Sky Kings: The Tipping Point

How one event transformed the way I think about flying.

Sky Kings Tipping Point

Sky Kings 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.

The counseling certainly didn’t work. We continued to have close call after close call with no change in our behavior — until we had our inevitable accident. After a generator failure, we elected to continue flying on top of an overcast layer. When we arrived at our destination, we had a completely discharged battery. In our first emergency descent through the icy clouds, we never saw the ground and climbed back to 10,000 feet to get on top again.

Back on top, after an anxious discussion about alternatives, we decided our only option was another trip back down through the ice. Just seconds after seeing the ground in the dusk, we landed in a cornfield. The unsecured luggage and tool kit behind us came forward, hit Martha, sprayed her blood all over the cabin and pinned us against the panel. This earned Martha a trip to the emergency room.

The accident changed everything for us. It completely transformed our attitudes about risk management. You might say we became born-again pilots. But even though our attitudes changed, we didn’t really know what to do when we began to see our old behavior in other people who mattered to us.

By now, we were teaching two-day ground schools for a living. We traveled in a circuit and generally returned to the same city every two months. We taught relatively large numbers of pilots, and we became very impressed with, and fond of, those who choose to learn to fly.

Tragically, it was not uncommon for us to return to a city in two months and learn that one of those spectacular people we had just taught had died in an airplane crash. I can name dozens. These were not foolhardy people. Like us, they just didn’t understand the risks they were taking. In each case, the death was considered a local tragedy.

The tipping point came when I had a student in my class who was both a physician and an Episcopalian priest. He was a pillar of his community. What concerned me about him was that he, like I had been, was too impatient. During the class, I became concerned that his impatience could be a serious risk factor when it came to his flying.

In those days, the FAA had to administer the knowledge tests. So I suggested that the FAA inspector talk to the doctor. The inspector said to me, “John, I can’t just pick someone out of your class and give him a lecture because you told me to. Why don’t you talk to him?” I said, “I’m just a traveling ground instructor. He won’t listen to me.” Neither one of us confronted the doctor.

A couple of weeks later, the phone rang. It was the FAA inspector. “John, I thought you’d want to know. The doctor is dead,” he said. He had gotten into low ceilings and visibilities on a solo cross-country flight and ran into the mountains.

This put me into a blue funk. I thought about quitting teaching flying because I didn’t want to be a part of an activity that resulted in such superb people coming to grief. Finally someone said to me, “John, why don’t you just resolve to do everything you can to make a positive difference?” I’m glad I listened to the advice.

Martha and I love flying just as much as we ever did, maybe even more. We have flown continuously since we started in 1969 and still use general aviation almost exclusively for personal transportation. Flying uses almost every aptitude a human being has — physical skill, emotional control, 3-D problem solving and, yes, decision making. I think the fact that flying uses so many aptitudes is one of the reasons it is so much fun.

But our unusual view of aviation has made us extremely aware that there are also risks associated with flying. We know they can be managed and doing so does not in the least have to take the fun out of flying.

As we learned from the well-intentioned folks who were so unsuccessful in getting us to change our behaviors, those advocating risk management have to use a vocabulary that is both insightful and acceptable to the listeners. Balancing risk and reward is certainly not an easy subject, but it’s the subject about which we hope to have a continuing dialog with you in this column.

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