I recently selected 32 accident analyses, from the nearly 500 that I have written since I took over Flying’s Aftermath column in 1980, and assembled them into a book called Why? Thinking About Plane Crashes. It’s available from Amazon as a paperback or an e-book. I hope someone will buy it. I would pledge that all profits will go to the care and feeding of Melmoth 2, but money is fungible, and to be honest, some of it may go to espresso.
When, in the course of social conversation, masked and a fathom distant, it is discovered that I write a monthly column analyzing airplane accidents, I find myself describing—and excusing—the macabre connoisseurship that guides me in choosing from among the many unfortunate events that fate places at my disposal.
With a few exceptions, two rules pare down the field. One is that—except in rare cases of accidents occurring abroad—the final report from the National Transportation Safety Board must be available, with its finding of probable cause. The facts therein provide the ground truth of the event, or what passes for it.
The other, I’m sad to say, is that the pilot or pilots must have died in the accident. I would not otherwise feel free to comment candidly on their actions and decisions. This is an unfortunate limitation in several respects. It removes from consideration a large body of potentially interesting and instructive events that could have been fatal but, as luck had it, weren’t. Naturally, many of these would be similar to some of the fatal ones, but in at least some instances it might be valuable to learn why a certain sequence of events had a fatal outcome in one case and not in another. It could just be that the airplane happened to alight on rocks rather than corn; that would teach us nothing that we don’t already know. But it might also be that some conscious decision or even momentary impulse of the pilot deflected the airplane from its doom, and it could be useful to learn from the testimony of the survivor. Those stories are not for Aftermath; some of them go to Flying’s long-running I Learned About Flying from That.
It would be interesting, likewise, to hear what pilots had to say about the chains of circumstances and decisions that set the stage for their accidents; but I’m afraid that such accounts might be distorted by all kinds of pressures—employment, legal liability, shame and so on—that could inhibit total candor and might even lead to the invention of some details and the elision of others.
If my selections were based on statistics alone, the majority of accidents in Aftermath would be of the “continued-VFR-into-IMC” variety, followed closely by “failed to maintain flying speed.” But most such accidents are alike, and discussions of them would be as well.
I am partial to a good story, and I find especially interesting the accidents that reflect either the idiosyncrasies of the pilots involved or the traits and habits we all share that led, in some interesting and unexpected way, to a bad conclusion. It’s not enough that a pilot took off VFR at night, flew into a cloud, became disoriented and crashed. Why did it happen? Alcohol, cocaine, a cocktail of medications not reported on the last medical application? A promise to deer-hunting buddies? Work the next day?
Sometimes the network of causes is of a density and psychological complexity worthy of a good novel. Such was the case of Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Bud Holland, a virtuoso pilot who’s on-the-edge airshow flying was so impressive that his superiors felt they would appear wimpy if they reined him in. Most other pilots cringed at the thought of having to be in an airplane with him. He and several other unlucky victims of his grandiosity vanished in a fireball at Washington’s Fairchild Air Force Base in 1994 after Holland stalled his B-52 out of a vertically banked base-to-final turn a wingspan above the ground.
Read More from Peter Garrison: Aftermath
Holland was a top-of-the-food-chain example of the incompatibility of safe flying and a desire to impress. At the other end is the young student pilot, high on Red Bull and Adderall, who launches into a storm at night to visit his girlfriend. She tries to dissuade him before he takes off, but he says, “I’m a pilot”—and goes on to prove that he isn’t.
The love affairs of pilots with their equipment, like love affairs between people, sometimes end in sorrow. One pilot is infatuated with his “real-time” cockpit weather display that is, in fact, 10 minutes behind the reality of the rapidly growing thunderstorm into which he flies. Another, on a night flight, becomes so absorbed in demonstrating to a companion the wonders of a glass cockpit that he fails to notice the cliff looming before them. A third, thrilled to be able to program a direct route into his new GPS, hits the mountain that his old VOR routing would take him around.
The relations between pilots and controllers are interesting too. Pilots, especially novices, sometimes credit controllers with knowledge that they do not possess: The plea of the disoriented pilot to be directed to a place clear of clouds is poignant because the controller is, in reality, even more blind than the pilot.
Controllers are at times the direct, if inadvertent, cause of an accident. The brusque professionalism of some can intimidate. Once, a foreign crew “cowed by peremptory New York controllers” ran an airliner out of fuel rather than declare an emergency. A pilot whose engine had failed searched in vain for an airstrip the controller said was at 12 o’clock. Indeed, it had been at 12 o’clock—years earlier. Bulldozers had removed it from the world, but not from the controller’s scope. Famed test pilot Scott Crossfield, an aviation legend, lost his life when a controller inexplicably neglected to mention to him that he was about to fly his Cessna into an embedded Level 5 cell.
And there are the cases of noble intentions gone awry: the balloonist who, reluctant to disappoint his paying passengers, delayed his descent too long and was sucked into a thunderstorm; the helicopter medevac pilot whose heroic defiance of terrible weather ended in a collision with terrain, killing pilot, nurse and patient alike.
To be sure, technical aspects can also be interesting. For example, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on Long Island, New York, in 2001 exposed misunderstandings long prevalent in the flying community about the meaning and use of maneuvering speed. In that case, the human element was not so much individual as collective; we were all wrong together.
But for the most part, it is the individual, the particular, the dramatic, the emotional, that guides my choice of accidents to write about. Luckily for me—but not for the victims and their survivors—there is no lack of such accidents, and as long as airplanes are piloted by people, there never will be.
This story appeared in the January-February 2021 issue of Flying Magazine