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.”
Tragically, 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.