I went to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl one January night in 1995. I remember several things about that night.
First, I recall offering my jacket to my date, as it was unseasonably cold. Normally in January in the LA basin, summer temperatures prevail because of strong easterly Santa Ana winds scouring hot air off the Mojave Desert east of LA and pouring it down into the LA Basin. There’d been no Santa Ana winds for a while, so I watched as the marine layer rolled in off the Pacific, bringing with it cold, damp air and thick clouds.
I remember hearing a helicopter land near the Bowl and thinking that some rich celebrity had arrived to see the show. I also recall sitting in a horrendous traffic jam later that night, in fog, on the 101 Freeway, while CHiPs, EMS and wreckers tried to sort out and clear away the debris of a Bell JetRanger that had just collided with power lines strung across the Cahuenga Pass, the canyon where my part of the 101 lay.
The helicopter that crashed and burned was the same one I’d heard land earlier in the evening. It hadn’t brought a rich celebrity to the Bowl, just four regular people — the pilot, his police officer buddy and their two dates, flying in for an extra special time.
The pilot and his buddy perished. The pilot had been a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot. He’d borrowed the helicopter from his employer.
The crash infuriated me. It was entirely avoidable. I know Uber didn’t exist in 1995, but LA has a wealth of shiny black Town cars and limousines. It would have taken a mere phone call to hire one of those to whisk the quartet safely from the Hollywood Bowl and through the foggy night. The pilot could have left the helicopter parked for the next sunny day. Instead, he chose to fly a VFR-only helicopter into night IFR conditions, into steep terrain crisscrossed by power lines.
For me, crashes like that scream of poor aeronautical decision-making and high risk behavior. When I researched the NASA files for “power line incidents,” I didn’t expect to find many aircraft vs. power line reports at all. I believed that any case of aircraft vs. power lines would result in a fatal crash. Since Aviation Safety Reporting System guidelines prohibit use of a NASA report to document an aircraft crash, I doubted any reports would exist.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered 82 such incidents in the ASRS database. There are reports from pilots who suffered partial or complete power loss. They either made contact with power lines during an off-airport landing or during final approach to an airport while limping in below pattern altitude.
There are even two reports where the pilots failed to account for thermal activity on final approach and sunk into the path of power lines. Both recovered sufficiently and only clipped the lines with their landing gear. I think such instances might be forgivable, as they resulted from poor pilot technique, not poor decision-making.
I even found reports from crop dusting pilots. Without fail, those incidents occurred because of the proximity of power lines to the agricultural fields being sprayed. Given the low altitude flight required in their jobs, one could chalk those up to occupational hazard. Their reports taught me to be extra wary of power lines near farmland.
But mostly what I found were many pilots taking unnecessary risks.
One pilot was ferrying a small aircraft from Santa Maria, Calif., to Clarksville, Tenn. He wrote: “On the way over the Rocky Mountains, I realized that the only way to keep performance of the airplane up was to fly as low as possible. Therefore, I decided to fly 500 feet AGL over Interstate 40, which was the road I was following through the mountains.”
These reports bear only so much fruit. We know, for instance, that the flight was day VFR. But we don’t know what time of year or what the relative temperature was at the time of the incident. So it can only be inferred from the account that high density altitude played a factor.
“Maintaining 500 feet AGL, just before the incident, I had my attention on my maps too long. When I looked up again, I realized that I was low (approximately 50 feet AGL). I pulled back on the stick but too late to avoid the power lines. The lines broke my windshield.”
That pilot managed a safe landing on the highway without further damage to the plane or to any passing motorists. In his report, the pilot admitted that maintaining 500 foot AGL while encountering rising terrain as he approached the Continental Divide may have actually resulted in a relative descent.
“That decision,” he concluded in his report, “was a bad one, especially over the mountain areas, and was made from lack of experience and bad preparation.”
Nothing in the report indicated if the pilot monitored ATIS, ASOS or AWOS along his route of flight. Nor does it explain why a course reversal hadn’t been an option, given the aircraft’s deteriorating performance in increasingly thinner air.
One alternative would have been to land the plane and wait to fly at night or in the early morning in cooler and therefore denser air.
Finally, I checked the charts along his route of flight. I found that had he detoured south to the 10 Freeway early on, instead of staying above Interstate 40, he would have avoided mountainous terrain. I’m left wondering why he hadn’t made that a Plan B.
This report only fed my long-held opinion of pilots who collide with power lines — reckless. That this pilot survived made him reckless and lucky.
Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Never let it be said that I don’t try to mature as a pilot. I want to believe in the better nature of humans.
“While practicing simulated emergency landings in a rural area recently, my aircraft collided with something at the approach end of my target airfield… I was startled, and my first thought was that my landing gear hit a telephone wire.”
This pilot discerned no decrease in aircraft performance, so he returned to his home airfield for an uneventful landing. There he scrutinized his Beech Sport for damage. His propeller spinner had sustained damage, and rough scuff marks were evident on the rear of the prop blades.
“Somehow in my haste to prepare for an upcoming flight review, I’d overlooked a needed caution. I’ll always wonder how close I came to being decapitated.”
He emphasized that his wasn’t a malicious act. That’s the thing: No reckless pilot ever means to act maliciously.
Another pilot reported practicing simulated engine out approaches from different altitudes and to different fields.
“Trying to surprise myself,” he wrote, “I cut the power when it seemed most unfavorable in all the situations.”
In one particular moment of flight, he cut the power at 1,500 feet AGL over Interstate 93.
“I-93 runs parallel to the river down the valley, but [the approaches] seemed too easy, so I went for the river because of the congestion on the interstate,” he wrote.
The pilot stated he was aware of two power lines that crossed the river. Since they were well away from his position, he felt comfortable descending much lower than normal “to see if I would have made it in a real situation.”
Just when he decided to add power and abort his approach, he saw another set of power lines dead ahead. He dove the airplane. All but part of one of his horizontal stabilizers cleared the lines. He managed to fly the damaged ship back to base. What did this pilot learn from the experience?
“Knowing that a 2-foot to 3-foot higher altitude would have killed me, it is needless to say that I am not taking any kind of chance again.”
Almost a dozen other pilots who reported power line encounters while practicing simulated engine failures echoed the same foolish behavior and dangerous outcome.
“But Jeffrey,” you might say, “practicing engine outs is important to maintaining one’s emergency response skills.”
Sure, but there’s a reason we impose a 500-foot floor on such maneuvers.
I thought about chastising those reckless pilots. I even thought about starting up a public shaming campaign, but the truth is, these pilots do get it. Those fortunate enough to survive power line collisions shared two similarities in their reports — a clear understanding of their good luck, and a clearer understanding of the astoundingly poor choice each made in that moment.
Try as I might, I still found nothing in the data compelling enough to make me look more charitably on those pilots.
So while Muhammad Ali’s quote is aspirational, I’m sticking to my low opinion of reckless, power line death cheaters if doing so keeps me out of that ignoble fraternity.