In the closing chapters of Ernest K. Gann’s novel “Gentlemen of Adventure,” Gann’s anti-hero Kiffin Draper — who is terminally ill, suffering great pain, and very near the end of his life — steals two things.
The first is an ambulance, which he uses to escape from the hospital and drive to an airport on the cusp of the continent, overlooking the vast Pacific, so he can steal the second thing his plan requires: An airplane.
Because Kiffen, “that wonderful, crazy, selfish, ungrateful, undependable king of sonsabitches was not about to expire with only a whimper.” Instead, he will die as he lived: By his own rules.
On arriving at the airport — still in his hospital gown — Kiffen considers three planes, ruling out a Piper Cub that looked “too good for the project at hand,” and a “bedraggled Porterfield that didn’t look good enough.” He settles on an Aeronca with no compass and a wrinkled Standard Oil roadmap “tucked underneath the single broad seat.”
Kiffen judges that “even with his waning strength he should be able to spin the stubby propeller.” And he’s correct. Barely. Then with his prized violin and a bottle of Glenfiddich Scotch, he takes off on his final journey, flying west — both literally and figuratively.
He has not said a word to his family. Neither, does it seem, did a pilot in Oregon in a strange case of life imitating fiction.
The (real-life) crash
I gotta feel sorry for the witness, who on that fateful day in November 2020, was out for a hike near the shore at Cape Falcon on the Oregon coast, when she spotted a low flying Cessna 172 enter Smuggler Cove. As it came closer and closer to her position, the engine running strong and true, it began a shallow descent.
She waved at the aircraft.
Then she began to worry as it got lower and lower and lower.
“I started to wonder how close they were going to get,” she later told NTSB investigators, “and was getting concerned about their altitude.”
With good cause. In front of her horrified eyes, the plane descended straight into the ocean.
“The aircraft struck the ocean surface belly first with the landing gear hitting the water, and the nose struck about half a second later, with the aircraft pivoting to the left with the left top of the wing entering the water,” she reported to the NTSB investigator.
A big wave came over the airplane and…it was gone. She frantically called 911 on her cell phone. When interviewed by the NTSB, she told the investigator that it appeared that the pilot was either incapacitated or committed to the act.
Like Kiffen, neither the pilot, nor his plane, are ever seen again.
The (real-life) pilot
As the NTSB and local authorities tried to sort out what happened, they talked to the pilot’s next of kin, a nephew who lived on the opposite coast. He described his 79-year-old uncle as “headstrong,” but reported that he had been “in good spirits, and spiritually was in a good place.”
The nephew wasn’t sure, but he thought that his uncle got his private pilot certificate in the 1990s, and that he purchased the airplane two or three years before the crash.
He said his uncle had been “in a depressed condition” after the passing of his aunt (the pilot’s wife) three years previously, but had taken “a turn for the better health-wise” since then.
But the pilot’s health, in fact, had taken a turn in the other direction, a fact the pilot withheld from his family. Only his new lady friend and one close buddy had any clue. The pilot had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and was told he had between “one day and one month to live.”
The lady friend, who drove the pilot to the fateful doctor’s appointment, told the buddy that the pilot claimed, “I don’t want to be in a hospital, I don’t want to be in a care center, and I don’t want a caregiver. I want to die in my house or my airplane.”
It’s the kind of thing people say when they get that kind of news. Neither the lady friend or the buddy gave it much thought. Until afterward.
Wrote Gann of the fictional Kiffen’s thoughts as he flew out to sea: The journey would be a damn sight better than lying passively while a gang of doctors pumped stuff into his body and sucked other stuff out. “Your gut is full of fire but you cannot die. It is against the house rules. Until they are ready. Suffer on with your scorching spleen? Incinerate your entrails? Become the hulk of a one-time man?” Kiffen chose to make his own rules for the end of his life, not follow the doctors’ rules.
As, apparently, did the Oregon pilot.
Of course, the Oregon pilot did not take anyone else’s airplane. And in fairness to the fictional Kiffen, he didn’t completely steal the Aeronca either. In the novel, he leaves a check under a rock to “the owner of aircraft N478.” A check for twice its value, even though the airplane he’s chosen to use as his personal Viking ship to Valhalla is hardly one of market value.
And in one final instance of life imitating art, several days after the real-life Oregon crash, the pilot’s friend received an envelope from the missing, presumed-dead, terminally-ill pilot. There was no note, just a check for $10,000 inscribed “to my friend” on the memo line.
Although the cause of this crash is plain to see for anyone with half a brain, the NTSB listed the probable cause of the accident as “the pilot’s descent into the ocean for reasons that could not be determined.”
The Takeaway & Discussion
Of course there is no “make us all better pilots” takeaway from this final flight. But there is much to discuss, perhaps about making us better people.
Personally, while I’m in favor of allowing people to decide how they want to exit, doing it by crashing an airplane makes me queasy in ways I can’t quite describe. It may be because I have a tendency to think of airplanes as living things. We’d be horrified if someone committed suicide by riding his beloved horse off a cliff, right?
On the other hand, it is just a machine. It belonged to him, and I guess it was his to dispose of as he saw fit, and he apparently saw fit to use something he loved as a tool to exit this life.
But there are other things to consider, as well. When a plane goes down, first responders often take chances that could imperil their own lives, and it’s the ultimate in selfishness not to consider the impact of your actions on others. And then there’s the press, and how reports of actions like these impact the public perception of the pilot community. And of a more minor note, but not wholly inconsequential, there’s the environmental impact to consider.
Chime out in comments with your thoughts. Let’s discuss.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one final thought. While the fictional Kiffen had the decency to fly far out from land, away from everyone, flying west until the little Aeronca ran out of gas, then riding it down to the dark sea loudly singing Loch Lomond and slugging down Scotch on his final descent, the Oregon pilot did it in plain sight of a bystander. One who was enjoying watching the flight, and even waved to the airplane, before the pilot used it as an instrument of exit from life.
That doesn’t strike me as the behavior of a gentleman.
Want to know more?
You can see the final report here. This will trigger a PDF download to your device. If you’d like to see the docket, which includes the witness statements, next of kin interview, and excerpts from the sheriff’s report, click here.
A sad and serious thought provoking article and commentary about suicide and aviation.
Tragically the ever presence of suicide in America has collided with our “only in America”gun culture in a cataclysmic fashion effecting all of us as innocent victims and unwilling witnesses.
Richard Hrezo says
Even though I have a non-curable cancer, I could never take my life or hurt my plane (an RV-7 I built). Nor could I ever condemn someone for doing so. There are days when the thought of dragging life out with this disease seems unimaginable. Just say a prayer for them.
While I don’t agree the the pilots choice, I can not condemn it. I think the fictional pilot and the real pilot can be considered gentlemen. Their actions are understandable even if one disagrees with it. In NH in my town a pilot took his own life by diving into his house with his airplane. Apparently he was getting a divorce and wanted to take everything. Now that is not being a gentleman.
William Cox says
May I please assume that the pain the author was experiencing was terrible? also that nobody else was hurt by the crash into the ocean. Certainly the man’s family and friends were “hurt” by the death, but if he had lived out his “20 days or so” then died, wouldn’t they be hurt then?
May I assume further that the man was a Christian.
Then in such case, I have no argument against what the man did.
I’m sorry for this type of action. It’s a sin in God’s eye. However, getting news that you only have days to live has to be devastateing! Besides the pain is a total sad situation. I would not take my Cherokee with me. I would give it to someone who appreciates flying. But to each his own agenda!!!
Randy coller says
How is it a sin in God’s eyes? Jesus could have overcome Pontius Pilate & his soldiers. Didn’t Jesus in a sense die by suicide by giving himself up? I don’t think God will condemn one who no longer can face the extreme pain (mental or physical) of living.
Jamie Beckett says
An intriguing story, wonderfully told. Thank you for comparing and contrasting this fiction and its corresponding real-life twin. Very well done, sir.
Nice stories. Probably the crash location was for the scenery and memory of times past, but still, effect on bystanders understood. Better to literally “go West” and disappear out of sight, and out of first responder’s responsibility to look. Turn off the radios and the beacons, drain the fuel until the engine sputters and dies. My own thought of place is more along the lines of isolated crashing in the desert and letting the coyotes have lunch. Definitely no hospital, doctors, nurses, nor hanging on to the last respiration. Life without living is not life, it’s just existence.
James Brian Potter says
Taking one’s precious life: the ultimate blasphemy.
Kent Misegades says
Suicide is becoming a more common means of escaping problems both mental and physical. It is also the height of egotism, ignoring the impact this has on loved ones, a business, the youth, etc. Every day is a gift when it is spent focused on others, not ourselves. A member of my church has been near blind since his youth. Yet he was a competitive wrestler in his youth, a high school teacher and is now an accomplished professional musician. He would disagree with those who would call him “disadvantaged”. Even those diagnosed terminally ill can and do recover, often miraculously. Suicide is not the answer. Euthanasia is Orwellian.
I also have stage 4 cancer and was given less than 30 days to live and went thru the cancer surgery 14 hours of that surgery. I wanted to die from the pain after wards but i survived and that has been over 6 years ago and the cancer is growing again and the Dr. wanted to do the surgery again and i had a vewing and did not have the second surgery and i feel great . I will never slow down or stop because some one says you have 30 days to live. Who are they to say how long you have to live. If you give up and stop living then you will not live long but if you live every day to the fullest and enjoy life no body can say how long you will live. To me it is all in your mind all ways stay positive abd have the never give up attitude and fly and have fun as no body knows when your time is up!
Good luck to you, Gary. As a septuagenarian, I can relate. Personally, I avoid doctors for anything but acute trauma like broken bones. Experience and science hold that a Mediterranean Diet (“Blue Zone Diets”), high (5,000 IU Daily) Vitamin D (actually an essential hormone), with K, C, zinc, etc, give the best odds against cancer and its proliferation (Best approach to inducing cancer cell apoptosis). We are speaking of odds of something happening, not absolutes as in “cures”. That approach also applies to most of what ails most people, especially pilots. (Ever notice the plethora of toxic, irritating (“garbage” IMHO), fed to pilots at Flyins? It’s as if the aviation community has a death wish.). You can research the terms on the NIH website if you have not and are so inclined: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
The positive mental attitude you have is a real asset. It limits stress reactions that do many people harm. Best of Health to You.
Don Windle says
Having heard several of my pilot friends make similar comments about “going out on their own terms” I have wondered would any of them actually do it. This case appears to describe a very lonely depressed person who had no desire to face the ugly prospect of dying in bed being offered “comfort measures” while any quality of life is completely gone.
Who knows? Like some others I question making a public spectacle of it. a
and , like some others, I do personify my trusty 172 and don’t believe I could intentionally destroy it. Again, who knows? I don’t want to find out.
Budd Davisson says
And then there was the recently diagnosed cancer victim who purposely crawled out of my friend’s Stearman the day he got the diagnosis. That left an indelible mark on my friend. The despair that leads to suicide is unfathomable to those of us not in the same state but there are no suicides that don’t damage those left behind.
Kent Misegades says
Well put Budd. Thanks.
Facing an agonizing end of life must be the ultimate terror. Who wants to end life that way? This pilot unfortunately felt alone in that terror, with no comforting options. Unfortunately, as well, is that he didn’t avail himself of the assisted suicide options that several states offer.
And yes, it would have been preferable for the pilot to notify search and rescue services prior to his planned crash.
However to insult this man with the epithet of “not a gentleman” suggests that the author is a rather self righteous individual. A tad more empathy would seem to be a more humane lens through which to view this tragedy.
I’m 75. I’m an MD. I’m also a pilot. I’ve a seriuos and painful cancer. I still make the legal minimus to pass the checkrides (medical and pratical). I love to fly. Unfortunately, I don’t like to fly alone. Before being in the conditions in what I’m now, me and my son used fo fly our a/c together. But life pointed now that my son may be convinced he has no time or wish to fly with me as we used to do before (and I’m positively sure he knows I’m not a bad and/or unconscious pilot).
Life changes our points of view and, sometimes, leaves us to an almost a desperation of ours souls. I could make a lot of options; pretending I just stop love flying; ask for a medically assisted suicide or that thing thay, IMHO, is an horrendous one, called euthanasia (and note I’m, as I’ve said, an MD); flying in company of someone else that wasn’t my son; joining a flying club; flying alone, etc.
I’m still waiting for the end of my life and hoping that, before that happens, I’m blessed with the opportunity to fly my a/c with my son a few times.
Dee Waldron says
I cannot be judgemental one way or the other here. But I will say this:
There is one great truth in life. Everyone has a date with the Grim Reaper. Everyone, without exception. Nobody gets a pass. So, are you ready? Something to think about.