A small-airplane crash this past weekend, with larger ramifications.
This moved me to buy (and read) the book. Wow!
All three of its aspects (technical, systemic, philosophical) are very interesting. And the man could write.
Additionally, I never realized how accident-prone commercial air traffic still was through the 1950s.
Jim Warm thanks for another boots-on-the-ground commentary, this time related to your decades of flight experience.
“Man proposes, God disposes”relates to life. As John Lennon phrased it “Life is what happens, when you have other plans.”
I remember in my Foreign Service days encountering rigid security strictures. In fact, the greatest insecurity came from human carelessness.
I recall, after Martin and Mitchell defected from NSA to Moscow in 1960 and revealed a number of countries where NSA was intercepting and decoding communications. At the time I was working in the State Department’s COMINT office.
I chuckled reading one foreign communicator saying to another: “They can’t intercept us. We switched from a Haglin 34 to a Haglin 54.” Yes, but someone had carelessly botched the call signals, permitting NSA an entry point. My buddies and I had a good laugh. I don’t recall, after the Martin/Mitchell affair that NSA was cut out of any significant intelligence traffic.
The security in my office was draconian. However, this didn’t prevent my finding Top Secret/Code Word material in my coat jacket when I came home. Rather than attempt to smuggle it back to my office, I flushed it down the toilet. [A trick that Trump evidently practiced.]
As a blue water sailor I was thankful that I commenced sailing when I was 5. Good sailing practices are not learned, they are ingrained. On July 4, 1949, we were sailing in Long Island Sound. Upon hearing that a heavy squall was approaching, we battened down with only a small steadying sail. Next to us a yacht, with full sails, slipped below the water with two dead.
Just because someone can purchase a boat does not mean that they are safe sailors. I estimate that a Sunday sailor will, in at least 90-95% of the cases, encounter situations where he/she can muddle through.
I am personally familiar with a situation where such is not true. When a sail boat is hit by a savage wind, the natural tendency, as water is pouring over the rail, is to relieve this pressure by heading into the wind. WRONG! This typically would put the boat in stays and result in a heavy shaking that could cause the mast to fall into the water, with possibly deadly results.
It takes ingrained savvy to watch the water pouring in as the boat heels more and more. But with patience, this subsides, as the wind starts glancing off the sails.
I have sailed in hurricane winds. The best way to survive is to go with the flow. Reef down the sails, put out a sea anchor, watch apprehensively 30-40 foot waves, and pray that you don’t encounter a rogue wave. We lack data on those who did not survive the Bermuda Triangle and elsewhere.
Even with the most skilled operators, I humbly acknowledge that “Man proposes, God disposes.” What ever happened to Amilia Earhart?
Just saw that a story from the NBC affiliate in the region includes this comment:
"Autumn Branchaud was home with her family when her dad saw the plane take off from his porch at around 4 p.m. and heard it come crashing down nine minutes later. "I could see it. there was fuel pouring on their faces and they were trying to grab a rag to try to get it off their faces," she said."
It also includes an AOPA statement:
The organization released a statement, saying "The Cessna 177 Cardinal in which Richard was in the right seat experienced an emergency after takeoff. The airplane attempted to return to the airport but failed to make the runway. Both occupants lost their lives."
So good. Love your trivia question as well.
Thanks Mr. Fallows for your thoughtful and insightful commentary. That Ernest Gann's Fate Is The Hunter masterpiece helped inform your thoughts is fitting and very personal to me. My worn and dog-eared copy of that tome occupied a space in my flight bag for many millions of miles for thirty-some years. I've given many copies to aviator friends over the years. Gann's words resonate so succinctly in every aspect of the potentially dangerous pursuits of aviation, sailing and other essential adventures, that his wisdom has found me, also, humbly nodding in respect on a few occasions; those few that visit me during the wee hours still, leaving me thankful for the years since that could have, if...if not for...been lost.
My condolences to those touched by the loss of Richard McSpadden and Russ Francis.
Though I am not a pilot, “Fate is the Hunter” has been a go-to book for much of my life. The older I get, the more it resonates. This year, a friend died in a fall. Another drowned. These sudden, random events make me acutely aware of how precarious life can be.
Last year I made a documentary for CBC Radio about "Fate is the Hunter" and Gann. If readers want to check it out, click on the cbc.ca link at the top of James' post. It's just below the photo of Gann. For HD sound, find it here:
Jim, I am sorry for you loss, and grateful to you for sharing these thoughts. I have experienced an analogous event that claimed a towering figure in my corner of the world, and it can be a lot to process. I'm heartened the pilot community has folks like you creating space to talk through the myriad thoughts this sort of trauma can spark. Be gentle with yourself and each other in the days ahead.
One doesn't need to pilot an airplane to find oneself in a life-or-death situation. Here is an occurrence that I do my best not to contemplate at 3 AM - or any other time:
In my mid-twenties, my then wife and I visited the Grand Canyon. There was a cliff jutting out over the canyon, and we saw a few brave souls walking out there for a photo op. It was surrounded by a sheer drop of approximately one mile - and yet we thought it would be a clever idea for me to walk out there and have my photo taken. Even in the naivety and uncertainty of youth, I was justifiably terrified while I was out there and I called to her to see if she had taken the photo so I could return to safety. She replied, "just a minute." Soon, she said, "OK." When I returned and breathed a sigh of relief, she told me she had slipped and nearly fallen while trying to get a good shot - she was on the "dangerous" side of the safety fence, so the drop for her would have been the same as if I had fallen. Nearly a half century later, I shudder every time I think of our foolishness.
Just as Ernest K. Gann defied the odds and lived to a ripe old age of 81, I've managed to survive far too many stupid decisions like that to live to a ripe old age of 71. It is said that God watches over fools & drunks, and as I qualify in two categories (33 years in recovery), I can attest to the veracity of that statement. Long ago I gave up asking, "Why?" because in most cases there is no answer available to me, and so focusing on the question is usually an exercise in futility. Instead, I do my best to think about what lesson I can learn or who needs my help. And I use experiences like the "cliff-standing" to maintain an attitude of deep thankfulness as much as humanly possible.
Every day is a miracle of each one of us defying the probabilities. I have no idea why I'm still around, but I'm damn grateful.
I find this stuff fascinating and upsetting even though the only involvement I have is through you. I would not have become interested without your posts on it. (Doesn't matter that Lindbergh was my fourth grade teacher's aunt's husband, probably because I didn't know that until years later, but it probably does matter some that she got me very interested in school that year, fueled my interest in reading, and was an all around great teacher.) A crash in the air is somehow more compelling--more frightening--than one on the ground. My father had a friend in New Jersey who flew his own plane, sometimes up to Boston with his wife to see us. Not infrequently, Murray would wait a couple of days to visit because of the weather. I remarked on that once when I was a kid, and safety was the explanation.
Having lived in the Lake Placid area for several years some time back I’d be looking into the wind conditions. From experience there are times when winds swirl quite a bit there.
Quite coincidentally, and just before this post landed in my inbox, I had looked up the Wikipedia entry for test-pilot Scott Crossfield, because a friend and I had been discussing the movie The Right Stuff, in which he was briefly portrayed. I was shocked to find that he died in a crash of his Cessna 210A, when he flew it into severe weather. Quoted from the WP article:
On September 27, 2007, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report stating the probable cause of his crash to be as follows: "The pilot's failure to obtain updated en route weather information, which resulted in his continued instrument flight into a widespread area of severe convective activity, and the air traffic controller's failure to provide adverse weather avoidance assistance, as required by Federal Aviation Administration directives, both of which led to the airplane's encounter with a severe thunderstorm and subsequent loss of control."
Lifelong experience is no guarantor, it seems. Just one mistake… (or two in this case)…
Thank you for sharing Gann's words and your own experiences here. This one has hit me really hard. I finally got my Private certificate in August, almost twenty years after my first solo. I'm in that notoriously dangerous range: a 70-150 hour private pilot. I religiously watch the ASI videos. I've come to appreciate an antidote to bad aeronautical decision-making: imagine Richard narrating my decision process in his calm, experienced, and unfailingly fair voice. I can only hope to continue benefiting from his wisdom, may he rest in peace.
Captain A. G. Lamplugh, a British pilot from the early days of aviation once famously said “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”
Thanks for reminding me with that visual of one of the stupidest accidents I can think of recently - the P-63 and B-17 at the Dallas air show. The level of incompetence there was so thick you must have been able to taste it. The kind of pilots now attracted to the warbirds movement includes too damn many who think the fact they're rich means they're brilliant - and they aren't. It used to be different.
The death of my friend Chris Rushing in Reno Sunday before last at the races in a landing accident after winning the T-6 race, when apparently (no final word) the tower failed to tell the T-6 behind him that he was too close and should go around, so he landed on top of Chris - the only thing Chris had done wrong was be #1 for landing in front of that guy - and they're both gone. I'm glad the Reno Races are no more and I hope they don't find anyplace else to run them.
I’m not a pilot myself, but over the years I think I’ve passed out half a dozen or more copies of Gann’s book to friends who fly, to those merely interested in aviation, to others who simply admire well-crafted prose. As I recall, the book opens—following a shockingly long roster of perished colleagues—with an episode in which Gann, who has been trained to be conscientious in these matters, notices that his aircraft is flying fifty feet higher than its assigned altitude. Moments after he corrects for this another plane flies above him, missing Gann by—fifty feet. “All it takes is one” indeed.
Well done. This was and is a shock (I have become a devotee of his videos since my nephew started producing them) and your invocation of Gann helps put it in perspective.
Please read this beautiful story, "Decisions We Make," that Richard wrote for the June issue of AOPA Pilot: