Capn Jack's Flying Squirrels

Friday, October 13, 2006

What the Cory Lidle Crash Really Proves

Any accident involving injury or loss of life is tragic and saddening. The death of Cory Lidle in a small plane crash on 10/11 was such a tragedy--family, friends, and fans will be grieving, and our hearts to go out them in this trying time. However, it's important that as a society, our public policy reaction be rational and fair.

As is often the case after a general aviation tragedy, there is an outcry for new strict restrictions on aviation. It is understandable that people will react out of fear and emotion, but as a society we must move beyond those feelings to an outcome that is consistent with our values as a free society.

In aviation, every accident is both a loss and an opportunity. The opportunity is to study and learn from the event. The NTSB studies accidents to understand what changes to regulations and practices might make flying safer. Manufacturers study accidents to find and eliminate problems with their products and eradicate them. Pilots study accidents to gain inights into technique and decision-making. This is why general aviation has an excellent safety record which continues to improve year over year.

I am a private pilot with about 380 hours. That is more than five times the experience of Lidle, but less than 1/10 of most of the instructors I have flown with. It's a little more than John Kennedy Jr. had when he was in his fatal crash. I'm just leaving a stage of experience that caught Lidle and Kennedy. It is the period where you are legally able to fly but prone to risk. That risk is not due to lack of knowledge or skills--the FAA specified training and testing does a great job in that area. It is due in most cases to a lack of fear. Not the paralyzing fear that leads to disaster, but the rational fear that says, "don't do that." It tells us to be afraid of running out of fuel, flying into weather beyond our ability, or taking off in an aircraft that just might not be up to the task.

It is too early to speculate on the actual cause of Lidle's crash, but the root cause is already evident. He chose to get in his plane and fly a sightseeing tour in a crowded corridor, on a day where the weather was poor. Most of the high-time pilots I know would not fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) with the marginal weather that existed on Wednesday. I've cancelled or changed plans to fly under similar conditions. In my heart, I want to fly, but I listen to my head and in the end I never question my decision. This accident reinforces my personal learning process and helps me become safer.

What should society learn from this incident? Is it that small planes are dangerous and should be banned from the space above our cities. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The lesson is that even when the excellent safeguards of our general aviation system aren't enough to save one pilot and his passenger, society is safe. Lidle's crash was unfortunate, but it was not significant. Every day in great cities like New York, there are personal tragedies which take the lives of one or two individuals. Car crashes, bicyclists and pedestrians hit by taxis, busses or other vehicles, victims of fires and countless other events are part of life.

Spectacular video coverage and the death of a celebrity are forces which push a story to the front pages, but they don't change the math. Society has real problems to solve--energy policy, an untenable war in Iraq, the erosion of the environment. Teeny planes crashing into buildings just doesn't make that list.

The media likes plane crashes because they attract viewers. Many politicians flock to them because general aviation is an easy target. They do their own math. The flying community is a small part of the population--alienating that group is inconsequential if it lets them appear decisive and action-oriented to a large bloc of voters.

The truth is that general aviation is not just celebrities and rich people flying for fun. It provides a vital component of our transportation infrastructure. Law enforcement, emergency services, agriculture and small business are just a few of the institutions which are more effective and successful because there is a community of flying. Politicians and media who want to serve society should be promoting that reality instead of the myth of danger. When they don't , they are displaying either their own ignorance or simple hypocrisy. Whichever it is, it isnt acceptable.

If there is anything to feel better about, it is that terrorists may also learn from Lidle's death. Learning to fly, obtaining a plane and then giving up your life in an accident that might not even kill a single bystander doesn't make sense. And whatever politicians may be doing, we know that terrorists do the math.

In the wake of Lidle's crash, the aviation community will seek to learn how to improve its excellent safety record so that some future pilot has a better outcome. Politicians should use this chance to learn that general aviation doesn't threaten society. It's not time to add more expensive and complicated restraints on aviation--it is time to remove some of the inappropriate restrictions pilots have faced for the last several years.


At 7:41 PM, Blogger Bun-Bun said...

I finally read this. It was good. I've raised you well.


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