The Challenging Math of Risk


At 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 12, 2006, I steered my parents' Subaru Outback into the parking garage beneath the Belaire building on 71st Street in New York City, right by the East River. The traffic was bad, with police blockades still in effect and looky-loos and camera crews still clogging the sidewalks. But we braved it because my father was having knee replacement surgery that morning at the Hospital for Special Surgery - a building attached to the Belaire - whose normal routine had been traumatically interrupted just the afternoon before, when a Cirrus SR-20 piloted by Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle plowed into the Belaire's 30th floor.

Depending on how you look at it, it was either a very bad or very good place for a pilot and aviation editor to be. Over the next few days, I found myself giving innumerable tutorials to shaken patients, hospital staff and other New York residents on general aviation, VFR flight rules, flight plans and the general risk that small airplanes pose to the public at large.

One of the points I stressed was that while the accident was certainly frightening and tragic, the fact that the only two people killed as a result of it were in the airplane illustrated an important point about general aviation. And that is, small airplanes do not actually pose much of a risk to structures or people on the ground.

On the other hand, the risk to people on board small airplanes - something Lidle's accident also underscored - is a very real fact of life that every single pilot has to cope with in some way, shape, form or another. We may weave ourselves lots of nice fantasies and rationalizations about the matter, but the bottom line is that flying small airplanes is not, in fact, safer than driving. Flying on board an airliner may be, but flying a small airplane carries a risk level about seven times higher than driving a car - which puts it somewhere in the same risk neighborhood as driving a motorcycle. The reasons for that risk level are different for a pilot than a driver on the road, but the numbers still come out the same. As my boss, Mac, puts it, "flying is an activity you can't do at anything less than a lethal speed and a lethal altitude." There is no bunny slope in aviation. And anyone who tries to argue it any other way simply doesn't want to face reality.

But what do we do with that information? To a nonpilot who has never been affected by the intoxicating drug that lures pilots to flight, the answer might seem simple. But it's actually a very tough and complex question - and pilots are not the only people who struggle with it.

During my father's hospital stay, I was also, coincidentally, reading a remarkable and gripping book by renowned mountain climber and writer David Roberts, called On the Ridge Between Life and Death. Roberts' subject was mountain climbing, but he might as well have been discussing flying. "For me," Roberts writes, "climbing was always about transcendence. In that spell that risk and fear, barely tamed by skill and nerve, cast over me, I found a blissful escape from the petty pace of normal life." And in the course of some of those climbs, Roberts says, he "tasted the most piercing moments of joy I would ever be granted."

It's a thought that would resonate, at least at some level, with most of the pilots I know. But Roberts also offers a breathtakingly frank and honest assessment of the price those moments exacted-not only from himself, but from the families and loved ones who were left behind worrying, or left behind forever when something went amiss on a mountainside. For mountain climbing, like flying, is an activity that carries more than just pedestrian risk. Looking back on a climbing life that contained as many losses as it did joys, Roberts concludes that whether or not the risk is worth it is a question that perhaps can only be answered in terms of oneself. Because, he says, "There is no way you can ever rationalize the cost to others."

It's a sobering thought, but an important one - and one I wrestle with myself. Over the years, I have lost more than two dozen friends in airplane accidents. Yet, I still fly - and even, at times, in circumstances that have a higher-than-average level of challenge or risk. Idaho's "River of No Return" wilderness is staggeringly beautiful. But it offers plenty of natural hazards and few places to put an airplane down in case of trouble. Ecuador's rainforest, where I'm headed for a story next month, is not exactly the easiest or safest place in the world to fly a small Cessna.

I do these things-even knowing that people I love will not ever be okay again if something happens to me-not because I am uncaring, reckless or ignorant about safety or risk, but because, after struggling with the math, my answer is that I still really want the experience that taking on that risk will allow me to have. But it is undeniably, in the end, about me. Even if I write a story at the end of it that other people can enjoy or learn from. And I would be less than honest if I didn't acknowledge that fact.

As it happens, I'm not married yet, and I don't have children. And perhaps I would choose differently if those circumstances were otherwise. But there are certainly plenty of examples that argue differently - or at least illustrate that the math can remain difficult, even with a family in the mix. This past week, I had the opportunity to talk with Beck Weathers - a Dallas mountain climber and physician whose miraculous survival on the upper slopes of Mount Everest in 1996 made world headlines. Caught in a freak storm that killed nine of his fellow climbers, including guides Rob Hall, Scott Fischer and Andy Harris, a frostbitten Weathers was left for dead on an icy slope just above 26,000 feet.

After spending a near-fatal night on the mountain, buoyed by the thought of his wife and children and driven by a singular and unshakable determination not to lose them, or have them lose him, Weathers somehow managed to drag himself up out of the snow and stagger back to the tents of the surviving climbers.

The ordeal cost Weathers his nose, his right hand, and all the fingers and half the thumb on his left hand. But Weathers also credits the accident with having "saved my marriage and my relationship with my kids." The Keppler Speakers Bureau, which represents Weathers, quotes him as saying, "For the first time in my life, I'm comfortable in my own skin. I searched all over the world for that which would fulfill me, and all along it was in my own backyard." It is, at first glance, a neat and simple happy ending of a man whose need for adventure has been replaced by the love of family.

But life and humans are rarely that simple. Nine years after his return from Everest, Weathers found himself becoming "progressively more unhappy" without an absorbing challenge in his life and took up flying. In April 2006, he got his private pilot certificate, and when I spoke to him, he was only a couple of weeks away from his instrument check ride.

Mt. Everest survivor and new instrument pilot Beck Weathers (left) with his instructor, Larry Ratliff.

Obtaining a pilot's license is an accomplishment for anyone. But for a man with only half a hand, it is especially impressive. "There are obvious physical considerations," Weathers acknowledges, "but after sitting in a plane for a while, I became convinced that in a Cessna, those things [that required hand control] were do-able."

Weathers can use his partial thumb to push buttons, and he attaches kitchen and hardware store clamps to knobs to make it possible for his left hand to grasp and turn them. He uses both his left hand and right arm to operate the yoke, which he braces with his right arm while reaching underneath it with his left hand to move the throttle and mixture controls. It sounds like a difficult juggling act, but Weathers says the FAA examiner who administered his private check ride told him, "If I hadn't been sitting here looking at you, I would never have known you didn't have two working hands."

The reasons Weathers gives for wanting to fly-that his father and brothers are pilots, the intellectual satisfaction, challenge, beauty, and romance of flight, and the camaraderie of the flying community-are motivations familiar to most people who've taken up flying. But Weathers' immediate family doesn't share his enthusiasm for his new interest. "At this point, they regard any risk-taking on my part as unnecessary," he says in a tone of voice that makes me suspect that if I were talking to his wife and children, they might phrase the case a bit more strongly.

Here is a man who credits his love for his family with being the single miracle force that drove him to beat back death on a mountain, and who now regards those people as the most important things in his life. And yet, he's now taken up another risk-infused activity that causes them distress. How and why did he come to that decision? "I agonized about it for months," he says. "But whatever it is in climbing, and flying, that makes you feel completely alive-that calls to me. And if I wasn't honest about that, I'd be one miserable guy."

The tough thing is, I can see both sides of that argument. So what should a pilot do about that conflict? Where does the line belong between the needs of the individual and the needs of those who love them? I'm not sure an easy or perfect answer to that question exists.

Weathers' answer to that dilemma has been to take up flying, but then to try to be as careful as he can be about managing the risks inherent in it. "I've watched every one of the King Schools videos on risk management," he says, "and I'm a compulsive student." On the other hand, Weathers says he was always serious about risk management, even with his climbing. "But," he says, "in high altitude climbing, you can make reasonable decisions and still get jumped."

Clearly, flying a Cessna is not anywhere as risk-laden as climbing Mount Everest. But the uncomfortable and unfortunate truth is that, even in flying, it's possible to make reasonable decisions and still end up in trouble. Not every accident is caused by a really stupid pilot trick. Often, there are numerous decisions that, in and of themselves, seem reasonable. But if they're put together in the right combination, they can still add up to a bad situation. That's why John and Martha King include so many variables, and stress the importance of viewing every choice in the context of other factors, in their risk management courses.

"As pilots, we tend to do a lousy job of risk assessment, and a lousy job of thinking through what's going to happen several steps down the line," John King says. But even if a pilot does his or her best to assess the many risk factors in any flight, think several steps down the line, and make responsible, safety-oriented decisions, even the Kings acknowledge that the risk of flying can only be reduced and managed better, not eliminated completely. "But there's risk in every part of life," several friends argued as we discussed my ideas for this column. I know that. And, as I've said many times before, the closest I've ever come to death was as a passenger in a car hit by a drunk driver-an accident over which I had no control whatsoever. But here's the thing. Flying is a choice. And just because there's some level of risk in all parts of life does not excuse us from the responsibility we carry for the choices we make when we take on activities that add to whatever intrinsic risk living entails.

That's not to say we shouldn't do those activities. But David Roberts is right. Our choices, and the risks we choose to take on, have an impact that goes far beyond ourselves. It's both the joy and the price of being part of a family, a circle of friends or any larger community that cares about us enough to give us the strength to fight back death on a mountain or survive the darkest nights of our grief and despair. Cory Lidle's crash didn't just leave two people dead. It left two families and untold friends who will never be completely whole again. It also left millions of people with a darker view of small airplane flying.

So what do we owe those who love or depend on us? That question is a very personal one that each of us has to grapple with and answer for ourselves, repeatedly, all throughout our lives. I don't think we necessarily owe them giving up our dreams or the things that bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives, although there are certainly opportunities, risks and flights I would turn down now that I might once have accepted without thought. But I believe I at least owe my loved ones my very best efforts at vigilance-to face and assess the risks of what I take on as intelligently and honestly as I can, with my ego firmly in check, so I can make better judgment calls about what I do or don't undertake; to try to think as many steps down the line as I can; and to do my utmost to manage and reduce the risks of activities I do take on as far as humanly possible. On each and every day, and on each and every flight.