‘He died doing what he loved’

Guest Editorial By THOMAS P. TURNER

The pilot of a twin-engine airplane sped through a narrow mountain pass. Low clouds obscured the ridges and peaks; pine trees blurred past just a few hundred feet below, materializing from the mist, flashing dark green beneath the sleek airplane, and zooming into the cloak of mist behind with dizzying speed.

The pilot pressed on, familiarity with the terrain and a business need to get through the pass to the other side giving him confidence, even as conditions worsened. As he knew it would, the pass narrowed until there was no possibility of turning around, certainly not at the aircraft’s fast cruising speed. Suddenly something went incredibly wrong, and a ball of what remained of the aircraft came to a gnarled rest at the end of a 700-foot-long impact scar.

I won’t cite the specific crash involved out of respect for all involved and in the absence of a compete investigation. Any specific incident to which you may link this narrative is entirely the result of your imagination. In numerous chat rooms and Internet bulletin boards, however, many pilots praised this pilot’s final flight with these supposedly comforting words: “He died doing what he loved.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATragically, the pilot was not alone in the aircraft. Two trusting passengers, pilots themselves but newcomers to mountain flying, also died in the crash. They were likely awed by his great experience in such conditions, and were entirely dependent upon the judgment of the pilot-in-command. It happened so quickly they probably held the pilot in great esteem and admiration all the way to the instant of their death.

I spent a good part of a day recently helping the brother of one of the passengers cope with the loss, and provide his family information and pictures of the passenger’s own airplane to be used at his funeral. It certainly would be of no comfort to the families and friends of the two passengers to say their passing was okay because their pilot died doing what he loved.

An airshow performer — again, not the one you are thinking of — brought the stunt plane past the review stand in inverted flight. Nearing airshow center, before the heart of the viewing crowd, he misjudged his maneuver and the airplane snapped over, exploding into the ground almost faster than the brain can contemplate. A second show performer was caught up in the crash and died also.

Again the chat lines lit up: Their loss is tragic, but at least “they both died doing what they loved.” Except the pilot had a family and many, many friends. The second performer was engaged to be married and was extremely well known and liked in the aviation community. I spent several days helping a close friend of one of those involved reconcile with the sudden and tragic loss.

None of those who died would have voluntarily chosen the experience. I would not “love” leaving this world in an event that exposed my lack of judgment, removed a vital aircraft from the declining fleet, gave general aviation opponents powerful ammunition to attack our freedom of flight, impacted my business so as to potentially cost others their jobs and, most importantly, so adversely affected my family and so carelessly ripped others out of the lives of their family and friends.

If someone ever eulogizes me saying I died doing what I loved, it would mean I completed a safe and satisfying flight where no one was hurt and the airplane was ready for its next steward. After landing I had a quiet evening with my family, and I died peacefully in my sleep, contemplating the beauty of my last flight in my dreams.

I often write about the tragedies of flight and the lessons they can teach us. I’ve never before written about an airplane crash in such foreboding tones as this editorial. I apologize for publicly exposing this dark, hushed corner of our chosen avocation — but we all need to hear someone say this, at least once.

I defy any pilot who considers a fatal airplane crash to have been a victory for the pilot-in-command or worth the losses they set in rippling motion across a multitude of family, employees and friends left behind.

I call on General Aviation News to never again print the phrase “died doing what he loved.” I challenge all readers to abstain from using the phrase as well.

Most importantly, I implore all pilots to conduct your flights and live up to your pilot-in-command responsibilities in such a way you never give the uneducated an opportunity to use that phrase to describe you. Doing what we love should never involve such a senseless end to others or ourselves.

 Thomas P. Turner, a three-time Master CFI, publishes the free Flying Lessons Weekly. He can be reached at Mastery-Flight-Training.com.


  1. Gordon Arch says

    When I die I want it to be in my sleep like my grandfather, Not screaming for my life as the passengers in his car were doing.

  2. David Heberling says

    When people say,” He/She died doing what he/she loved.” is a thoughtless statement, more reflex than any actual thought. There is no silver lining, no scintilla of good that can be gleaned from an aircraft accident. It is tragic, period. As someone else pointed out, bad things happen to good people too. However, given the mountain pass scenario, you could have practically predicted the outcome. Plenty of accidents happen because the pilot could not cope with the situation he put himself in. Choose your poison: stall/spin from the base to final turn, or overloaded take off at high density altitude, the pilot that did not want to stop for gas and tried to stretch his range only to crash short of the runway, or VFR into IMC, scud running, and doing aerobatics in airplanes not certified for that activity. The list is very long. So Tom’s message applies to many of the accidents that happen.

    David Heberling
    Captain Airbus single aisle
    41 years of flying and still loving it

  3. David says

    I’m a low time pilot who loves to talk about flying (as I imagine we all do). I’ve taken friends/their kids up a number of times. I’ve heard comments like: “I guess you were extra careful when you took X and X’s kids up Saturday.” My response: “No disrespect to X and the kids, but I’m not extra careful with them on board. I value *my* life more than theirs and apply the same level of care all the time.”.

  4. Sandy St.John says

    I would think that if any pilot who has been killed in a crash could come back and say just one thing, it would be “but I didn’t want to die, period”…

  5. Dave Wilson says

    Mr. Turner always makes his “point” a lasting one; this time was one of his best! If you have lost a very good friend to an aircraft accident this will stay with you like the friends memory!

  6. Ernie K says

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I posited essentially the same argument to members of our EAA Chapter after Jane Wicker was killed, along with pilot Charlie Schwenker. Our chapter is deeply involved in the Thunder in the Valley Air Show in Columbus, Georgia, and Jane had gone out of her way to be available to show visitors at what was her first show of the season.

    I guess my problem with people saying, “At least she died doing what she loved” is that it seems to de-emphasize that Jane and Charlie died; that this tragedy is somehow less tragic because “they were doing what they loved.” They were not Thelma and Louise. They were real people with real families and real loved ones who are suddenly and violently robbed of their security and find themselves awash in all the questions – their own and those of the public – which naturally follow something like this.

    I could almost accept someone saying “she died doing what she loved” if Jane had died of a heart attack while chasing her giggling great-grandchildren through a hangar. But not under the circumstances which actually killed her.

    Excuse the rant. But unless I die in a rocker on a porch with a Scotch in my hand watching my great grandchildren pre-flight their aircraft, please don’t let my epitaph be, “He died doing what he loved.”

    You said it well.

  7. John Wesley says

    I intend to die in bed at the age of 105, shot by a jealous husband, for doing what I loved best, so I am very careful not to make any mistakes in airplanes that would interfere with that ending.

    • Mack says

      Inevitably, we are all going to die of something.

      Of course, I am in favor of safety.

      Looking at “safety”, in aviation, too often, I see only good luck “amulets”, for example, the perfect paper trail, the impeccable logs, the certified, the expensive, the more righteous pilot, etc.

      If you have a 2800 horsepower corn-row radial, certainly I’d recommend leaded gasoline to prevent thermal runaway, combustion chamber meltdown, and barrel-head separation. Let’s say you’re more typical, you got a flat motor, Piper or Cardinal, and the FBO does your maintenance , and you follow his godly recommendations . You burn leaded gas. Starting was difficult, the engine missed a little on run up, you bought expensive platinum plugs for the bottom holes. So far, so good. Eventually, the very thin platinum electrodes broke off, and the ignition lead resistance from magneto block to electrode went way up, and the mag fired internally, inside itself, which destroyed it, to being non- functional, entirely useless.

      You followed all the safety regulations. Are you more safe than the guy that burns unleaded in his 81 octane motor, and doesn’t have run up misses, and has massive electrode plugs?

      Safety is in the beholder’s eye.

  8. Michael Dean says

    I wonder how many of us would “love” flying if we knew that it would – not Could, but Would – kill us? If it was a guarantee. A foregone conclusion. Not a question of “if”, but only of “when”. Would we still “love” it? Maybe. But would we still do it? I highly doubt it.

    So why do we act as though it’s some kind of “good thing” when someone else is killed “doing what they love”? Never made sense to me.

    • Mack says

      For most of my long life, approximately over 50,000 American citizens die annually on our nation’s highways. When I was a soldier in Vietnam, the globalists hammered us in our own country, bemoaning the 12-year cost of 50,000 American lives lost. You would have been twelve times safer, with me, in Vietnam! Let me take away all of your motor vehicles, to keep you safe! I think you will find, then, despite your hale and hardy health, that the travel you do daily as routine, will be too physically exhausting to maintain your lifestyle. Like all of us, you will gladly step into the marvelous conveyances we call automobiles, the conveyance that allowed our society to travel ten times faster than horseback!
      Well, my point is, despite the horrific danger, people are not going to “give up” their motorized conveyances.

  9. Bill Z says

    It’s just an expression. Some people think it makes others, or themselves, feel better knowing someone was killed while doing something they enjoyed. I guess I have to say it’s not supposed to be taken in such a strict, literal sense. To spend all this time attacking an expression is pretty petty and self-centered in my opinion. “Removed a vital aircraft from a declining fleet?” Wow. People crash and burn even when they do everything right. You are correct: “Doing what we love should never involve such a senseless end to others or ourselves”. But it happens all the time, even to the best of us. Get off the high horse.

  10. Mack says

    Trying to live immortally is fool hardy. Do it while you can, but realize the joke is on you!

    Certainly, I have sentiment for the rational application of aviation safety, and safety in flying has always been my endeavor, too.

    Many times, I avoided mountain flight with my “precious cargo”, aware of the possibility of dying together on a ridge, only to have our remains picked apart by mountain lions, and other creatures.

    Such fate might have have been desirable, however, since she always had the romantic notion that we should die in each other’s arms, souls embraced for eternity!

    In reality, terminal illness took her life, and the surgeons, oncologists, etc., ravaged her body, her being , and unvictoriously challenged her spirit.

    Had we died together, it would have been “doing what we loved”.

    I fail to see anything wrong with that!

    • Dennis Reiley says

      Sorry to hear of your loss, but remember all the happy times you wouldn’t have had you died “doing what you loved”, years earlier. No, unless you have a crystal ball you fly safely avoiding dying as long as possible, while avoiding at all costs taking others with you.

  11. Craig says

    This gave me pause to think about an incident last year when someone was doing what I loved, scuba diving, and drown feet from the surface. No matter how much I loved the sport, drowning would be a horrible way to go. One would never think of the brave fire fighter who loved his job but lost his life trying to save someone or something being happy that he was in his situation. I always thought that “he died doing what he loved” was a great saying until today. Your writings really opened my eyes. Thanks.

  12. says

    I agree with your sentiments! Death is inevitable, but not something we want to have happen in an airplane and certainly not when it takes others with us.
    Brent over at fixedwingbuddha.com

  13. Mike Beck says

    Doing what he loved? What is more important, his personal excitement or the wives and families who are not just emotionally devastated but financially destroyed (in most cases) and left with scars that may never heal!

  14. Pat Ward says

    I have always thought that dying doing what s/he loved is a trite statement. A pilot who dies flying spend their last moment in sheer terror and horrific pain. If the pilot has any time to think before pact, it is most likely not going to be “I love doing this!!”

  15. Dr. Kenneth Nolde says

    Mr. Turner:

    As one who has attended a number of funerals for fallen aviators while in the USAF and in civilian life I agree with you. At 76 and still flying, I cannot tell you the number of times that I have suggested to people that they not engage in a particular activity and was told that they could handle it. I have admitted my reluctance to “take chances” verbally and in writing. Flying is a joy that love, but only with the reasonable assurance that I will return to do it again. I do not intend to die “doing what I loved” and I am sure my wife of 47+ years agrees with me. Mr. Turner, again I agree and well said!

  16. Jeff says

    As someone from a racing background, I have lost many, many friends in racing accidents. In almost every case those same stupid words come out. “He died doing what he loved”. There is not an expression I so detest more in the English language.
    As if their death is OK because he was “doing what he loved”.
    I don’t want to go out “doing what I love”. I want to go peacefully surrounded by friends and family at well past 100.

  17. Dennis Reiley says

    Thank you for saying so well what has been needed saying. Nothing is so urgent that you must put business or pleasure ahead of flying safely – especially when carrying passengers.

  18. Wes says

    Obviously no one wants to die, but I can think of much worse ways to go than an airplane crash, my fault or not. You make it sound like people are lining up to be myrters or something, and I don’t think that’s the case. No one is suggesting that a deadly crash is a victory for anyone.

  19. Mike L says

    Very well said Tom. But I’d like to add the old saying, flying in itself isn’t inherently dangerous but it’s terribly unforgiving of any complacency. As Chuck Yeager said, “What can I do today to not kill myself today?” Definitely word to live by.

  20. Steve R says

    Well said and very true. No apology required for your comments…..people need a ” tough love ” reminder every now and again.

    • R E Besal says

      Both you and Mike L. (above) are spot on. There’s little amelioration in that trite phrase when it’s used after a mishap that results from a bone-headed pilot’s error.
      R E Besal
      RADM, USN (ret).

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