The High Road

I faced aeronautical temptation this weekend… a lot of temptation.

I got a call from an aircraft crash investigator. He said he’d been hired to retrace, in visual meteorological conditions (VMC), the flight path of a Beech Baron that had been “vectored into the mountains” in the western U.S. a few years ago. This investigator (let’s call him “Will,” not his real name) needed to do this in a hurry — by the end of the following week, in fact. Someone told him I am a Beech “expert,” so he wanted to hire me to fly a similar Baron out to the crash site, to meet his investigative team. Then he wanted me to fly (not “recreate,” I hope!) the accident flight profile. Money was seemingly no object.

I had the time, the promised fee was enticing, and the thought of logging flight time from the eastern U.S. to the mountainous West using someone else’s pocketbook was inviting. The timing and route of the flight would allow me to fly to a previously scheduled meeting — at “Will’s” expense — instead of making a two-day drive at my own. I asked questions about the circumstances of the fatal crash, whom the plaintiff and defendants are, and what was the plaintiff’s assertion in the case. I was told I’d be filled in later — the investigator was calling from home, away from his data, he said. I agreed to start looking for an airplane.

First, I needed to find a Baron similar to the one that had crashed (to net similar performance in the test). That’s no easy feat — try finding a specific type of multiengine airplane available for rent for a week, with a day and a half’s notice. Amazingly, I found one belonging to an e-mail acquaintance that was actually fairly near my home. We set up a meeting and I began to prepare for the trip.

The next day, however, the offer to use the plane was politely withdrawn. Somehow the Baron’s owner learned the specifics of the case before I did. Although there was a flurry of phone calls from “Will” over the weekend, his promised call at 10 a.m. that (Monday) morning never came. Once I learned that being “vectored into a mountain” wasn’t exactly what had happened (according to the National Transportation Safety Board final report) … that the plaintiffs’ assertions were contrary to performance expectations outlined in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (and the laws of physics) … and that they were suing the airplane and engine manufacturer in what was regrettably but clearly (in my estimation) a pilot-error accident unrelated to any manufacturing details (with a lot of pilot indiscretions thrown in)… Well, I too called “no go” for my participation in the investigation.

If “Will” ever makes his promised phone call, I’ll tell him.

The High Road
My virtual near-death experience made me think about the temptation to “go” — to press on because of a decision based not on flying facts, but on outside pressures. I wanted the long flying trip at someone else’s expense. I wanted to see the mountains from a light airplane again. I could always use the money, especially in this tight economy. But these were not good reasons to make the flight. In fact, they were strong temptations arguing against what I consider to be a sound, forthright “no-go” decision.

Mine was an unusual case, one that most pilots will never encounter. But you eventually will face a moral dilemma that may affect the safe completion of a flight. What about:

  • The pilot who finds an unexplained oil leak beneath the engine during his/her preflight inspection, but elects to fly anyway?
  • The aviator who presses “just a little lower” on a non-precision instrument approach, hoping to find the airport hidden among fog-shrouded hills and towers?
  • The visual-rules pilot who presses on into instrument conditions, because it would be an admission of weakness… and so darn inconvenient to land and wait it out?
  • The new charter pilot, wanting to impress his boss and unwilling to tell his passengers his airplane can’t support the weight of all their baggage?
  • The instructor pilot who signs a student off for solo because it’s his / her birthday, or he / she is a family friend, or the student has been overly generous with “tips,” gifts and “bonuses?
  • The examiner that gives an applicant “a little slack” on a checkride because it’s Christmas, or the examiner wants to be a “nice guy?

BOTTOM LINE: There’s enough being done to hurt general aviation without pilots giving in to temptation, and making “go” decisions based on outside pressures and unrelated “facts.” Take the high road — literally and figuratively — to keep yourself and your passengers alive … and to put the best, most accurate, face on personal flying.