“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
The pilot was 79 years old. He had 1,300 hours, a private certificate, and an instrument rating, but seldom flew. He kept his airplane, a Piper Dakota, hangared at North Bend, Oregon, and would take it out from time to time to fly up and down the nearby Pacific coast. He had logged only 31 hours during the past five years, and he had not had a recent flight review or renewed his medical.
The hangar alongside his was occupied by a friend who was a flight instructor and A&P. He had administered the pilot’s last flight review and performed the inspections required to keep the Dakota in airworthiness. When the pilot took off on January 13, 2017, for the flight that was to be his last, he had not flown, as far as his friend knew, in the past year. When they had last flown together, the pilot was behind the airplane and intermittently confused about tower communications and pattern entry procedures. After the flight, the friend expressed concern about the degradation of the pilot’s skills; but the pilot confidently replied that he was sure he could get back into shape with 30 minutes of instruction.
Medical Issues Unreported
Since childhood, the pilot had suffered from an unusual medical condition, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), which he never reported to the FAA. Whether MCS is a physical condition or a psychological one is controversial among doctors. The pilot would experience flu-like symptoms and a blotchy rash if he was exposed to chemical odors like those in perfumes and soaps. He would drive only one particular car, and then only with all the windows open. More alarmingly, his eyesight, in one eye or both, would sometimes be affected. His son related that about a year before his last flight, his father had lost vision in both eyes while driving and had pulled to the side of the road guided only by the rumble strips.
On the day of his fatal accident, his communications with the North Bend tower were somewhat confused, and he failed to comply with a few instructions. Thirty-five minutes after he took off, Seattle Center called the tower on the land line to inquire whether they knew the position of the Dakota. The pilot had squawked “7700,” the emergency code, and reported to Center that he was having vision problems. A helicopter pilot overheard him saying that he had lost vision in his right eye and was becoming dizzy. He had given his location as Port Orford, a coastal community about 50 miles south of North Bend.
The Story the Dakota Told
The wreckage of the Dakota was found on the beach near Port Orford. It appeared from marks on the sand that when the airplane crashed it was heading eastward toward cliffs 600 feet from the water’s edge. The impact had been sufficiently violent to tear off the left wing and bend it back alongside the fuselage.
The fact that the airplane crashed on the beach suggests that the pilot had initially retained enough of his eyesight to try to put it down there, but lost whatever vision remained before he could complete the maneuver. Otherwise, he might have been expected to trim the airplane to climb and turn on the autopilot—assuming that it had a working autopilot—in the expectation that sooner or later his vision would return. (Although the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the accident describes the pilot’s condition and symptoms, it does not say how long his occasional spells of blindness would last.)
A Rare Happenstance
Loss of vision for more than a few seconds while flying—as opposed to loss of consciousness due, for instance, to hypoxia—is, I believe, very rare. I have been studying accident reports for many years and have seldom heard of it. High G maneuvers sometimes result in gray-out—a curtain seems to descend across the field of vision—but that effect is brief. There is an account from the Korean War of a Skyraider pilot, Kenneth Schechter, blinded by enemy fire, being guided to a safe landing by another airplane; Schechter died in 2013 at the age of 83. I remember an instance, decades ago, that did not end so well. The pilot of a Piper Comanche encountered severe turbulence. His seat belt was not cinched tightly, and his head hit the cabin ceiling. Though conscious, he ceased to be able to see, and he ultimately crashed. Since I read about that accident, I have always tightened my seat belt at the first hint of turbulence.
Anything to Get in the Air
I have described the Port Orford crash to non-pilot friends as an illustration of the lengths to which pilots will go to keep flying. They are incredulous; who, they ask, would pilot an airplane if there were the slightest chance of becoming blind while up in the air? Who? Well, who would drive a car after having a few drinks?
It is not uncommon for pilots to conceal disqualifying medical problems from the FAA. In fact, it is bound to happen. The FAA’s medical questionnaire is not a reliable way to elicit information when respondents’ livelihoods—or even just their ability to continue flying and therefore to continue life as they know it—is at stake. For many pilots, the possession of a pilot’s certificate, and, even more, of an airplane, is a pillar of their sense of self. It is who they are.
Most pilots—well, maybe not most bold ones—eventually grow old. Some stop flying because they find themselves becoming increasingly anxious in the air, for no rational reason. Some lose their medicals, or become uninsurable, or late in retirement can no longer justify the expense. Some who fly into their 80s find themselves gradually reducing the complexity of their flying, so that men and women who once did not hesitate to launch on thousand-mile night IFR trips in winter now allow themselves only hour-long hops on calm, sunny days. No matter; they are still pilots. That is the important thing.
FLYING’s late and much-beloved columnist, the endearingly homespun Gordon Baxter, confessed in his column to having once lost consciousness while flying, but to having continued to fly by himself afterward. Readers reacted with indignation and horror, and Bax stopped flying alone. I wondered at the time why he had ratted himself out. Did he think his syncope was a unique event, unlikely to be repeated? Did he unconsciously want to be forced to stop by some power greater than that of his own will?
Relatives and friends must often be aware of the ebbing of an aging pilot’s capacities. The situation is a classic one, not different from the problem, which practically every family faces sooner or later, of how to deny the car keys to an infirm and unreliable grandparent. The difficulty may be greater with a pilot, however. Dangerous drivers endanger those all around them, and leave families no choice. Dangerous pilots, if, like this one, fly alone and in remote places, endanger principally themselves. The danger, furthermore, is seldom imminent; and so friends and relatives hesitate, and talk it over, and resolve to do something soon.
Now and then, the problem resolves itself, as it did at Port Orford.
We often talk about the importance of judgment in flying safely. We think of judgment as improving, like wisdom, with age, but that is not always true of the last and most difficult judgment call a pilot has to make: the ultimate no-go decision, the decision to say goodbye, once and for all, to the title of “pilot.”