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Heading Bug: Death in the Sky, and Other Statistical Tales

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June 2013

In general the aviation community has always seen research and study of such tragedies as tools for learning to keep the rest of safe.

Twice this past month friends of mine in two separate states found themselves attending the funerals of friends of theirs who died in crashes of General Aviation aircraft. The Florida death involved a Cessna Skymaster that lost one engine and had problems with the second engine, while in Nebraska the crash of a Piper took the lives of its young pilot and his friend when the PA-28 struck power wires shortly after takeoff.

These occurrences are awful tragedies for the families and friends of the dead. Having lost two friends myself to bad things happening to airplanes—one a former flight instructor of mine—I am no stranger to the emotional and psychological effect of such deaths.

I remember twice living through wondering whether I should ever fly again since these two friends of mine—both much more accomplished pilots than I ever will be—had lost their lives while flying. Each time I eventually got back in the air, mostly because I thought that is what they would have wanted.

I don’t know what happened in the Florida and Nebraska crashes; the FAA and the NTSB are still investigating and their conclusions are months away. And I want to state that nothing you read here is intended to offer any opinion about what happened in those crashes or about the pilots involved.

But I do know that in general the aviation community has always seen research and study of such tragedies as tools for learning to keep the rest of safe.

I remember poring over the official reports of the crashes that took the lives of my friends for some understanding of what might have happened and for some sort of healing. Both of them died resulting from maintenance-related issues.

In one crash a fuel selector valve that was not reinstalled after a cockpit refurbishment led to an engine-out even though secondary tanks were full, and the subsequent dead-stick landing attempt ended in power lines when my friend tried to avoid a school in his landing path.

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