Is flying an airplane that only has lap belts — no shoulder harnesses — taking an unacceptable risk?
I’ve taken a number of people for airplane rides, most recently in a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub a friend lets me fly. Each flight has gone well. Both pilot and passenger enjoyed each flight.
Each time, I mitigated the risk as best I could. The days were all clear and calm, offering great visibility and a smooth ride.
My last flight was with 11-year-old Cole. His first “small airplane” ride. I wrote about it as well.
In response to that column, I received an email from Robert Hughes, Captain MC USN Ret., that has me thinking. I suppose that’s a good thing.
The following is from the email Robert sent to me, as well as copies of emails he sent to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA):
For the past several years, I have been trying raise the appreciation of the inherent risks of flying aircraft, usually older versions, which are not fitted with shoulder restraint systems. Minor mishaps frequently turn into tragic events in terms of injuries and fatalities.
“Our notions of automoble safety have evolved dramatically since the 60’s. I don’t remember if my college-era cars were fitted with even rudimentary lap belts, but now I would not consider riding in a car, or airplane, without restraints including an effective shoulder harness. I look back on the thousand+ hours that I flew my Cub and Champ without any shoulder restraints, and from today’s vantage point, I can only wonder ‘what were we thinking?’ As pilots, we put passengers at unnecessary risk in those old days.
“Many years ago, shortly after I sold my beautiful J-3 to a flight school in Florida, it was involved in a low velocity accident with an instructor and student. They sustained serious injuries due to the lack of shoulder harness restraint, and could have easily been killed. Before and after photos of that mishap are attached (see below). In that less enlightened time, many older general aviation planes had not been retrofitted with shoulder restraints, but we should certainly know better now.
“Please take a thoughtful look at the risks of flying without a harness. You would not want your kids to ride in a car without restraints. Why is a plane any different?”
I’ll be honest, Robert’s email caught me off guard.
I’ve flown each of my children and the children of many friends in the Cub. And each were restrained with only lap belts.
Looking back, I soloed an ultralight when I was 13. It had lap and shoulder harnesses. (I remember thinking the shoulder straps were there because there was no enclosure around the seat). On my 16th birthday, I soloed our 1946 Piper J-3 Cub…restrained only by a lap belt. We (my instructor and I) mitigated the risk of that flight by flying from Thun Field (KPLU) with its wider and longer runway with clearer approaches than the shorter and narrower runway at our residential airpark home in Shady Acres.
Interestingly, maybe ironically, two days after Robert’s email came in, I received an email from Method Seven Glasses.
“Earlier this year, Eric Tucker landed his J3 Piper Cub on an ambulance moving at 60 mph,” read the first sentence.
With Robert’s email rattling around my head, I clicked on the link. Smartly, Eric (who also happens to be airshow legend Sean D. Tucker’s son) had outfitted his J-3 with shoulder restraints. Good for him. Although, I might add, he’s taking on a bit more risk than the typical J-3 flight. See for yourself in the following video.
Shoulder harnesses can improve — I suppose — the odds of minimizing injury from an accident. But looking at the accident picture Robert sent, my questions revolve more around “what were they doing?”
Discussion over the last several years has evolved from making aviation safe toward mitigating risk. I won’t be landing any airplane atop a moving vehicle regardless of the number of restraints holding me in. Likewise, Eric and his team worked hard to mitigate the risks of his flight as well.
My take? Acceptable levels of risk are personal to pilot and aircraft.
What do you think? Am I off base?