Tales From The Dark Side

Sometimes it’s the plane… sometimes it’s the pilot… often, it’s the way the two fit together — or don’t — that brings an end to them both. We all hear stories. The stories you are about to read are true. Consider them warnings.

I knew a man who owned a Cessna 310. A very nice airplane and well equipped for the time (mid-1980s), it was also a fast ship. He loved the airplane, but it cost so much to operate that he rarely flew it. It’d sit there on the ramp for months at a time, tires bulging, and then the FBO would get a call to pull it over to the hangar. They’d air up the tires, charge up the battery and pull it out front for a trip. The proud owner zoomed out to the airport, gave it a cursory walk-around and launched off into whatever weather presented itself … often without having flown anything for months. He’d disappear into the murky clouds leaving us to wonder if we’d ever see him again. He was the sort of pilot that was an accident waiting to happen.

Another proud owner hit it big in the computer business. Wanting a good ‘traveling machine,’ he looked at new-production airplanes and decided a six-place, turbocharged single had the performance he liked. Forget that he hadn’t even started learning to fly, a dealer was happy to sell him the $600,000 airplane and ‘guarantee’ him that he could learn to fly it in the same ’40 hours’ we’re all told it takes to earn the Private certificate. After soloing, the new owner convinced a starry-eyed young CFI (who was anxious to escape his position in creaky old Cessnas and get some time in the pristine airplane) to sign him off for repeated ‘solo cross-countries’ that were, in fact, business trips and illegal, passenger-carrying vacations. This was another accident waiting to happen.

‘I don’t have the time to get my instrument ticket,’ grumbled the busy executive as he climbed into his airplane, briefcase in hand. With time, he became quite adept at scud running in low-powered trainers, but when he moved up into a fast retractable, his high-speed, low-altitude and low-visibility habits were downright dangerous. After a while, he decided his autopilot could fly better anyway … so why not let it? ‘Just turn off the transponder and they’ll never know I was here,’ he figured. Without training, experience or a clearance, he started flying IFR, a little at a time — busting through a thick haze, then a light overcast, and eventually teaching himself to drop down on an approximation of an instrument approach … all on the autopilot. An accident waiting to happen.

The prospective buyer of a pressurized twin was aghast that he couldn’t get insurance coverage without an instrument rating. ‘I live in the Southwest, and never fly it on instruments,’ he pleaded with his agent. ‘If I don’t fly it IFR, it’ll be safer than if I were tempted to go into the clouds.’ Maybe he had a point, maybe not — but the insurance carrier wanted evidence that the pilot could perform to a higher standard (the instrument practical test standards), regardless of what margins he intended to allow himself. In the insurance company’s view, a VFR-only, private pilot — in a pressurized twin — was another accident waiting to happen.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Pilots need to know that the ‘rules’ of flying airplanes, and the practices of those who insure them, come from deadly experience. Any airplane is potentially dangerous. As a wise instructor once said, ‘a Piper Cub is a simple airplane — it can barely kill you.’ As airplanes get more and more complicated, they require additional training and experience, and their pilots need constant practice to retain a level of safety and competence. An aircraft and a pilot each come with their own set of limits. It’s a pilot’s job to know both. Unfortunately, only one of those sets comes in print — the other set can be much more difficult to read…

  • Risk — Can you just afford the airplane of your dreams, like that sweet Cessna 310? If simply owning the airplane eats into your trust fund, you might want to scale back your dreams and buy something a little less expensive … and less complex. Remember: You want to fly the airplane, not put it on static display and you want to be safe when you fly it.
    Reward — Buy one that fits your current level of experience. Build some time in it, then sell it (in most cases you’ll make money on the sale) and then get something more advanced. Work your way up to the airplane that meets your wants and needs.Risk — Have you found a deal you can’t refuse? Ask yourself if you can really handle the airplane (financially, and as a pilot) and plan accordingly. Understand that this may include extra costs.
    Reward — If you can afford it and the airplane’s demands are beyond your current flying ability, find a good instructor experienced in the type. Strike a deal for him or her to accompany you on trips until he/she feels you’re competent to go on your own. You will be a much safer pilot and much better pilot, because of your careful planning.

Do you know an ‘accident waiting to happen?’ They have the right to accept the risk for themselves. But what about the lives they affect. They’re also risking their passengers, people on the ground, pilots of other airplanes. People who’ve placed their personal fortunes at risk by providing services to the pilot (like mechanics, instructors and insurance agents) and, frankly, the future of general aviation also suffers when accidents occur. You don’t want to cause a confrontation, but it’s certainly not wrong to let the ‘accidental’ pilot know there are options available to make their risk more acceptable. Still, if you see blatantly criminal action taking place, you’ll have to decide if it warrants a phone call to the Feds.

Are you selling an airplane? Don’t let financial gain lull you into selling into an accident waiting to happen. Openly discuss the financial and experience requirements of the airplane in question. You can’t make the new owner fly the plane safely, but you can educate the buyer about the realities of the airplane. If the buyer seems too cavalier for your tastes, you can always refuse to sell — there’ll be another buyer (whose survivors won’t sue you for negligence) along soon enough.

Enough people get injured or die in airplanes and personal aviation gets press that’s bad enough already, without help from accidents waiting to happen. Buying an airplane is a very emotional experience for most. Don’t let your emotions blind the logic of experience or finance. If the Feds, your instructor, your insurance agent, your scheduler or your accountant throw obstacles in your way or wave red flags about you flying a particular airplane, or a particular flight, take their advice as a sign. Objectively reevaluate your competence and how your finances might affect your safety of flight.

BOTTOM LINE: In the real world, accidents don’t always come with a warning, let alone four. Remember those stories and the one thing they all have in common — this time, I’ll put it a different way: All of them became accidents that did happen.