Like pretty much everyone else involved in aviation, I frequently engage with people who say things like, “Oh, I could never fly an airplane. They’re too dangerous.”
These same people limit the scope of their lives with similar comments about motorcycles and other pieces of hardware that are widely perceived as too dangerous for the average person.
In truth, the hardware that fills our lives is not the problem. Our greatest threat, our most profound weakness, the thing that will do us the most damage is something we carry around with us all the time. Between our ears. It’s our thoughts.
More specifically, our process of deliberation. It is our deeply flawed system of decision-making that poses the greatest risk to life and limb.
Of course as humans, we excuse ourselves from that risk factor. It might be true for others, but certainly not for me. I’m too smart for that.
No, you’re not. Neither am I. We would do well to accept that as fact.
The forecast was good when I headed off for bed. I nodded off fully intending to deliver my Cub to its new owner in the morning. The 90 nautical mile cross country should have been a breeze, a thoroughly enjoyable one, too.I got up before dawn, grabbing coffee and a bagel before motoring off to the airport. I did my pre-flight inspection as the first rays of sun lightened the horizon. The forecast was wrong. Low scud hung over the field, barely 400 feet above the ground.
My friend Bernie was nearby in his hangar, considering a quick proficiency flight. His concerns were similar to mine, and so he stayed put while I prepared to go, just in case the weather cleared. When a large hole opened up, it suggested the possibility of the layer burning off, so I flipped the prop, climbed in, and taxied to the run-up area.
The airplane was running well. The route was planned out. With my handheld radio, my charts, and my iPad running ForeFlight, I was good to go…but for the thick layer of low scud that was rolling back in, lower and darker than ever.
It was clear at my destination. The new owner texted me a photo of clear, blue skies. Bernie and a couple other locals sat under the trees near the maintenance hangar, waiting to see if I would go.
I considered my options, weighed the calculus of risk vs reward, then taxied back to the hangar in defeat. I would not fly. Bernie texted me as I headed back to the barn, somewhat dejected. He wrote, “Good call.”
That positive reinforcement means the world to me. Maybe that’s why Bernie and I are friends. We watch out for each other.
My friend Elijah was a kid working the check-out counter at my local supermarket when I met him. Tall, slender, as friendly a kid as you could ever hope to meet, but it was his enthusiasm for flying that got my attention.
I wrote about him in this space a while back. We went flying in a Cessna 152. I sat in the right seat, leaving the left open for Elijah. Other than the takeoff and landing, he flew the entire route. He was good, too. It was a bumpy day over central Florida, but the occasional unexpected rolling or yawing motion didn’t bother him at all. He was fearless. He was also smiling bigger and more enthusiastically than anyone I’d ever flown with.
Elijah loved flying even more than he thought he would. He announced his intention to earn his commercial pilot certificate and fly for a living. So I introduced him to a few of the professionals on the field, and to his credit he started coming out to lend a hand here and there. He bought books and he actually read them. He became an occasional visitor to the flying club hangar on nights when he wasn’t working or otherwise engaged.
He had a dream, he found an outlet, and he was working toward that goal in fits and starts, as time and finances would allow.
This past weekend Elijah was presented with a decision. It was Saturday night, just after 7 p.m., and as always he had plans. He sat in his car at a railroad crossing. The barriers were down, the lights were flashing, but it was still daylight and he didn’t see any sign of the train coming, so he put the car in gear, drove around the barrier, and headed for the other side of the tracks.
The train came through at 60 miles per hour, putting an end to Elijah and his plans. That was two days ago, as I write this. I miss him terribly. He was a good kid. A really good kid with a bright future. That’s all in the past now.
My friend didn’t meet his end because of a speeding train. No, his fate was sealed when he made the questionable decision to enter into a danger zone based on incomplete information. He made an error in judgement. A simple error that far too many people make.
You and I face similar decisions and identical consequences when we fly, but also whenever we roll out of bed and leave the house.
Let’s try to be like Bernie and recognize good decision making. Support the safe decision and the decision maker. We’ll all be better off if we do that for each other.
Maybe Elijah can leave us with a lasting reminder of why that’s so important. I’d like to think his short life was of that much worth, at least.