moving trains seem to be among the more common mishaps.

Other than backing into a spinning propeller, aviation does not seem to offer many opportunities for selfie-slaughter, but in 2014 one pilot did make a few headlines by flying his airplane into the ground while taking selfies.

The evidence for the pilot’s ill-advised actions is circumstantial. His airplane, a Cessna 150K, had a GoPro video camera mounted on the glareshield. The day before the accident, he took several friends flying, and the GoPro recorded both them and him photographing things, including themselves, with their cellphones. The accident took place that night, shortly after midnight. At Denver’s Front Range Airport, the pilot made a flight around the right-hand pattern with one passenger, during which the GoPro was again running and recording the pilot as he snapped a selfie. The camera’s flash fired, illuminating the cockpit. The pilot then landed, embarked a new passenger and took off again. The 150 began the right crosswind turn, but then gradually rolled left into a tightening spiral, its vertical speed increasing to 1,900 fpm. The left wing was the first part of the airplane to strike the ground.

Other than backing into a spinning propeller, aviation does not seem to offer many opportunities for selfie-slaughter.

This time, however, the GoPro was not recording. The National Transportation Safety Board, in analyzing the accident, assumed that the actions of the pilot and passenger were similar to those on the other recorded flights. Somewhat circularly, the fact of the crash itself supports the idea that taking selfies diverted the pilot’s attention. It had not been so badly diverted on previous flights, however, and it is not unheard of for instrument-rated pilots to take off at night, become disoriented and fly into the ground. So, despite eye-rolling press accounts that emphasized the irony that a pilot, of all people, had crashed while taking selfies, it is not conclusively established that that is what really happened. The NTSB sees the tightening left turn and increasingly rapid descent of the radar-recorded flight path as “consistent with an aerodynamic stall and subsequent spin into terrain.” To me, it looks more like a spiral dive, or it could have been some combination of the two. But that is unimportant. The essential thing is the loss of control.

Apparently, since it is never mentioned in the accident report outside the context of the GoPro videos, the pilot’s cellphone was not found. He himself was thrown from the wreckage, which lay in a field of densely growing crops; if the cellphone was in his hand at impact, it may have landed among the plants and been overlooked by investigators. It was not until they viewed the GoPro video that they realized the importance of the cellphone, and by then it may have been impossible to find. The fact that it was not in his pocket, however, at least suggests that it may have been in his hand.

The NTSB attributed the accident to spatial disorientation with a contributing factor of distraction due to cellphone use.

The pilot-owner of the airplane, 29, had logged 726 hours, and held both a single- and multi-engine land commercial license, as well as an instrument rating and a ground-instructor certificate. The weather at the time of the accident was IFR with the automated ATIS reporting a 300-foot ceiling, 7 miles visibility and calm wind. The most recent surface observation from Denver International, 5 miles distant, reported 2.5 miles visibility. The visibility difference is significant only because of the curious rule that allows VFR operation clear of clouds below 1,200 feet in Class G airspace near an airport when the visibility is less than 3 miles but more than 1. While we are on the subject of strict legality, it was also uncertain that the pilot met the currency requirement for night flight with a passenger. The possible legal defects, however, pale in comparison to the pilot’s questionable judgment, if indeed he allowed himself to be so distracted by his cellphone that he failed to notice his airplane was rapidly heading for the ground.

I cannot speak for female pilots, but I know that I, as a young man, did some foolish things to impress female passengers, and even a few male ones.

According to transponder returns, the 150 reached a maximum height of 740 feet above the surface. This is inconsistent with the 300-foot ceiling reported by the ATIS, but it is more likely that the automated ATIS measurement was wrong than that the pilot, who evidently intended to remain in the traffic pattern, intentionally climbed into the clouds. He took off to the west, facing the Denver metropolitan area. Normally, the lights of the city, 20 miles distant, would have provided a clear horizon, but they could have been obscured if the 150 were just below a cloud deck. The flash of the camera could also have impaired his night vision.

Let us assume the NTSB is right, and the pilot allowed himself to become so preoccupied with shooting selfies that he became disoriented and lost control of the airplane. The lesson we should learn from this accident is not just that it’s a bad idea to take selfies while flying close to the ground at night in IFR conditions. That is too obvious and too limited. The broader lesson is that certain social aspects of flying, in particular the impulse to show off while taking a friend for a short hop, can be insidiously distracting.

I cannot speak for female pilots, but I know that I, as a young man, did some foolish things to impress female passengers, and even a few male ones. I also know that even when the desire to impress is absent, the awareness of another’s scrutiny, or the distraction of providing information or reassurance, can take one’s attention away from the task of flying. In daytime VFR conditions, the task is light enough that some inattention is likely harmless. A dark night, under a low overcast and above unlighted terrain, calls for a warier mind and more strenuous attention. Flying is a sweet and beautiful thing, but it is, as the ubiquitous poster in flight schools says, unforgiving of any carelessness.